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Texas looking to overcome recent struggles against Kansas

The Horns opened as a 29-point favorite against the Jayhawks, but are now 3-6 against the spread since 2011 when facing Kansas.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Kansas at Texas Photo by Allan Hamilton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There isn’t much collective memory left in the Texas Longhorns program of that dark day in 2016 against the Kansas Jayhawks, a 24-21 loss on Nov. 19, 2016, the first defeat suffered by the Longhorns against the Jayhawks since 1938 and the unofficial end of the Charlie Strong era.

In fact, there are just three fifth-year seniors on the roster who played under Strong that season — safety Chris Brown and offensive linemen Denzel Okafor and Tope Imade. Okafor was the only one who made the travel roster in 2016, playing on special teams and in the 18-Wheeler package.

Brown still remembers what he was doing that day. Even though he wasn’t in Lawrence, he took the Jayhawks lightly like the rest of his teammates did, falling asleep in his bed during the game. When Brown woke up, he received what he called on Tuesday a “rude awakening.”

“We can’t take anybody lightly, no matter how good you are, no matter how bad you think someone is — if you don’t play well enough to win, you lose,” Brown said. “Point blank. Period.”

The 2016 loss was the low point in a decade of less-than-stellar performances against Kansas, as Texas is only 3-6 against the spread since 2011. In 2018, the Horns had to recover a late onside kick to hold off a furious Jayhawks comeback and needed a game-winning field goal from Cameron Dicker last season in an unexpected 50-48 shootout.

So the opening 29-point line for Saturday’s game in Lawrence seems high given the recent history between the two programs.

“We’re going to need to bring our A game to win the game and do the things that we know that we’re capable of doing,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said on Monday.

For Herman, the margin of victory doesn’t matter — at the end of the day, the wins all count the same. With the demise of the BCS, there are no more style points and no need for political jockeying by coaches in press conferences. Covering the spread won’t make Texas any more likely to make an appearance in the Big 12 Championship game.

What is important is for both sides of the ball to continue to show improvement after the bye week.

“We’re a much different team at this point, but we are going to be a work in progress, certainly on defense with all the adjustments that we need to make and the lack of repetitions against certain schemes and formations and plays,” Herman said after the West Virginia win. “Then on offense, we’ve got some inexperience on the perimeter. We’ve got to continue to get on the same page with the quarterback and keep improving and that’s what we’re going to do this bye week.”

With the likelihood that leading receiver Joshua Moore won’t play against Kansas due to the shoulder injury that he suffered against West Virginia, Texas will have a chance to deepen the rotation at outside receiver. Perhaps another week to heal could allow graduate transfer Brenden Schooler to reemerge after the promising start to his Longhorns career was derailed by the need to move him inside and the thigh contusion that kept him out of the rotation almost entirely against Baylor and Oklahoma State. Perhaps sophomore Marcus Washington can earn his first significant playing time since the Texas Tech game.

The expected return of redshirt freshman Jordan Whittington in the slot should provide a boost — if he’s available on Saturday, it will be the first time this season that Whittington and sophomore Jake Smith will appear in the same game.

No matter where the production comes from, the Longhorns need to get the passing game back on track with senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger completing only 54.6 percent of his passes over the last three games, one of the most inefficient stretches of his career.

So the throw game on both sides of the ball was a major point of emphasis during the bye week practices, where Herman hopes to see the same type of improvement that occurred with the running game prior to facing Baylor.

“I thought our corners were playing the deep ball better, I thought our receivers were fighting for balls better, I thought the quarterback was putting balls where he needed to put balls,” Herman said. “We felt like we made some pretty significant improvements in that area on both sides of the ball.”

Kansas also presents less of a threat this season for multiple reasons.

While the 2019 team featured a new offensive coordinator following the dismissal of Les Koenning and the promotion of Brent Dearmon, the former Bethel University head coach, Texas now has film to study of Dermon’s offense.

That offense has much less firepower, too — last month, star running back Pooka Williams decided to opt out from playing in the remainder of the season. Williams was sensational in his two previous games against Texas, rushing for 190 yards and two touchdowns last season and 113 rushing yards and a touchdown in 2018.

The Jayhawks also have a new starting quarterback following the graduation of Carter Stanley, who had perhaps the best performance of his career last year against a Longhorns defense depleted by injuries, throwing for 310 yards and four touchdowns.

On defense, leading tackles Mike Lee and Bryce Torneden both graduated.

However, Kansas did have several starts out on both sides of the ball against Oklahoma in the 62-9 loss on Nov. 7, so the Longhorns may not face the same team that the Sooners did.

And that means there is still plenty of potential for a rude awakening if this Texas team decides to sleep their way through the game.