The Chalkboard: WVU – Kansas State
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — This is the first of two “must-wins” for WVU – if by “must wins” we mean games that have to go in the victory column to push for a better bowl bid. While the Mountaineers are going to play somewhere in the postseason, a 6-6 mark will leave it with fewer, less attractive options than 8-4 or 9-3. While ESPN controls much of the lower tier bowl selection process (even though it won’t admit it) there is still some power and leverage to be had with a better record.
There’s also the matter of some unfinished business with the Wildcats in Manhattan. WVU had everything going for it on its last trip to K-State, and led by 23-17 before giving up a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to drop a 24-23 decision. The Mountaineers outgained the Wildcats 447-304 and were in control for much of the contest, but let a very winnable game slip away.
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To win, West Virginia must be able to contain K-State’s maddening, slow-paced run game. No matter which quarterback is operating the attack, the Wildcats will use an array of slow-developing plays where the quarterback will stop and wait for blocks to develop. Many times, these are trap blocks with pulling linemen, so simply charging up into apparently free spaces can be an invitation to an unseen down block from a backside guard or tackle.
K-State complements this with zone reads and run-pass option plays which also demand defensive discipline. In some ways, it’s like playing against an old wishbone attack. Defenders must account for each potential ball carrier, or each run gap, and stay there until the play is declared.
This makes for an odd fit of patience and aggressiveness. While the quarterback or running back is waiting for the play to develop, defenders can try to break through and pressure early, but if they choose the wrong gap or break discipline, they can expose creases that can be exploited for big gains. It’s a different sort of offense, and one that demands a different approach from a Mountaineer defense that hasn’t had great success against the run this year. K-State, meanwhile, is averaging 193 yards per game on the ground, and has averaged 205 in its last three games.
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Kansas State’s only loss in 2016 when leading at the break came in the Big 12 opener against WVU last year. It then won nine consecutive such games, only to see it snapped by Oklahoma this year.
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Also in the spotlight this week? Kickoff returns. While WVU’s Marcus Simms has given the Mountaineer return game a boost, K-State has crushed West Virginia in this play phase the past two year. Byron Pringle had a 58-yard return last year to set up a field goal that gave the ‘Cats a 16-3 lead, and two years ago it was Morgan Burns’ 97-yard scoring return in the fourth quarter that gave K-State the win.
We’ve looked West Virginia’s kickoff tactics this year, and the Mountaineers perform better when they go with placed kicks outside the numbers, rather than the high, shorter kicks in the middle of the field that are theoretically supposed to allow more time for the cover team to get on station. That hasn’t always been the case, leading to good returns for the opposition.
The battle is simple. WVU can’t have an 80- or 90-yard gap in return yardage (unless K-State has about four more kickoff returns, which would mean four additional WVU scores). Simms is averaging 26.5 yards per runback, while Wildcat D.J. Reed is averaging 36.4. He must be avoided in the kick game, but Pringle is still on the scene, even though he hasn’t broken free yet this year.
Both teems have been good overall in coverage, albeit that previously-described chink in West Virginia’s armor. The Mountaineers are giving up only 20.2 yards per kickoff return, while the Wildcats are stuffing the opposition to the tune of just 16 yards per runback. Forget total yardage – the markers to watch could well lie in the return game.
The scary stat? The Wildcats have a combined 44 kickoff- and punt-return touchdowns since 2005. That’s 16 more than any other FBS school.
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If there is a key for WVU to get its first win in Manhattan, it might lie in another good start. The Mountaineers rode that to victory over Iowa State, as the Cyclones were unable to rally from the first half 17-0 deficit. Kansas State, despite its 11-point comeback to force overtime and get an eventual win over Texas Tech last week, isn’t built to play from behind. It’s instructive to note that the 11-point turnaround was K-State’s largest ever in a road game. Couple that with the fact that the Wildcats are 164-33 since 1990 in games in which it has scored first, and the recipe is clear. Get out in front, keep the pressure on and don’t give up big plays. That’s not easy against a Bill Snyder-coached team, but West Virginia knows the process now. It also has a bit of history on its side: one of those losses came last year in Morgantown, when the Mountaineers overcame an early 13-0 K-State advantage.
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Last year, WVU kicker Josh Lambert made the final appearance of his Mountaineer career against K-State. After sitting out the first three games of the season due to a suspension, Lambert returned to boot a 37-yard field goal in the third quarter against the Wildcats. However, following WVU’s two subsequent touchdowns, Mike Molina came on to kick the extra points. An apparently miffed Lambert then left the team.
This year, it was an injury to Molina, a hip problem that has kept him out of the past two games, that have put teammate Evan Staley in the starting job. He has made all six of his extra points and is 3-4 on field goals. Will Molina get his starting job back when he returns? He has been flawless on extra points (40-40), but is 5-8 on field goals, with misses coming from 29, 44 and 45 yards. Staley’s miss came from 34 yards out.
This isn’t to try to create a controversy where none exists, but it’s also a competition to watch. The coaches will go with the player they have the most confidence in, and that will largely be decided on the week’s worth of practice preceding the game.