(Photo Courtesy of wvusports.com)
The Mountaineers return home after a disappointing trip to West Texas last week. They’ll look to turn the page on the loss to the Red Raiders, welcoming nationally ranked Kansas State to Morgantown. The Mountaineers currently hold a 4 game win streak against the Wildcats including a 24-20 win in Manhattan last season. That game marked the first start for Jarret Doege as a West Virginia Mountaineer and saw him engineer a 10 point 4th quarter run after trailing 17-14.
Kansas State will be entering this game off a 55-14 win against Kansas. The Wildcats returned two punts for touchdowns and almost had a third in the blowout. Kansas obviously won’t be the best barometer on which to judge the Wildcats team. It was an early loss against Arkansas State in a week that saw three Big 12 teams downed by Sun Belt opponents and has kept Kansas State from a perfect record. Aside from that defeat, the Wildcats pulled out victories at Oklahoma and TCU and at home against Texas Tech and Kansas.
While still ranked #16, Kansas State enters Milan Puskar Stadium a bit of a different team than we are used to seeing. The offense is the same short yardage pound game, but the defense doesn’t seem to be as tough as years past. The Wildcats are giving up 428 yards a game, ranked 68th nationally, putting them in the bottom half in total defense. Uncharacteristically, this unit is giving up 159 yards a game on the ground. Still this team knows how to win close games with 3 of their last 4 games being decided by 10 points or less; something this year’s WVU team is still struggling with.
Kansas State sits atop the Big 12 standings tied with Oklahoma State as the only two unbeaten teams in league play. This hasn’t been easy with senior quarterback Skylar Thompson going down in the Texas Tech game. The passing game has taken a slight step back with freshman Will Howard taking over the reins but the offense still looks much the same. Winning on Saturday will go a long way in the Wildcats’ quest for a Big 12 championship. Looking at the history of the matchup between these teams will suggest a close game. 5 of the last 6 matchups have been decided by 7 points or less and of the teams’ 10 meetings, they have split wins 5 and 5.
This year has a similar feeling of last year’s game with a ranked Kansas State already knocking off Oklahoma and a WVU team struggling to find their footing. The two teams traded early blows with the Mountaineers ending the first quarter up 14-10 on Doege’s second touchdown pass to George Campbell. Both defenses would settle in for the next 30 minutes with Kansas State able to add a touchdown and field goal each to take a 17-14 lead into the 4th quarter. TWVU’s offense then found a spark early in the 4th quarter with a 51 yard field goal by Casey Legg and Doege hitting Bryce Ford-Wheaton on a 50 yard touchdown pass to seal a 24-20 win in Manhattan.
Kansas State Offense
Will Howard now has two starts under his belt, both wins, against Texas Tech and Kansas. Howard brings more dynamic to the running attack than Thompson did with 116 yards on 25 carries. WVU has often had trouble with mobile quarterbacks in the past. There isn’t much drop off in the pass game with Howard versus Thompson but there is an obvious difference in accuracy with Howard completing only 58% of his passes. This offense has never been a deep threat type of offense, using a ton of 11 personnel, establishing the run early and often. They will never light up the scoreboard but will find enough creative ways to keep up with opponents.
Tossing it over to the run game, Deuce Vaughn is the Wildcats’ largest offensive threat. The freshman leads the team in rushing (319) and receiving (360) yards. Vaughn and Howard both average 4 yards a carry and the tandem will be a test for this WVU defense on early downs. The entire Kansas State offense hinges on the success of these two kids in the backfield. The only other Wildcat with double digit carries is Harry Trotter gaining only 2.9 yards a carry. Kansas State will use a lot of read option and jet motion to window dress simple run plays. Howard’s elusiveness will be key in keeping the ball rolling.
Since Vaughn leads the team in receiving yardage you can probably guess how big of a threat this pass game is. Kansas State has one wide receiver with double digit catches. Of the top 6 players in receiving yardage on the team, only 2 are wide receivers. Howard and company like to use the run to setup the pass, if they pass at all. When they do throw the ball, it is normally seam pop shots to tight ends. Briley Moore leads the team in receptions with 17 from the tight end spot.
