The score read Kansas 34, Southeast Missouri State 7, at the beginning of the fourth quarter Saturday evening at Memorial Stadium. All of a sudden, the Redhawks exploded to hang 21-straight points on the Jayhawks after three fourth quarter touchdown passes from quarterback Kyle Snyder.
SEMO trailed by only six points with 1:33 left on the clock. Both teams knew what would ensue after the last touchdown pass. SEMO lined up for an onside kick and when the ball left the tee, just like it had all night, it found its way into Kansas senior wide receiver Nick Harwell's arms to put a 34-28 seal on a wild finish in the evening contest.
For the fourth-straight year - nine out of the last 10 tries - the Kansas football team opened its season with a victory, edging the second half comeback by a feisty Southeast Missouri State.
In all, the Jayhawk offense posted 457 yards of total offense pounding the Redhawks between the tackles for 261 yards on the ground and going over the top to finish with 196 yards passing with four trips to the endzone. KU's 457-yard performance was the most for a Kansas team since the Jayhawks tallied 441 yards against Iowa State on Nov. 17, 2012. Both offenses came to play in the game as Southeast Missouri State gained 421 yards from scrimmage - a large majority of which were produced in the second half rally – to finish with four touchdowns of its own.
A tandem of newcomers, Harwell and junior running back De'Andre Mann, led the Jayhawk offense in the first half. After a long anticipated return to the game action after nearly two years of being sidelined, Harwell made his first catch in a KU uniform a memorable one hauling in a seven yard touchdown reception from sophomore quarterback Montell Cozart. Harwell would add on and grab another touchdown pass while finishing the night with a team-high four catches for 46 yards. Cozart finished the game completing 12-of-24 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns.
In another debut performance, highly touted freshman running back Corey Avery carried the ball 19 times for 91 yards and a 10-yard score becoming the first freshman running back since James Sims in 2010 to record a rushing touchdown in his debut.
After a lackluster first half, SEMO's Snyder ended the evening connecting on 12-of-27 passes for 269 yards and three touchdowns, while also throwing three interceptions. Wide receiver Paul McRoberts hauled in six of those passes for 173 yards and two touchdowns nearly completing a 24-point rally to knock off the Jayhawks.
KU began the game playing stout defense stuffing SEMO for five-consecutive three-and-outs in the first quarter. Freshman cornerback Matthew Boateng ended the Redhawks' second drive with his first-career interception, while senior cornerback Dexter McDonald tied his career total with two picks in the contest. McDonald became the first Kansas player to pick off two passes in a game since teammate Isaiah Johnson accomplished the same feat in 2013 against Texas.
SEMO tightened up its own defense after allowing the Jayhawks 24-unanswered first half points. In the end, linebacker Roper Garrett led all tacklers with 14 stops and a forced fumble. For Kansas, senior linebacker Ben Heeney led the tackling brigade with 11 wrap-ups. Junior BUCK Michael Reynolds added four stops of his own for KU including one and a half TFLs for a loss of four yards.
In all, 20 players made their debut in the Crimson and Blue as the Jayhawks motored through the first half, bursting out to a 24-0 lead. Senior wide receiver Tony Pierson kicked things off with a 39-yard rush to set the stage for a quick three-points on the opening drive, setting up sophomore kicker Matthew Wyman with a 43-yard attempt. Wyman's try was successful and KU led 3-0.
Boateng kept the momentum for Kansas with his interception on SEMO's ensuing drive, picking off Snyder on Southeast Missouri State's own 36-yard line. Three plays later, it was classmate Avery, putting his stamp on the program with his first-career rushing touchdown, increasing the Jayhawks' lead, 10-0, after a Wyman extra point.
The offense kept the throttle down as Cozart fired two-consecutive touchdown strikes to Harwell for the first and second TD passes of his career. All that action in the first quarter led to 24 points, the most opening period points KU has put on the board since it tallied 28 against Toledo in 2004.
The defense held its own against the SEMO charge with those five-consecutive three-and-outs. The Redhawks tallied just 20 yards during that span, while the Kansas offense boasted a total of 217 yards. Cozart finished the first half with two touchdown passes and 103 yards through the air as KU tallied 235 yards of total offense. SEMO chalked up 146 yards of offense, with Snyder accounting for nearly all of them with 133 through the air.
The second half sang a much different tune for both teams as they seemed to reverse roles. Suddenly the Redhawk defense stiffened and the KU offense struggled to move the ball, while leaving points on the field after missing two field goals, one blocked and one wide left. On the other hand, the KU defense had several miscues in the secondary allowing SEMO to climb back into the game after the three touchdown passes of 37, 68 and 26 yards.
As quickly as they climbed back into the game, the Redhawks saw their chances for an upset slowly dwindle away. Armed with only one timeout after their onside kick attempt bounced into Harwell's arms, the Jayhawk offense ran out the remaining minute and a half and kicked off their season with a 34-28 victory.
Kansas hits the road for its first true road contest of the 2014 campaign, as the squad treks to Durham, North Carolina, to take on Duke, Saturday, Sept. 20. Kickoff is slated for 2:30 p.m.