The Chalkboard: West Virginia Mountaineers – Kansas State Wildcats
Kickoffs, punts and the returns of both will be a spotlight item in this week’s game. Kansas State has excelled in those areas in recent matchups with the Mountaineers, and it was a 97-yard touchdown return in the fourth quarter of the 2015 meeting that allowed them to take a 24-23 decision. Byron Pringle had a 58-yard kickoff return a year later, although WVU managed to hold on for a 17-16 win, and D.J. Reed ripped off a 44-yard punt return last year, part of a 103-yard effort in that department for K-State.
Head coach Bill Snyder’s team hasn’t torn up only West Virginia in this play phase, though. The Wildcats have scored a combined 48 touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns since 2005, lapping the FBS field (Oklahoma State is second with 29).
Thus, K-State’s special teams, always a cause for concern, are front and center in the view of the Mountaineer coaching staff this week. After the 2015 and 2016 runbacks, WVU altered its approach in 2017. While the antagonists of those earlier returns are now gone, that doesn’t remove the threat, according to head coach Dana Holgorsen.
“We squibbed it because I was not kicking it to No. 2, and No. 9 was scary, too,” he said of WVU’s 2017 approach. “These guys that they have back there right now are potentially going to be in the same league, they just haven’t done it as much. I will make those decisions on where we kick it based on who we play.”
Wildcats Duke Shelley (20 yards per return) and Isaiah Zuber (12.7) are the primary kickoff returners. While Zuber hasn’t broken anything in that phase yet, he showed his ability in the return game earlier this year, taking a punt 85 yards to paydirt against South Dakota. Thus, if West Virginia isn’t confident that Evan Staley can boot the ball deep into or out of the end zone, look for the same tactic as employed last year, or a skykick that forces a fair catch.
“I’ve been very happy with (redshirt sophomore kicker) Evan (Staley) up until this point,” Holgorsen said. “I think his touchback rate is pretty high, and his kick placement has been pretty good as well.”
Staley has three touchbacks on 15 kicks so far in 2018, but for his career has 30 on 92 attempts.
On the flip side, WVU has a weapon of its own in Marcus Simms, who came close to breaking one return against Tennessee. That, combined with Simms’ flair in the return game, might seem to indicate the Mountaineers want to be aggressive, rather than taking the fair catch and the 25-yard line starting point, but Holgorsen wouldn’t confirm it.
“I’m not going to tell you that,” he said of West Virginia’s general approach to returns, before discussing his evaluation of them to date. “I’ve been OK with it. We didn’t field the ball very well last week. If you look at what we did, the first one, Marcus caught it when his momentum was going backwards. He should’ve kneed it. He took off, and we got pinned inside the 20. That’s what I’m trying to prevent more than anything. When you can fair-catch it and take it on the 25, then you better not do anything to not have it on the 25.
“We’ve had a lot of talks in meetings on this,” he continued. “I wish this rule was in place last year because their kicker was spectacular at hanging that thing up to the one-yard line. That’s hard to scheme. That guy was pretty special. So, it’s going to be week to week, where the kicks are, what their hang time is, and how I feel we can scheme things up. I’ve been happy with it, Marcus has done a good job. I think we took a step back last week. He let that one fall in front of him, which put it on the 21-yard line. He had a zero-yard return because he misjudged it. So, of the four attempts we had (Martell) Pettaway did well on one, Marcus did well on one, and we did poor on two. That’s not good enough. The first game, I was happy with it.”
While the goal is to win every play phase, this is one week in which West Virginia might well be happy with a draw.
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Bill Snyder is one of three active FBS coaches with a statue on their team’s campus. Can you name the other two? Answer at the end of this column.
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WVU quarterback Will Grier isn’t going to be keeping the ball much on quarterback runs. However, he did pull it on one play against Youngstown State, even though he said he did it as much to keep his running back from being smashed by a crashing YSU defensive end as anything. The benefit of that move is that now he’s on tape keeping the ball, and although opponents might not believe it will happen again, they have to at least consider the possibility.
There’s also Grier in scramble mode to account for, and that’s where his competitive nature might, in the heat of the moment, overcome the instructions to save himself for the next play.
