The Mountaineers, 3-4 overall and 1-3 in the Big 12, badly need a win to begin to reassert themselves in the league standings. Kansas State, a team that beat WVU 55-14 last year for the worst defeat of the year, appears much more human in terms of execution and quarterbacking. And the Wildcats' run-first, physical style might be just what WVU needs to secure its first road win since it beat Iowa State in the penultimate regular season game last year.
KSU, under head coach Bill Snyder, remains the tough, focused, almost machine-like executor of fundamentals. But there's no Collin Klein at quarterback, no Chris Harper at receiver, no Arthur Brown anchoring the linebackers. Much like WVU, Kansas State's lost trio of NFL-drafted talent – along with six others who were signed to free agent contracts – has caused a severe drop in productivity, execution and wins. The ‘Cats enter just 2-4, 0-3 in the Big 12 and looking to try and ease out off the cellar with a win over WVU.
There'll be no surprise as to how KSU attempts to win. Run the ball, use the play action pass and QB option, tackle well and win the line of scrimmage. It's the same formula Snyder, 74 years old and in his 22nd season over two tenures at the school, has used to become the greatest two-time builder of the same program in college football history.
""They are as well-coached as any team in the country," WVU safeties coach Tony Gibson said. "There are not many people still coaching whom the stadium is named after. He's one of them and it is for a reason. They are very disciplined, and I'm sure coming off the bye week they will be very hungry to get back on the field and we will have our hands full."
Quarterback Jake Waters has struggled to begin to replace Klein, throwing five interceptions against four touchdowns. But Waters has proven quite adept at play fakes and patience, and will challenge the Mountaineers with a physical style. Fellow quarterback Daniel Sams is even more of a running threat, leading the team with 522 yards on 86 carries, good for a 6.1-yards-per-carry average. Back John Hubert, a 5-7, 190-pounder, has 358 yards on 80 rushes in a workmanlike effort.
"I think so," linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski said when asked if WVU's personnel matches up better with power running teams. "They put more people in the box, and those big, physical aspects can be tough. They like to run the ball, play power. They like to hit. Scheme-wise, yes, this is the most physical team. They do a lot more running, and in alignments they use a lot more tight ends. They like running straight up and down. I don't have a preference, but it's a little easier as a linebacker to defend the run game." <> Fellow ‘backer Isaiah Bruce, who forced and recovered a key goal line fumble against Texas Tech, agreed, noting that West Virginia, despite trying to build a defense primarily designed to slow the spread style prevalent in the Big 12, seems to better stop the run. The Mountaineers, with a developing secondary and lack of coverage speed at linebacker, are still building the tools to shut down pas-based sets.
"I feel like our run-stop game is pretty decent, and I feel like if we do our job, we should stop the run," Bruce said. "If we stop the run this game, and make them one-dimensional, that puts us in the best position to win. I wouldn't just say we match-up better compared to Texas Tech. But I feel like it's different than what we are used to. It makes us be patient and fit everything and all do our 1/11th, and not try to do too much or they'll find our mistakes."
Kansas State will challenge in the pass game – receiver Tyler Lockett actually averages more than 15 yards per catch on 31 receptions – but prefers a run-first system that then throws off play action and the QB option. The Wildcats average 216 yards passing and 184 yards rushing after being forced to throw far more than Snyder would like because of trailing in games.
"You better have your eyes in the right spot," Gibson said. "If they're supposed to be on the tight end, they better be there. Because if you look in the backfield, this team can really hurt you. The Sams kid is really patient with their fakes, and in the run game. And off the run game, they have throws. So we have to be very disciplined and make sure our eyes are in the right spot."
West Virginia must also get off the field far better than it did against Texas Tech, when the No. 16 Red raiders (7-0) converted nine of 15 in rallying from a 27-16 deficit to a 37-27 win. Kansas State ranks 31st in the NCAA in time of possession, and with West Virginia's offense bogging down at times – WVU gained just one first down in the last five possessions versus Tech – Snyder won't hesitate to keep the ball for prolonged periods.
"Third down is a critical down," Kwiatkoski said. "You have to get off the field to win games. It's big in every game, but with the way we struggled the past couple weeks, it's a bigger emphasis."