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Kicking the Tires: West Virginia

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Conference play is here. K-State travels to Morgantown for its Big 12 opener.

NCAA Football: Missouri State at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

K-State and West Virginia meet in Morgantown this Saturday in the first Big 12 game for both teams. As most expected, K-State is 2-1 after an opening loss to Stanford and two easy wins over Florida Atlantic and Missouri State.

The Mountaineers are an impressive 3-0 with wins over Missouri, Youngstown State and BYU. Dana Holgorsen’s future in Morgantown was very much in doubt this last offseason, but the ‘Eers are off to a nice start for their previously embattled coach.

K-State is somewhat of an enigma coming into this game. The Wildcats were competitive in the opener against Stanford, but were never really in position to steal a win from the Cardinal. Both FAU and Missouri State are bad teams, but as Bill Connelly likes to say, good teams blow out bad teams.

Consider where K-State was a year ago for context. After losing Jesse Ertz and Dante Barnett to injury in the opener against South Dakota, the Wildcats picked up a 30-3 win at UTSA and a home overtime win over Louisiana Tech. This year, K-State beat FAU 63-7 and Missouri State 35-0 in a game that ended at halftime. The level of competition has not been high, but K-State is playing much better than in 2015.

Players to Watch

K-State

Passing: Jesse Ertz, 31-55-1, 418 yards, 7.6 yards/attempt, 4 TDs, 139.3 yards/game

Rushing: Charles Jones, 21 carries, 106 yards, 5.0 yards/carry, 1 TD, 35.3 yards/game

Receiving: Dominique Heath, 8 receptions, 114 yards, 14.2 yards/reception, 2 TDs, 38.0 yards/game

West Virginia

Passing: Skyler Howard, 74-108-3, 974 yards, 9.0 yards/attempt, 6 TDs, 324.7 yards/game

Rushing: Justin Crawford, 42 carries, 227 yards, 5.4 yards/carry, 1 TD, 75.7 yards/game

Receiving: Daikiel Shorts, 19 receptions, 246 yards, 12.9 yards/reception, 2 TDs, 82.0 yards/game

No two ways about it, Skyler Howard has been impressive. Mizzou fields a solid pass defense, and BYU is good at taking away big plays, though they’re atrocious in passing Success Rate defense. Shorts is the leading receiver, but Shelton Gibson is the big-play threat. Gibson’s line on the season: 16 receptions, 354 yards, 22.1 yards/reception, 2 TDs, 118.0 yards/game.

West Virginia’s rushing game is nothing special, although both Crawford and Rushel Shell are solid backs. As usual, K-State will look to contain the running game with quick fills by the linebackers and Barnett, while keeping the receivers underneath and rallying to the ball to take away yards after catch.

Advanced Stats

K-State Advanced Stats Profile

West Virginia Advanced Stats Profile

*Sorry, links at the last minute because I can’t get the embeds to work.

West Virginia profiles as a mediocre defense against the rush, and an aggressive, if not always sound, pass defense. Based on the numbers, K-State should be able to move the ball consistently on the ground, and the Mountaineer defense may miss a run fit somewhere and leave a big crease. Let’s hope Dalvin Warmack gets a chance to take advantage of that.

By numbers, K-State’s passing attack scares nobody, but there are reasons for optimism against WVU. West Virginia is average in passing Success Rate defense, and below average in preventing big plays. Four Mountaineers have snagged interceptions this season, and their secondary’s havoc rate suggests they are aggressive in jumping routes and playing for breakups. Ertz needs to protect the ball and the deep K-State receiving corps needs to take advantage of big-play opportunities when presented.

As already mentioned, West Virginia’s rushing game is nothing special, and K-State has been excellent against the run this year aside from three carries by Christian McCaffrey. If K-State maintains discipline against the run game, then the Wildcats will have a big advantage here.

Of course, there’s still the question of Howard and the passing game. West Virginia has been very efficient through the air and K-State’s defensive philosophy isn’t focused on disrupting the underneath passing game. By the numbers, WVU has only been average at generating big plays through the air, and K-State has been atrocious at preventing them. That doesn’t seem right given that the only big play I can remember this season was Stanford’s play-action strike in the second quarter, but the numbers say it's so.

Conclusion

Last year, K-State had a number of games S&P viewed as virtual tossups, and the Wildcats lost almost all of them. Some were close, like TCU. Others were … not so close.

S&P pegs this as a virtual tossup, with K-State slightly favored. A matchup this close will come down to how well either team can maintain its advantages. Can Jesse Ertz and the K-State offense continue to play turnover-free ball? Can the Wildcats snag an interception or two? Will West Virginia use its offensive efficiency and K-State’s bend-don’t-break defensive philosophy to maintain a field-position edge? Or will the Wildcats get a chance to break a punt return?

A low-scoring contest is likely. I’ll take K-State doing just enough to get a conference win.

Wildcats 27, Mountaineers 24