“That’s how I’m wired, but I think you can put that competitiveness into doing it the smarter way,” he said, revealing the dueling nature of avoiding hits vs. squeezing every yard possible out of a snap. “I’ve tried to do that, transform the way I play and get away from those kinds of plays. I’m used it in a different way. I’m going to continue to grow in that area and get better as the season goes.”
He has, but anyone want to bet that in the fourth quarter he wouldn’t lower his shoulders, or pull the ball on that zone read, to get a big first down or secure a win? It might not happen this week, but guaranteed at some point this season it will.
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Opening Big 12 play on the road is nothing new to the Wildcats, as this weekend will be the 18th time in the 23-year history of the conference that K-State will open league play away from home (16 road, 2 neutral). It is also the second time in three years that K-State will open Big 12 play at West Virginia, doing so in 2016 in a 17-16 loss.
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K-State has shown a few more formations recently with two backs in the backfield. Combined with their propensity for two-tight end sets, this would seem to indicate a run-heavy outlook, but there’s a pass option to consider. The Wildcats are very smooth in getting a back or tight end out into the pass pattern and down the tracks in a matchup with a linebacker, and that’s something the Mountaineers have to be ready for. With bigger Shea Campbell perhaps slated for duty against the running of the Wildcats’ QBs (more on this in a moment) K-State might try to test him in the passing game.
This could wind up being a very interesting chess game. Does WVU counter with situational substitutions, and try to get JoVanni Stewart or Exree Loe on the field when they think passes are coming? K-State is very good at breaking tendencies, so that might be a difficult task. It’s certainly one to watch as the game progresses.
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Travel Note of the Week: Construction continues on the major arteries heading into Morgantown, but as it did last week the later start time (this one is 3:30 p.m.) should help spread things out. Fans arriving via I-79 and the Star City exit will note that construction removing the berms on either side of Jerry West Boulevard is already under way.
That project, designed to eliminate parking along the road for basketball games and improve pedestrian safety, still leaves both lanes open in each direction, but it squeezes traffic more tightly, and still causes slowdowns.
While Will Grier’s keeper total will be in single digits for the season, Kansas State’s quarterback runs are a problem that must be accounted for. Those tend to look a bit different than the speed-based reads and draws of other squads. K-State will run quarterback power and pull linemen from any position to the point of attack, in effect running traps and other slow-developing looks. While he’s characterized as a lesser running threat than now-backup Alex Delton, starter Skylar Thompson has gained 158 yards on 37 carries, and that includes 53 in losses that are mostly attributable to sacks.
Both Thompson and Delton are very good at staying patient, letting the play develop, and staying behind a wall of Wildcat blockers who mush their way down the field.
West Virginia will try to defend those with early penetration, something that the Mountaineers have had success with the last couple of years against K-State. It has also showed up as an early strength in 2018, as they have recorded 21 tackles for loss through two games.
“We’ll try to penetrate gaps and get up the field more,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson confirmed. “We’ll try to get in the backfield. We have had success with that the last few years with negative plays, but the quarterbacks do a really good job. They’re patient. Then, when they find their seam, they’ll go.”
Also watch for Delton, who, while clearly the #2 man at this point, still has much to contribute with his running skills. He could come onto the field at any point, and West Virginia will need to be ready to account for him.
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Kansas State’s offense looked more balanced, and more poised, in last week’s win over UTSA. Granted, the level of opposition had something to do with that. But did a simple change of positions also factor in?
In this case, it wasn’t a matter of moving players around on the field, but rather a switch of coaching locations on game day. Offensive coordinator Andre Coleman, who had worked from the press box in K-State’s first two games, moved down to the field, while quarterbacks coach Collin Klein took his spot upstairs.
K-State’s offensive output improved by 139 yards and 22 points over its averages coming in. Again, the Roadrunners (0-3) aren’t the toughest foe this year, but the move put Coleman back in his comfort zone. He’s coached in the “down” spot for much of his career, and the results can’t be argued with, at least for one week.
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TCU head coach Gary Patterson and Alabama’s Nick Saban join Snyder as those active coaches that have been memorialized with full statues.