The Mountaineers, with several longer-term goals erased by the October schedule, have set their initial sights on bowl eligibility. As head coach Dana Holgorsen noted, when a team reaches five wins, they can realistically set that as the next hurdle.
“I think everybody gets to the point this time of year where that’s what the focus is and that’ss what we want to do, finish strong and finish the right way. Making a bowl is obviously good, and we can talk about that now because we got to five (wins) last week. When you need one more, that’s when it’s appropriate to talk about it. We want to focus on that this week, and winning another.”
But the opponent, a woeful 0-10 Kansas team which is expected to finish 0-12, has a far different take in simply trying to find their best players moving forward. First-year head coach David Beaty’s team ranks in the bottom third of the Big 12 in nearly every imaginable statistical category, though KU did somehow hang with TCU last week before a late interception snuffed the upset chance. Holgorsen called Kansas “an improving football team,” but it’s hard to see much more than the most distant of promise for the program.
The Jayhawks have been outscored by an average of more than four touchdowns a game, and are being outgained by 225-plus yards. They’ve also turned the ball over 19 times while allowing more than five yards per rush and 13 yards per catch with 26 receiving touchdowns. It all amounts to a current 13-game losing streak, and defeats in 18 of KU’s last 19 games. Outside of Iowa State, Kansas has won just one other Big 12 game since the conference realignment – that being West Virginia in 2013. Overall, since 2010, the Jayhawks are 2-41 in league play.
West Virginia, meanwhile, seems to have rebounded from the 0-4 October stretch; the Mountaineers have topped Texas Tech and Texas, and are now facing a manageable three-game final stretch with road games at Kansas and Kansas State sandwiched around the home finale’ versus Iowa State. The three teams are a combined 6-23 overall, 2-18 in the Big 12.
“You can’t look too far in advance,” Holgorsen said. “Whatever goals you can set to achieve at the end of the week is important right now. It was tough in October, there’s no doubt about that. We caught all four Big 12 teams when they were playing at their best. But that’s kinda what our team make-up is. We have about 20 seniors and I met with them and said we had a lot to play for. Those seniors were the ones who came into the Big 12 four years ago, and it’s important for them to do their absolute best and accomplish something at the end of the year.”
Holgorsen also mentioned that quarterback Skyler Howard played well, managing the game and getting the Mountaineers into the correct running plays. Howard completed his final eight passes, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, after starting 2-of-4 with a pick. Howard’s final incompletion of the game came at the 12-minute mark of the first quarter.
“There were very few mental mistakes,” Holgorsen said. “The first throw was bad, and he admitted it. I don’t know what it was, but once he got that out of the way and got tackled, he settled in and took care of the ball and got us in the right plays and was accurate in the pass game as well. It didn’t start great, but it’s always more about how you finish.”
Howard was able to rely upon the rushing of Wendell Smallwood, who amassed a career-high 165 yards, 105 in the first half, in anchoring the ground game. Smallwood has now rushed for 1,119 yards with six touchdowns. The junior averages 6.9 yards per carry, and is within striking distance of Steve Slaton’s school-record 1,744 yards in 2006, especially with facing the lower-tier of the Big 12 over the final three games.
Smallwood currently averages 124.3 yards per game and needs 626 yards over the final four games – a bowl assumed – or an average of 156.5 yards per game to eclipse Slaton’s mark. That seems more manageable when one considers WVU’s emerging running game, the upcoming games in colder weather, and that the coaching staff isn’t getting the ball to Smallwood in the slot or other non-running-based areas because of his value as a back.
“He’s the go-to guy right now obviously,” Holgorsen said. “We are going to get him as many carries as he can handle. There are guys who have expressed their displeasure with us not getting him the ball every snap, but the reality is you can’t do that. We don’t do a lot of other things we can do with him because of his importance between the tackles.”
On the injury front, Holgorsen noted guard Adam Pankey would be listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Holgorsen said the junior played his best football the last few weeks after moving back inside following an emergency start at tackle against TCU. Pankey is to be evaluated Tuesday, and additional updates will be available then.