Two of the major storylines leading into the game were Kansas State's bowl eligibility and the status of Wildcat head coach Bill Snyder, who has been, if not dogged, at least pestered by rumors of impending retirement. We now know that the Cats can go bowling without defeating the Mountaineers, and that Snyder won't publicly address his job status until after the season, so what, if any, impact will either of these two items have on the game?
The thinking here is that K-State won't play with any less effort, even though they are in position to accept a bowl bid even if they lose. No player with any sort of pride wants to have a losing record, and the Cats, with their blue collar mentality and Midwestern sensibilities, aren't going to be happy heading into a bowl with a 5-7 record. While that might remove a bit of the desperation on their side, it could actually end up helping them. They won't have the pressure that accompanies a must-win contest.
For West Virginia, the motivation should be equally as high, if not higher. An eighth win could help the Mountaineers secure a better bowl bid, but again, the personal pride factor is the strongest motivator here. This senior class has put heavy emphasis on reversing the November drop-offs that marked prior years, and nothing would put a stamp on that like a five-game winning streak to end the regular season. As a result, this contest doesn't figure to see either team put forth anything but a determined effort.
If there's any better anecdotal stat that illustrates the way in which offense has evolved in college football, it's this one. WVU is 181-4 all-time in games in which it has scored at least 40 points. All four of those losses have come in the last five years.
That should not, however, be construed as a slam of head coach Dana Holgorsen, under whom all of those defeats have occurred. It just goes to show that in scoring, 40 is the new 30.
Kansas State has returned a kickoff for a touchdown in each of the last 11 seasons, which is the longest active streak in the nation. That's part of an impressive total of 100 non-offensive touchdowns since 1999 for the Wildcats, which is tops in the country. By comparison, West Virginia has 58 since 2000.
One of the footers of K-State's foundation of success over the long term has been solid fundamental play, which often reflects in low penalty and turnover rates. The Wildcats got off to a shaky start in terms of penalties and yardage assessed this year, but is back in its accustomed spot atop the Big 12 standings in that department with just one game to play. They have committed just 59 infractions this year for a total of 445 yards, while WVU has been flagged 79 times for 816 yards. Turnovers are much closer, as WVU has given the ball away 19 times against K-State's 16.
K-State is one of only four schools to have the same 10 coaches in the program for the last three years. The others are Arizona, BYU and Northwestern. That clearly speaks to the stability of the program and the way in which the Wildcats are able to build their foundation of fundamentals. Featured on the roster of long-time coaches is defensive line mentor Mo Latimore, who is in his eye-popping 32nd year as a Kansas State assistant. He began his association with the school in 1970 as a player.
Kansas State's rushing game, especially that portion manned by quarterback Joe Hubener, can be a difficult thing to defend. At times, it seems as if action on QB runs comes to a dead halt as Hubener looks for a gap in the front line. When one doesn't develop, he'll often simply get behind his wall of blockers and wait for them to move forward, accepting a two- or three-yard gain. Stopping that can be frustrating, as the Wildcat line is good at keeping penetration to a minimum and walling off defenders.
Hubener has improved throughout the season on his execution of these runs, and one of the reasons might be the presence of a former master of the art, Collin Klein, on the Wildcat graduate assistant staff. Klein (known by the nickname Maximus Klein during his K-State playing days) was extremely patient on his runs. He kept plays alive while moving up and down the wall, searching for a gap into which he could plunge for yardage, and it appears he's taught Hubener a few tricks.
To combat this, WVU must get penetration at times and put the Wildcats behind the chains, or at least into longer yardage situations on second and third downs. If K-State can get a lot of second and fives or third and threes, it could be a long afternoon for the Mountaineers in the Little Apple. The West Virginia defensive line will also have to stand its ground and not get moved backwards. That's a tough task against the veteran Wildcat offensive line, but it's a battle the must be won if West Virginia it to get its eighth win of the season.