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FINAL: West Virginia 28, Kansas State 23 - Nothing but regrets

That’s not true. We also have questions. Regrets and questions.

One of Duke Shelley’s nice pass breakups this afternoon.
One of Duke Shelley’s nice pass breakups this afternoon.
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

The K-State offense blew multiple chances to bury West Virginia early, and then wasted the defense’s effort turning in its first scoreless half against a Power 5 team since TCU last December, as the Mountaineers posted a 28-23 win over the Wildcats this afternoon at Bill Snyder Family Stadium.

Dalvin Warmack was the chief offensive weapon for the Wildcats, rushing for 96 yards on 14 carries and setting up both K-State touchdowns with big runs. Winston Dimel found the end zone at the end of both drives, stoked by 21- and 41-yard Warmack dashes.

Matthew McCrane provided K-State’s other nine points, kicking field goals of 21, 43, and 39 yards; a fourth attempt from 32 missed, barely, and to some argument.

K-State got on the board first, with McCrane’s first two field goals posting the Wildcats to a 6-0 lead before West Virginia even managed a first down. Indeed, it would take the Mountaineers five drives to accomplish that simple feat. Their first drive ended on a fumble, both forced and recovered by birthday boy D.J. Reed . The second was a three-and-out, and the third died when Reed picked off Will Grier on third down, returning the ball to the Mountaineer 3-yard line. The next Mountaineer drive also ended in a three-and-out.

The failure to convert any of this largesse into touchdowns was the critical failing of the Wildcat offense. Starting every drive except the one which began with the opening kickoff in West Virginia territory, K-State only came away with six points in five chances.

West Virginia’s possession after McCrane’s second field goal, which broke Martin Gramatica’s K-State record for career field goals, began with a touchback. On the first play, Grier, facing a corner blitz from Duke Shelley, hit Ka’Raun White — who Shelley would have been covering, but Kendall Adams was stuck with him instead — for a 75-yard score, and suddenly K-State was losing despite all those opportunities.

After K-State couldn’t move the ball, West Virginia faced 2nd-and-10 at their own 41, and Reggie Walker had Grier in his hands for a sack. He didn’t hold on, and Grier found David Sills V for 43 yards; Grier found Sills V again a play later for a touchdown.

Warmack ran for 46 of his yards on the ensuing drive, and K-State got back within a point. Denzel Goolsby picked off Grier on the following drive, but a penalty on Shelley for an illegal block changed the field position from the Mountaineer 40 to the Wildcat 40, and K-State ended up punting.

Grier was then able to complete another 43-yard pass, this time to Gary Jennings at the Wildcat 4-yard line, after once again escaping the firm grasp of a Wildcat defensive lineman. This time, it was Will Geary who couldn’t bring down the quarterback; two plays later Grier lobbed a pass to Sills V for the score.

The teams traded punts, then on first down at the Wildcat 18, Warmack snapped loose for a 41-yard gallop into Mountaineer territory. A big 24-yard completion from Skylar Thompson to Isaiah Zuber gave the Cats first-and-goal, and two plays later Dimel bulled in to again make it a one-point game.

Four plays later, Elijah Sullivan forced a fumble, recovered by Joe Davies, which gave K-State the ball with only 48 seconds left in the half. In a decision some people are going to be discussing for a long, long time, K-State opted to neither kill the clock nor really go for it; the result was a pointless screen pass thrown by Thompson with 10 seconds left which was snagged at the line of scrimmage by Mountaineer defensive lineman Ezekiel Rose. Post-game, Bill Snyder himself said it was a mistake to not kneel the clock out.

On the next play, Grier was again forced to scramble long enough to run the clock out. Unfortunately, K-State was once again unable to bring him to heel, and he lofted a Hail Mary which resulted in a 33-yard touchdown reception for Sills V.

The K-State defense, and the ineptitude of the K-State offense, told the story of the second half. The banality was only punctuated by McCrane’s fourth field goal. The offense could get nowhere, with suspect play calls and another Thompson interception late in the fourth quarter which effectively sealed the ballgame for West Virginia.

The defense, on the other hand, did their job in the second half. With the exception of the final possession, which ended with the Mountaineers kneeling out the clock at the Wildcat 2-yard line, West Virginia was obliged to punt on every second-half possession.

So, what did we learn?

1. The DL can get to quarterbacks. They just can’t tackle them.

The K-State pass rush has been criticized, and rightly so. But there are folks who think that means they’ve been ineffective. That’s not entirely true; they’ve done a decent job of pressuring quarterbacks through the season.

But today shone the brightest possible spotlight on their real problem: they don’t have very many sacks, because they’re not making the tackle. On two occasions today, K-State defensive linemen had Will Grier in their grasp, and we don’t mean a hand on his jersey. Both guys had Grier wrapped up and let him escape. Both times, the result was a 43-yard completion, which is nuts.

Tackling, in general, has long been an issue for the K-State defense, but never when the tackler has the victim dead to rights. This needs to be fixed.

2. The secondary was, for the most part, nails in coverage today.

The reason why Grier was running around like a headless chicken all afternoon is because his receivers were blanketed. Only after he’d managed to extend the play to absurd levels due to the lack of tackling in the backfield were his receivers finally able to shake off pursuit and get open enough for him to throw.

The two big exceptions may still have not been the secondary’s fault. The first, of course, was the long touchdown pass to White, which was set up by Shelley running a corner blitz and Adams getting beaten one-on-one. Does Shelley get beaten? Maybe not.

The other was the touchdown pass to Sills V at the end of the first half. The secondary may have just lost Sills V. He may also have been the beneficiary of what was basically a pick within the Hail Mary scrum. (That’s not an illegal play; it’s just the residue of a bunch of guys jostling for position.)

Throw in two picks, a fumble recovery by Reed, another one forced by Sullivan, and you have to give the secondary a good grade today. Heck, even Jayd Kirby had a good day in pass defense. (We gotta shout that out.)

3. Skylar Thompson is the future, but declaring him the present was premature.

Granted, K-State had little choice with Ertz likely done forever and Delton out as well. Byron Pringle was taking snaps pre-game, folks.

But Thompson did not have a good game today, by any measure. His passer rating was sub-100, he made some baffling decisions, and threw two picks -- one of which, with 10 seconds left in the first half, was critical to the final result. When forced to run, he wasn’t effective.

But when he looked good, he looked really good. If he’s the starter in 2018, the offense will be in good hands.

4. That said, Thompson may be the best bet anyway to get bowl eligible.

Oklahoma State’s defense is trash. If K-State is going to have to win either a shootout with the Cowboys or a Farmageddon Special with Iowa State, the former is the better bet. And Thompson may be more capable of destroying the Cowboy defense than even a healthy Delton.

5. You can’t waste sixty minutes of opportunity.

K-State’s defense held West Virginia scoreless in the second half until a minute remained. K-State should have been leading by multiple touchdowns at halftime in the first place.

The failure to capitalize on any of the — literally -- seven golden opportunities West Virginia handed the Wildcats in the first half is why this game was lost.

This game will haunt this team. If the end result is a 5-7 finish because the team can’t seal the deal over the next two weeks, they’ll have a month longer to think about it.

And so will we.