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Kicking the Tires: West Virginia Mountaineers

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K-State kicks off conference play in Morgantown. A stern test awaits.

NCAA Football: Youngstown State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

K-State needed a game to get well after taking a beating from Mississippi State. Last week’s 41-17 win over UTSA largely provided that, as K-State settled on a quarterback, held UTSA to seven non-garbage-time points, and moved up 17 places in the S&P ratings.

But play time is over and a trip to Morgantown awaits. The Wildcats face West Virginia at 2:30 p.m. CDT on Saturday in a game nationally broadcast on ESPN. It will take the best effort we’ve seen from this team this year to avoid another beatdown on national television.

Players to Watch

K-State

Passing: Skylar Thompson, 28-49-1, 360 yards, 7.3 yards/attempt, 4 TDs, 120 yards/game

Rushing: Alex Barnes, 51 carries, 228 yards, 4.5 yards/carry, 1 TD, 76.0 yards/game

Receiving: Isaiah Zuber, 14 receptions, 223 yards, 15.9 yards/reception, 3 TDs, 74.3 yards/game

West Virginia

Passing: Will Grier, 46-60-1, 761 yards, 12.7 yards/attempt, 9 TDs, 380.5 yards/game

Rushing: Leddie Brown, 23 carries, 148 yards, 6.4 yards/carry, 1 TD, 74.0 yards/game

Receiving: Gary Jennings, 12 receptions, 210 yards, 17.5 yards/reception, 4 TDs, 105.0 yards/game

West Virginia’s offense ranks fourth nationally by S&P+, and it’s not difficult to see why. Having a QB averaging double-figure yards per attempt and a running back averaging better than six yards per carry will do that. Granted, the Mountaineers have only played Tennessee (57th nationally by defensive S&P+) and a 1-2 Youngstown State team. But the hallmark of a good team is beating up on bad teams, so here we are.

Defensively, linebacker David Long, Jr., leads the way with 23 total tackles, including 2.5 TFL. Defensive linemen Darius Stills and Kenny Bigelow, Jr., have 2.5 sacks apiece. Safety Dravon Askew-Henry is the only ‘eer to record an interception on the season. Fellow safety Josh Norwood has two pass breakups and 2.0 TFL.

Advanced Stats

Big thanks to jeffp for the charts again.

Mismatches abound in a game between a team rated 15th by S&P+ and a team rated 75th. K-State’s defensive weakness, which is stopping the run, will be tested less by a West Virginia offense coordinated by Jake Spavital than by most other teams. But the Wildcats front six will have to hold their ground against the run game to free up the secondary against Grier, Jennings and David Sills, or it will be a long day.

It will be strength on (relative) strength when Grier drops back to pass. K-State’s secondary has been game this year, posting respectable efficiency and explosiveness numbers. But West Virginia will be by far the most difficult test faced thus far. The Mountaineers’ top two receivers, Sills and Jennings, run 6’4” and 6’2”, respectively. Duke Shelley and whoever else is playing at cornerback will be giving up a lot of height.

If there’s good news in this matchup, then it’s West Virginia’s defense. The Mountaineers rate only 81st overall by S&P+. K-State may have found something of an identity last week by sticking with Skylar Thompson at quarterback, which seemed to free him up somewhat. But even against WVU’s relative weakness, there are no obvious advantages for K-State.

Conclusion

Vegas favors West Virginia by 16.5, and S&P+ expects them to cover that. Winning this game is highly unlikely, but what can K-State do to keep things interesting and have a chance?

On offense, more variety in the run game may open things up. Against UTSA, K-State pulled their linemen more frequently, rather than working out of straight-ahead zone sets. This allows our athletic linemen to get out in space a bit, which works to their advantage. Beyond that, the motion can be used effectively on play-action and RPOs. If K-State can find some early success with Alex Barnes and Skylar Thompson in the run game, then WVU’s aggressive safeties may start trying to get in on the action, leaving them vulnerable to deep shots to Zuber and Dalton Schoen.

Defensively, it comes down to two things. The defensive line has to get better. Our defensive tackles have consistently lost at the point of attack, leaving our linebackers vulnerable to climbing linemen and trying to navigate through traffic while tracking down running backs. Getting Elijah Sullivan on the field would help a lot, too. The junior from Georgia is the best linebacker we have right now and would be a big help against the run.

Realistically, K-State needs some help in this one. West Virginia turned the ball over four times last year in Manhattan, and barely escaped with a 28-23 win. K-State will need to win the turnover battle by at least two, score off a big play on offense, and get either a defensive or special teams score to have any sort of a chance in this one. Stranger things have happened, but that’s not the kind of eventuality you bet on.

Mountaineers 42, K-State 23