The inaccuracy of Howard coupled with the lack of receiving threats will allow this WVU defense to collapse down and help in the run game. A small disguise in coverage could force the freshman into a few mistakes and easy turnovers for the Mountaineers to capitalize on. No matter what, Kansas State will always come to fight, and you should expect this offense to do enough to keep this game close. They are a grind it out, ugly offense.
Kansas State Defense
Defensively Kansas State plays a traditional style. Keyed on stopping the run and playing smash mouth football has be the MO of this program for decades. Evolving with the Big 12 offenses, the 4 man front has tuned into more of a 4-2-5 look for the spread types of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, and WVU. The front 4 play a one gap style with the backers responsible for their own gaps, making this a game of one on one matchups.
This defensive line won’t jump off the screen as man eaters quite like the WVU defensive line has at times. However, this is a solid group that has 3+ sacks in 4 of 5 games this year. The only game they failed to record 3 sacks was the Texas Tech game which schematically kept the Wildcat defense from getting to the quarterback with quick hit passes. There isn’t a standout player across the defensive line but as a whole they play perfect complimentary football and allow the back 7 get in position to make the plays.
Continuing with the back 7, Kansas State’s top 6 leading tacklers are either linebackers or defensive backs. Senior linebackers Elijah Sullivan and Justin Hughes lead the team in tackles with 30 and 28 respectively. Like I stated earlier this defense’s mentality is winning one on one matchups and it shows as the majority (71%) of these guys tackles are solo. Again, it doesn’t seem any of these guys will jump off the screen as all world players either but together it is a solid group in condensed space.
If you’re looking for the best Kansas State defender, look no further than senior defensive back Jahron McPherson. 27 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 interceptions, and a forced fumble; this guy just finds the ball wherever it may be. The secondary will give up yards through the air, currently ranking 75th in the country in that category. This would be the place they may lose more one on one battles than they win. Total yardage wise this defense isn’t lighting the world on fire but it has been opportunistic. A plus 8 turnover margin including 7 interceptions has this defense playing bend but don’t break.
Kansas State Special Teams
Moving past offense and defense, this is where you’ll find the strength of this Kansas State team. The Wildcats had a blocked kick in 4 straight games to start the season. It’s tough to block 4 kicks in a season let alone in 4 straight games. Kansas State also housed two punt returns against Kansas and is now averaging over 24 yards a return. The only downside of this unit is the kickoff return group averaging under 15 yards a return. Otherwise, this is the best unit on the squad.
KEYS TO THE GAME
WVU is going to match strength on strength with the Kansas State offense. The defensive line is going to have to commit to gap integrity no matter what their eyes see. Due to Howard being a very capable runner, there will be a lot of read option plays. In addition to that, Kansas State will run a zone blocking scheme to get Vaughn a cutback lane he likes. The passing downs will be no different. I don’t expect these receivers to be very open, therefore Howard will look to tuck and run. It would be in WVU’s best interest to keep contain instead of an all out rush. Keeping Howard in the pocket will increase the Mountaineers chances to get off the field.
Offensive Line Improvement
The most improved unit on the team, just keep improving. One sack given up last week. It was a bad one on a 3 man rush. These 5 are going to need to win their one on one matchups. Kansas State doesn’t bring a bunch of exotic blitzes or blitzes at all. It’s going to be straight up man on man, who can beat who up front. WVU needs to win a majority of these battles to keep the offense moving. Kansas State will be keying on the run. The goal this week is 135+ rushing yards.
Control the Clock
Kansas State is one of the best teams in the Big 12 at getting their opponent to play their game. WVU is going to have to control the clock and the rhythm of the game to have a shot at an upset this week. If the Mountaineers can’t make this happen, it will be a close dog fight late in the game. As we’ve seen, those don’t work in WVU’s favor. Neal Brown is a genius at the field position game and this could be key to keeping the Wildcats from controlling the tempo.
LINES & PICKS
West Virginia vs. #16 Kansas State (+4.5)
It’s unbelievable that the 16th ranked team in the country is getting this much disrespect. 4.5 point underdogs to a Mountaineer team that in all reality doesn’t look that great. The point total is about what I would expect, although it may be a little low. WVU had trouble stopping the Texas Tech run game last week with a mobile quarterback option. I would expect Kansas State to be able to move the ball on the ground a bit. I think this pick is one of the easiest you’ll have all season.
Pick: Kansas State +4.5