Technically Speaking: West Virginia-Kansas State

WVU Wideouts Appear To Be In For Big Game Versus K-State

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Kansas State’s defense is built around assignment football and limiting big plays.

What that requires from West Virginia is a steady dose of what helped it last week in patience. The Mountaineers took yardage in steady chunks other than a pair of big plays to Ka’Raun White, methodically moving down the field via a stout run game and timely completions that maintained balance. That will be the plan again this week against a Wildcat defense that lacks the punch it has brought in previous seasons.

“In a way, their defense mirrors Iowa State’s defense,” WVU offensive coordinator Spavital said. “They are a four-down front team, compared to the three-down team that we played last week, but they’re very good on defense. They play well together. It’s very similar to how we played Iowa State. You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity because they normally have good ball control on offense.

“They don’t give you very many opportunities, from an offensive standpoint, with the amount of drives you’re going to have. We’ve got to be patient. We’ve got to take what the defense gives us. It’s going to be another emphasis on physicality. You’ve got to be able to play with a physical edge if we’re going to be able to move the ball successfully against this defense.”

With a base four-man front, K-State switches between a 4-3 and 4-2-5 look pending down, distance, situation and opponent. The ‘Cats were in a lot of 4-2-5 versus offenses similar to West Virginia’s, including Texas Tech last week. The issue is that though the corner play has been steady, the safeties have had mixed results, while the nickel back in Cre Moore has been often exposed in the slot.

Teams have spread Kansas State, located the individual match-up they like, and repeatedly exposed it. When the Wildcats went to help its weak link – Texas Tech worked over CBs Duke Shelly and D.J. Reed on the outside, for example – foes have simply taken the numbers edge in other areas and utilized that for gains. The problem for defensive coordinator Tom Hayes is that the Wildcats are lacking a high-level cover corner while also not being able to effectively rush the passer.

K-State ranks 125th in pass defense (295.8 ypg allowed), 94th in total defense (422.6) and, more importantly, 52nd in scoring defense at 24.8 points per game. The mentality has traditionally been a bend-don’t-break style that has a focus on stuffing the run first, then pressuring the passer with four or five while playing decent coverage on the back end that benefits from offenses being behind the chains. But without being able to limit the initial pass, the Wildcats have been in second ad short situations, and proven unable to create negative yardage plays to even the situation heading to third down.

For years, K-State made its mark with situational defense. Forcing the field goal, getting the key stop at a prime time, creating a turnover deep in an opponent’s end. That’s not happening with the same regularity, and there are multiple reasons. The team lacks some of its talent from past years, though KSU was never built on raw ability. Its also been beaten at the line of scrimmage and in outside skill match-ups, which has in turn caused it to fail in the most basic of abilities in getting off the field on third down.

Kansas State ranks 103rd in opponent third down conversion percentage at 44.3 percent, which feeds directly back into several of the issues mentioned above. West Virginia should be able to exploit the secondary in some aspect, whether it likes the match-ups against White, David Sills or Gary Jennings. Teams have slapped K-State for an average of almost 300 passing yards per game (339.2 over the first five Big 12 games), while four of the last five quarterbacks to face the team have gone over their season average.

For Will Grier, that means 340 yards per game, and that number seems to be about on point. The question will be whether the Mountaineers can generate enough in the running game to stay ahead of the sticks (down/distance battle again) and maintain that throughout while being able to finish in the red zone, where the smaller field aids the defense and where Kansas State has hung on to stay in the majority of contests.

“There are a bunch of ways you can go about it,” Spavital said. “You definitely want to emphasize running the ball. Like with Iowa State; we came out with a sense of urgency and ran the ball pretty effectively at times. With guys like this, you have to see what type of defense they are. Are they fast? Do they do a lot of movement with stunts and twists or are they the guys who are going to hit their gaps and fight and be sound at what they do.

“They are pretty sound in everything they do. These guys don’t pay as freely because they dominate their job and what they are supposed to do. You’ve gotta be more misdirection and trying to get them to blink and play a little more hesitant.”

Keep an eye on the line and the receivers early. Those are huge potential match-up wins for West Virginia. If the Mountaineers can run against the four-man front – something, remember, with which it struggled after Iowa State’s switch – it’ll set-up the remainder of the offense. Also check how the Wildcats are handling coverage. KSU hasn’t been able to play tight man as they have in the past, teams torching them with the deep ball. So they’ve mixed in a ton of different looks from a cover two to a zone underneath and man over the top to a single high free safety to simple man coverage with bailing at the snap.

They key, as always, is finishing. Can WVU get in the end zone on a promising drive? Before Texas Tech put up four TDs in the air – one of which was a bail out fourth down answered prayer of a throw – Kansas State had allowed just eight passing TDs this year. The Mountaineers must snap the bend don’t break, play sound fundamental football, stay ahead of the chains and out of negative plays and exploit edges in the pass game. The ingredients are solid line play (an area WVU has to win) and an ability to be more physical and, as a result, win the 50-50 match-ups out of the backfield, at receiver and along the front.

It’s never easy, and as Spavital noted, the K-State offense will limit opposing possessions and help narrow its defense’s margin of error. This is a significant test, and a battle of assignments and toughness for the Mountaineers, who have never won in Manhattan.

“I wouldn’t put anything past coach Snyder; He has his kids ready for anything,” Spavital said. “They are always evolving. He has been there for a long time which has allowed him to recruit the guys he wants. Every single kid knows what they are doing on defense and they are never put a position they can’t handle.”