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Kicking the Tires: West Virginia Mountaineers

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After a crucial win in Lubbock, K-State returns home for a meeting with West Virginia. The Wildcats can achieve bowl eligibility with a win.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at Iowa State Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe I’m overstating the importance of a win over a now-4-5 Texas Tech team that may very well end up 5-7. But K-State’s win in Lubbock seems crucial for at least two reasons. For one, it gives the Wildcats three chances at bowl eligibility, and two of those are at home. And second, it gave K-State’s players and coaches the confidence boost that’s only possible from putting a double-u on the board.

Now, for the fans, here’s a question for you. K-State has home games against West Virginia and Iowa State that are, per S&P, basically coinflips. Let’s say the Wildcats win both of those and give Oklahoma State a tough game in Stillwater. How are you feeling about that 7-5 finish?

Player to Watch

K-State

Passing: Alex Delton, 42-75-2, 585 yards, 7.8 yards/attempt, 2 TDs, 97.5 yards/game

Skylar Thompson, 10-16-0, 147 yards, 9.2 yards/attempt, 1 TD, 36.8 yards/game

Rushing: Alex Barnes, 102 carries, 587 yards, 5.8 yards/carry, 5 TDs, 65.2 yards/game

Receiving: Byron Pringle, 21 receptions, 511 yards, 24.3 yards/reception, 3 TDs, 63.9 yards/game

West Virginia

Passing: Will Grier, 217-334-10, 3,068 yards, 9.2 yards/attempt, 30 TDs, 340.9 yards/game

Rushing: Justin Crawford, 142 carries, 786 yards, 5.5 yards/carry, 7 TDs, 87.3 yards/game

Receiving: Gary Jennings, 69 receptions, 823 yards, 11.9 yards/reception, 1 TD, 91.4 yards/reception

We’d be remiss not to mention David Sills, who has 51 receptions for 793 yards and 16 TDs this season. As you can see, more than half of Grier’s touchdown passes go to Sills. West Virginia’s passing attack is, in a couple words, pretty awesome.

On the ground, Justin Crawford returns and is solid (good enough, Mountaineer fans?). Somehow, the ‘eers overall Rushing S&P rank is significantly higher than its component parts.

Defensively, West Virginia profiles as disruptive but prone to big plays, which is no surprise under defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. Linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton leads the way with 77 tackles and 12 tackles for loss. Keep an eye on the matchup between him and K-State’s interior linemen plus Winston Dimel. Safety Kyzir White also returns, and has three interceptions.

Advanced Stats

K-State Offense vs. West Virginia Defense (thanks as always to JeffP for the charts)

K-State has somewhat quietly become a pretty solid rushing team the last few weeks. While the Wildcats don’t stay ahead of the chains as frequently as you’d like on the ground, they make the most of their opportunities when they arise. West Virginia’s rush defense numbers aren’t as bad as I expected for a team that gave up 300+ rushing yards to KU, but they’re not great. The Mountaineers are solid by Success Rate, but only average at preventing big rushing plays. That should play right into K-State’s hands.

Aerially, K-State is a lot the same as it is on the ground. The Wildcats passing attack does not frequently result in successful plays, but they are a top-20 team at generating explosive plays. Perhaps this isn’t surprising, in either area, for a team without overwhelming individual talent, but that finds success by exploiting tendencies, individual matchups and by generating run-pass conflict with its play sequencing. For its part, West Virginia plays right into K-State’s strengths here, too. The ‘eers are pretty good down-to-down, but are 101st in Passing IsoPPP.

In other words, K-State probably isn’t going to plod (relatively speaking) down the field 5-6 yards at a time. It will probably be either 0-3 yards or 10+ yards for K-State.

On a positive note, West Virginia’s sack rate on both Standard Downs and Passing Downs is low, and their defensive line’s Havoc Rate is low. Whoever plays quarterback for K-State should have time to throw. The key will be using that time to make plays and avoid mistakes against the Mountaineers’ linebackers and secondary, which are both disruptive.

K-State Defense vs. West Virginia Offense

You also may not have noticed this, but behind Will Geary and Trent Tanking, K-State has quietly built a pretty solid run defense. The Wildcats are top-50 in every rush defense category measured by S&P. Running the ball isn’t WVU’s emphasis, but they aren’t bad at it. Neither Crawford nor Kennedy McKoy are significant big play threats, but they’ll pick up successful plays when they’re available.

The big matchup in this one is Grier, Sills and Jennings against K-State’s pass defense. I steadfastly maintain that K-State’s pass defense is not as bad as most Wildcat fans think, but it’s not good. Grier will find room underneath to keep the chains moving, and Sills is a matchup nightmare for K-State’s 5’9” cornerbacks. Either DJ Reed or Duke Shelley are going to have to compete their asses off and hope Grier’s accuracy is a little off.

Notably, Grier has thrown 10 interceptions through nine games and profiles as somewhat of a gunslinger. One key for K-State will be to make him impatient and take advantage if he tries to jam passes into tight windows.

As usual, K-State has a significant special teams advantage. The Wildcats are fourth nationally in field position, while WVU languishes around 90th. Kicker Evan Staley’s touchback percentage is only 33 percent, which means either opportunities for Reed returns or short kicks that set up K-State around the 40-yard line. Either one helps an inefficient offense that lives or dies by getting chunk yardage and getting to the end zone before it runs out of chances.

Conclusion

Here are the big questions for this game:

· Can K-State build off its offensive gameplan for the Texas Tech game, sequencing plays for success and finding new wrinkles for West Virginia’s inevitable adjustments?

· How well does K-State handle West Virginia’s zero blitzes? Last year, Jesse Ertz completed only 33 percent of his passes. Big plays are there for the taking, but either Delton or Thompson will have to remain calm under pressure.

· Can K-State prevent the big breakdowns that lead to long touchdown passes for opponents? Tech managed only one play of this variety.

· Will Grier (oops) remain patient despite K-State’s ball-control offense and conservative defensive philosophy, or will he force the ball into coverage trying to make plays?

· What will West Virginia do on special teams to mitigate K-State’s explosive return game and field position advantage?

K-State should be able to move the ball on the ground against West Virginia’s unimpressive defensive line. This is typically the key to the game for K-State’s offense, because it sets up everything else the Wildcats want to do. The Wildcats managed to keep Texas Tech, who has a couple solid linebackers, in conflict and took advantage. They’ll need to do the same against Benton and West Virginia’s strong safety tandem.

Defensively, K-State really needs to force a couple turnovers from a WVU team that has given the ball away 14 times this year. And they need big days from Reed and Shelley in tough matchups.

K-State can win this game by controlling the clock, preventing big plays in the WVU passing game, taking advantage of mistakes when West Virginia gets impatient, and either a field position advantage or special teams score. I think it happens.

Wildcats 34, Mountaineers 30