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Kicking the Tires: West Virginia Mountaineers

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K-State travels to Morgantown for its second Thursday-night game of the season. The Wildcats look to remain in the mix for the Big 12 title and a New Year's Day bowl, while West Virginia is trying to sustain early-season momentum.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia feels like easily the best four-loss team in the country. The advanced numbers disagree, placing Miami, LSU and five-loss Virginia Tech ahead of the Mountaineers. But for our purposes, it's safe to say WVU's record doesn't reflect its ability.

The Mountaineers began the season by keeping current-No. 1 Alabama thoroughly off-balance for three quarters before losing by 10. The early-season version of Oklahoma went to Morgantown and ran over the 'eers for loss number two. West Virginia enters this contest on a two-game losing streak after a TCU made a last-second field goal and the Mountaineers failed to show up in Austin the following week.

In the middle of all that, Dana Holgorsen's team notched a two-touchdown victory over Baylor, in what more closely resembled a brawl than a football game. It's the Big 12-leading Bears' only loss on the season.

West Virginia has little to play for other than bowl positioning at this point. But you can be sure the 'eers are looking for another signature win in a season in which Holgorsen entered the season on the hot seat. Morgantown will be rockin' tonight.

Players to Watch

K-State

Passing: Jake Waters, 166-261-4, 63.6%, 2,169 yards, 8.3 yards/attempt, 13 TDs, 241.0 yards/game

Rushing: Charles Jones, 95 carries, 430 yards, 4.5 yards/carry, 11 TDs, 47.8 yards/game

Receiving: Tyler Lockett, 60 receptions, 878 yards, 14.6 yards/reception, 6 TDs, 97.6 yards/game

West Virginia

Passing: Clint Trickett, 269-394-8, 68.3%, 3,173 yards, 8.1 yards/attempt, 18 TDs, 317.3 yards/game

Rushing: Wendell Smallwood, 128 carries, 585 yards, 4.6 yards/carry, 2 TDs, 58.5 yards/game

Receiving: Kevin White, 91 receptions, 1,207 yards, 13.3 yards/reception, 8 TDs, 120.7 yards/game

Keep an eye also on Dreamius Smith, the not-at-all pretentiously named running back, who's averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He's the most explosive back for the Mountaineers. And Mario Alford would be the top receiving option at a lot of schools, and is averaging 13.4 yards per reception with seven touchdowns this season. White and Alford will be a handful for K-State's secondary.

For K-State, the biggest question will again be Jake Waters' health. Waters had only five non-sack carries, and the offense was stagnant against TCU, averaging only a 34.9 percent Success Rate. West Virginia is much improved on defense, but is still susceptible to power rushing and a dual-threat quarterback. Let's hope the 10 days off have given Waters some time to heal.

Advanced Stats

Please enjoy the fancy new charts, courtesy jeffp.

Overall Advanced Stats

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K-State/West Virginia Overall Stat Comparison

K-State Offense vs. West Virginia Defense

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K-State Offense vs. West Virginia Defense

K-State Defense vs. West Virginia Offense

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K-State Defense vs. West Virginia Offense

Even after looking over this several times, I'm not able to find many clear advantages for either team.

In overall rankings, the teams are effectively identical other than West Virginia's slight outlier in S&P+, where the 'eers rank 19th overall.

K-State is better than average at everything on offense, but only in the top quartile in Success Rate, Passing Downs and Drive Rating. West Virginia is very good against the pass (10th in Passing S&P), and top-quartile at everything else. With one major exception, that is. The Mountaineers are more aggressive and opportunistic on defense than is K-State, and is prone to some big plays as a result, ranking 95th in IsoPPP. This isn't quite TCU's defense, but it's better than you probably expect.

Looking at the individual components, it's difficult to discern how West Virginia is a top-20 offense. The Mountaineers are only average in Success Rate (61st) and below average in IsoPPP (80th). They're good on Standard Downs (15th), very good at throwing the ball (11th in Passing S&P), and very good at finishing drives (ninth). K-State will look to shut down WVU's rushing attack, take away big plays, and force Trickett to execute consistently through small throwing windows.

In the less-noticed factors, K-State has the advantage in overall Special Teams F/+ (12th to West Virginia's 41st). And the Wildcats average 50 fewer penalty yards per game than do the Mountaineers. In a game this closely matched, a big return or getting off-schedule thanks to penalties could be the difference.

Prediction

No idea where to go with this one. K-State hasn't played in 10 days since the deflating loss to Texas Christian robbed the Wildcats of any realistic playoff hope. Waters' health is questionable at best, and K-State's offense tends to bog down without a rushing threat at quarterback. The biggest factor on offense will be whether Waters can complete short-to-intermediate passes consistently. If he can't, then WVU will blanket the deep routes and it's hard to imagine the Wildcats going anywhere.

Assuming K-State's defense stands up to the run like it had all year before the TCU game, they will put this game on Trickett and his ability to find White. The Wildcats will probably bend-but-don't-break West Virginia to death, gambling that Trickett (and Holgorsen) will eventually run out of patience and force things. The concern is that White is a big target and could make K-State pay in the red zone after we bend our way down the field.

I'm not confident about this one. It feels like a hard-fought, ugly slugfest and a heartbreaking loss to me.

Mountaineers 27, Wildcats 20