Will Howard was intercepted three times, West Virginia Mountaineers piled up 485 yards of offense, and almost nothing went right for Kansas State Wildcats this afternoon as they dropped their fifth straight game to the Mountaineers, this time by a 37-10 count at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.
Disaster struck almost immediately. K-State opened with three straight pass plays; two incompletions and an interception on a ball which was tipped by Phillip Brooks and gathered in by Nicktroy Fortune. But the Wildcat defense had Will Howard’s back, as Ekow Boye-Doe made a great play to break up a shot to the end zone and Khalid Duke dropped Jarret Doege for a loss on third down. Evan Staley missed from 51, and K-State got the ball back with the game still scoreless.
The offense worked much more effectively on the second drive, with big completions to Chabastin Taylor and Briley Moore pushing the Cats into the red zone. Harry Trotter busted off a 10-yard run, but the offense then stalled. Blake Lynch popped a 21-yarder to put K-State up 3-0.
The Mountaineers responded, moving steadily downfield. Once they got to the Wildcat 6 with second down, things slowed considerably as three straight penalties left West Virginia still at the Wildcat 6 on second down thanks to penalties on both teams. The Wildcat defense basically stuffed Leddie Brown twice, forcing Staley to come on and kick a 19-yard field goal to tie the game back up.
After a great kickoff return by Malik Knowles (on which Staley was injured trying to make a tackle) put K-State in Mountaineer territory, Howard immediately threw another interception, a great catch by Sean Hahone on a deep ball. Drew Wiley decided to take matters into his own hands, sacking Doege then eating Alec Sinkfield at the line to force a three-and-out from the Mountaineer 2. After a short return by Brooks, K-State again took over in West Virginia territory, this time at the 36. The offense did nothing, and Blake Lynch missed from 52; Doege answered with a 58-yard catch-and-run to Bryce Ford-Wheaton, and three plays later Doege hit Ali Jennings for a touchdown.
On the ensuing drive, the officials just decided to give West Virginia a touchdown. Doege hit T.J. Simmons for 32, setting up a 9-yard Leddie Brown run which was only eight yards because he clearly stepped out of bounds with the ball still at the one. The officials ruled it a touchdown, and replay let it stand as called despite multiple angles showing his foot on the line and chalk being kicked up.
Not that it mattered. K-State’s offense again did nothing; West Virginia again marched right down and scored again on a 15-yard pass to Winston Wright.
Finally, the offense functioned again. Moore caught a pass, but was hurt; the crowd practiced cheers while he was down, for which there will be no forgiveness anytime soon. Chipping away methodically at the Mountaineer defense, Howard found Sammy Wheeler twice for first downs, and then... hang on, you’re going to need to be sitting down for this... Howard lobbed a 35-yard pass into the end zone which landed in the arms of Knowles, and he actually held onto it. The defense managed to keep West Virginia from scoring in the final 1:05 of the half, and K-State trailed 24-10 at the half.
The defense continued having problems after halftime, as the Mountaineers marched down to the Wildcat 8. They held there, however, forcing backup kicker Casey Legg to hit a 25-yard field goal. But then a completely stupid screen pass was bobbled by Taylor, snagged by Dylan Tonkery, and run into the end zone. 34-10 Mountaineers, and the game was basically over. West Virginia added another field goal, and Aamaris Brown recovered a Sinkfield fumble late, but nothing else of note happened.
Howard was 19-37 for 184 yards with three picks and a touchdown, and -9 yards rushing. Vaughn had 22 yards on 9 carries, and he led the team. Woof. Brooks was the leading receiver with 4 catches for 39 yards, while Moore had two for 37 before being injured. Taylor and Wheeler each had three catches. For the Mountaineers, Doege was 22-34 for 301 and two touchdowns; Leddie Brown ran for 102 yards on 24 carries while Sinkfield added 85 on 14. Ford-Wheaton had 104 yards receiving on just three catches. K-State totalled a mere 225 yards on offense, with only 41 on the ground. West Virginia had 485, 184 on the ground.
Our players of the game: On defense, Drew Wiley at least stayed interested for 60 minutes, so he gets the nod. Malik Knowles earns the award on offense this week in recognition of getting out of his touchdown slump. We’ve been snarky at Malik all season, but we’ve also been sure to note that he’s obviously been having a problem the nature of which we’re unaware. Today was a good step toward fixing it.
What did we learn?
1) We obviously jinxed Will Howard last week.
Howard wasn’t to blame for everything on offense. He wasn’t even really to blame for one interception and wasn’t entirely to blame for another. But he was lost out there today, folks. Last week, he was on target with nearly every pass. This week, he was hardly on target at all. He made poor decisions, repeatedly throwing into double- and triple-coverage. You can do that if you’re on the mark and your receiver is on point. When neither thing is true, you’re just trying to force it.
Yes, he’s a freshman. We’re not shoveling dirt over his grave here. He’s still got talent, he’ll get better. But today? Today was bad, and bad enough to raise questions for the rest of the season.
On the bright side: Howard did spread the ball around effectively. Nine receivers caught balls today.
2) The offensive line was finally exposed.
Part of Howard’s problem was he very rarely had time in the pocket to make good decisions. The touchdown pass to Knowles was one such time. But he spent the entire game being hurried, and the running game was unable to get moving either.
3) The defense regressed to before-2020 anger fuel.
West Virginia was 6-14 on third down, and it felt even worse than that. During the first quarter, the defensive line did a good job pressuring Doege; after that, they were nearly absent and Doege was able to complete passes to receivers in stride all day long.
It was a jarring flashback to a darker time, when the defense would look good and then give up 38 yards on third-and-14.
4) Deuce Vaughn got handled, and it’s potentially a blueprint to be used against K-State.
Vaughn had a total of 23 yards from scrimmage today. 23. Not a typo. The Mountaineers shut off his usual boltholes, and that’s something other coaches are going to pick up on. Unless he and the coaching staff can adjust and find different escape routes, it’s going to impact his productivity.
5) Forget the Big 12 Championship Game; worry about .500.
K-State is now 4-1 in conference, but three of those four wins have come at the expense of three of the four worst teams in this league. The Wildcats are now staring at Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Texas, and a mercurial Baylor squad. It is not even hard to imagine losing three of those four games.
We let ourselves get excited over the results so far, and part of that was dismissing Arkansas State as a fluke. But today showed this team really is capable of playing terrible football. Sure, they’re also capable of winning the next four games. With this coaching staff and the obvious talent we’ve seen dominate lesser competition, it would be foolish to ignore that possibility.
But faced with the first good defense they’ve seen all season, K-State collapsed. It has to give you pause.