The No. 13 Wildcats, out of a multiple front look with protection over the top, will routinely give up the three-, four- and five-yard gains, figuring that in the course of a game, a negative play or mistake will at some point be forced that puts a team behind the chains, allows the defense to become more aggressive toward a particular tendency and eventually slows or halts the drive enough to keep foes out of the end zone far more often than not. It’s worked for years under KSU head coach Bill Snyder, whose teams are as fundamentally sound as any, and typically get beat by better talent rather than superior execution.
“We are going to have to be patient,” WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “We’re going to have to be willing to take five yard gains, and then when there’s an opportunity, take a shot.”
Something with which the Mountaineers have struggled a bit, for varying reasons. Against TCU, it was the lack of solid offensive line play, combined with quarterback Clint Trickett feeling more heat than was actually present. Against Texas, the culprit was a lack of motivation and focus at the start of the game, which bled into the third quarter before West Virginia awakened from the TCU hangover. But then, combined with the same problems on defense, it was the proverbial too little, too late, and the Horned Frogs had, frankly, beaten the Mountaineers twice.
There’s no question, after the 6-2 start, this Kansas State game might well be the make or break of WVU’s season. Sure, at the start, a current 6-4 record with a high quality win and solid showings in most losses would have had the majority of the fan base, and perhaps administration, quite pleased. But now, opinion within the team and fan base seems to be that West Virginia needs more than to limp home with a 6-6 mark. And because there’s only what’s an underwhelming Iowa State team left after this week’s clash, it reasons that West Virginia needs a victory in this game to legitimize itself, and certainly to keep from the appearance of a late season swoon for the third consecutive season.
What that will take, undoubtedly, is simply this: The offensive line must execute better overall, especially in key situations, and Trickett must recognize such, begin to again believe he’s being protected enough, and start locking in and going through progressions in the same quality manner he did earlier in the season. There’s little reason to think Tony Gibson’s defense won’t show up, and play a hard physical game. What remains to be seen is if it can contain Kansas State’s option and run game enough to give its seemingly hot-cold offense a chance. WVU is aware it hasn’t run the ball even adequately when it has mot needed to over the last six quarters. It’s aware that Trickett has struggled, perhaps most of that psychological with some physical. And it’s aware that all that can begin to be remedied with solid play up front. Because, as even head coach Dana Holgorsen preaches, it all starts up front. If WVU can’t block anybody, nothing else, regardless of Xs and Os and skillset execution, is much going to matter. There are reasons to think that will come to fruition, as the Mountaineers have showed the bounce back, both physical and mental, expected after the open week – especially along the offensive line, where the five starters have logged nearly every snap of the entire season save the Towson game.
“Guys were excited,” position coach Ron Crook said. “Guys were moving fast, moving quick, had some excitement in them. I think it paid off. Last year I was lucky that I had some guys I could rotate in. Same when I was at Harvard. But (guys playing high snap counts) is fairly normal in college football.”
It figures that this game will turn on just a handful of plays, and most of those are likely to come when West Virginia’s offense faces a K-State look that is daring it to take less than the ideal, such as trying to convert a key third and two with the box stacked or go vertical against a cover zero or one look. That’s often a low percentage play, and Dawson and Trickett have to balance that risk-reward with the paradigm of other play considerations that might not exactly mesh against the defensive look, but could, indeed, be the best selection by pure chance of success. It’s a continual parry and thrust, ebb and flow, and some of it will be by pure feel and hunch for both Trickett and Dawson.
TCU did smash the Wildcats for 553 total yards in the 41-20 win, including 334 on the ground, with 123 from quarterback Trevone Boykin. But West Virginia won’t have that luxury in terms of mobility and out-of-pocket plays from its signal caller, and thus must get solid push and open lanes up front to take the heat off Trickett and set-up reasonable downs and distances.
“They had a damn good running back in there and a quarterback who made plays with his feet,” Trickett said. “And it wasn’t scheme as much as those guys making plays. I was thoroughly impressed. Kansas State has always been a good run defense, even against Auburn. (But) I can’t do anything those guys were doing. But if you have some fast guys, and are able to make them miss – and we have some fast guys – then (you’re ok). They make you earn every yard. They are going to let a lot of things get caught underneath and they aren’t going to try and make huge plays.
“They let you make the mistakes and it’s honestly really smart and it’s why coach Snyder is one of the best in college football. You have to stick with the run game. You still have to pass it, but you’re probably not going to get as many shots as you normally would. Patience is going to be a virtue, converting on third down is going to be big and field position will be a big battle, too.”
Kansas State (7-2, 5-1), even after the season-high 41 points surrendered to TCU, is allowing foes an average of just 21.1 points per game, good for 21st in the NCAA. KSU allows 265.2 passing yards (41st) and 157.3 rushing yards (76th) per contest. Opponents have converted 50 of 124 third downs (40 percent) against the Wildcats, ranking KSU sixth in the Big 12. Its offense, however, is first in the category, and Snyder’s team also ranks first in fewest penalties and time of possession.
“It’s exactly what you expect; They’re well coached. They don’t do anything flashy, anything difficult,” Crook said of Snyder’s defense. “They play hard, they play well, they’re smart in what they do and they don’t make bad decisions. They make you go out and earn everything. We have to continue to do that.
“I think the big thing we talked to our guys about is, hey, we can’t get bored gaining four or five yards. Five yards, that’s a good play, an efficient play and it keeps our offense moving forward and keeps us in manageable situations. We can’t get bored with that as coaches. We gotta accept that and be happy with that and continue to put them in that position where we are in second and manageable and third and manageable.”