The Chalkboard: West Virginia Mountaineers – Kansas Jayhawks
Straight off the top, Kansas is better than it has been. It’s going to take awhile for them to get to the point where a Big 12 win isn’t considered an upset, but they Jayhawks are heading in that direction.They are getting some players that are as good as any in the league, including linebacker Joe Dineen, defensive tackle Daniel Wise and running back Pooka Williams, but the problem is that there just aren’t enough of them yet.
While WVU didn’t have to rise from the same depths the Jayhawks were mired in, its path to current contender for the league title was a similar one. When the Mountaineers joined the Big 12, they had frontline players that could compete with anyone else in the conference. Depth, though, was a major issue, and when those backups were called upon, there were some obvious mismatches. Head coach Dana Hologorsen pointed this out several times over the past few years, noting that it would take time to build a complete roster capable of contending for a league title.
The takeaway from this? Patience is required. Everyone wants to see their team win championships and play in big bowls of the CFP, but that’s the most difficult of challenges. In its seventh year in the league, WVU is just now getting to the point where it’s a legitimate contender for a Big 12 title. That’s just the way the process works for most schools, and the lesson for Kansas is that it shouldn’t be jettisoning coaches every three years when the team doesn’t leap to nine wins right off the bat.
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Patience is also a watchword for West Virginia in its offensive approach against the Jayhawks. So far this year, Kansas has been dropping more defenders into pass coverage than it has been blitzing. The result has been eight interceptions for the Jayhawks, but counterbalancing that is a low sack total of just five through five games. While KU might sell out and try to overwhelm West Virginia’s pass protection after watching Texas Tech do the same in the last 20 minutes of last week’s game, there should also be a number of instances where it simply floods coverage zones in an attempt to take away big plays in the passing game.
As it did in most instances against Kansas State, WVU, starting with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and quarterback Will Grier, must be patient and on the same wavelength when deciphering what is available and how to attack it. When KU drops back, short completions of five or six yards are perfectly acceptable. If the Jayhawks try to bring defenders downhill late to fill against runs, quick slants are the antidote, hitting receivers on the run against defenders moving in the opposite direction.
Finally, there’s the running game. Even against six defenders in the box, WVU has been up and down in establishing a running game that can grind out some first downs. These don’t need to be explosive plays (although those certainly help), but this week would be a nice time to get some consistency in that play phase. Watch for the possible return of Joe Brown at guard — his absence contributed to some of the uneven play last week.
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Jayhawk defensive stalwarts Dineen and Wise could wind up 1-2 all-time on Kansas’ career tackles for loss list. Dineen, with 38, is just three behind Willie Pless (1982-85) on that chart, while Wise (34.5) is also within hailing distance.
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West Virginia is ranked just 77th in red zone defense by the NCAA, but that’s a largely misleading metric. The NCAA ranks teams by the total scores allowed on red zone forays by opponents, and while keeping teams off the board altogether is the ultimate goal, it’s not the only one to measure. More important is the number of touchdowns allowed, and the number of field goal attempts forced.
The Mountaineers got a huge stop of that variety in the fourth quarter last week, holding Texas Tech to a three-pointer as it was rallying. That was the second such occurrence of the day, as they got another in the first half.
So, although WVU has yielded 12 scores in 14 red zone possessions, only seven of those have been touchdowns. That 50% touchdown rate is a winning number.
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Kansas hasn’t won a Big 12 road game since Oct. 4, 2008 when the Jayhawks defeated Iowa State, 35-33, in Ames – a streak of 41-consecutive true road losses. The Jayhawks have won away from home during that timeframe, defeating Missouri in 2008 at Arrowhead Stadium, but since then, has lost 44 conference games played outside of Lawrence, with losses at Arrowhead to Missouri in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
As WVU’s coaches reiterated after last week’s game, getting wins on the road in the Big 12 is a difficult task. Kansas appears to be making progress, and getting a win on the road would be the next step in that long march back to respectability.
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Travel Note of the Week: At DFW Airport last week on our flight back from Texas Tech, I was twice accosted with questions about the ownership of my laptop. First, coming through security screening, a person behind me asked if my laptop was his. There were two laptops going through the machine back-to back — mine is silver, the other was black. The questioner said he thought my laptop was his. I said no, and asked him what color his laptop was. His response: “I don’t know.” My response: [Major eyeroll].
(Aside: My laptop was out of its case because TSA didn’t have its Precheck lanes open. I have had Precheck since its inception, because unpacking and repacking all my electronics and camera gear is a major hassle. Plus, I hate standing in lines. Can’t imagine why TSA thought it didn’t need Precheck open on a weekend day at one of Texas’ biggest airports.)
Take Two: As I’m repacking my bag, a TSA employee asks if the laptop in my possession is indeed mine. Yes I respond, and proceed to describe what he’ll see when I boot it up, down to the sign-on screen (a first edition of A Modest Proposal from St. Pat) and my background photo (a World War II-era Grumman TBF Avenger). After watching, he yells to someone else “That ain’t it.”
It’s good that was accepted as proof, as my only other avenue would have been matching fingerprints off the keyboard.
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We have a lot of fun with stats in this space, and they can be illuminating. At the same time, they can be deceiving. Take this one for instance:
WVU has a 190-4 record when scoring 40 or more points in a game. All four of those losses have come under Dana Holgorsen.
At first blush, that looks like an indictment of West Virginia’s current head coach. Context, however, matters greatly in the understanding of these numbers. Most important is the evolution of football into a more-high scoring game, and the opening up of the rules to promote more points and wide-open offensive play.
Back in the day, score 40 and it was a rout. Today, it’s totally unremarkable. So, more telling is the fact that under Holgorsen, the Mountaineers have 27 wins to go against those four losses. That’s reflective of WVU’s long-time emphasis on defense.
Typically, when teams are switching quarterbacks, one of the reasons fueling the change is interceptions. While Kansas has gone through three players behind center in 2018, none has thrown a pick.
Some of this is due to Kansas’ focus on running the ball. The Jayhawks have 186 carries as opposed to just 148 passing attempts. The passing game is conservative, showing just two completions of more than 30 yards, and none more than 37. But there’s also credit to be handed to the trio of QBs for not making the bad reads that every thrower has from time to time.
The question is, at this point is it just a statistical anomaly? Or will Carter Stanley, who gets the start this week, continue to avoid the big mistake? He has connected on 74% of his throws, but is averaging fewer than 10 yards per completion. Even though the running of Williams is WVU’s first defensive concern, without question it will try to put him under pressure early to see how he responds.