It's been somewhat puzzling, WVU's struggles against K-State's defense. Sure, the Wildcats are fundamentally sound, disciplined, they tackle well. It's all the accolades you've been told for the better part of a week now. But if the Mountaineers can ring up point totals like 49 versus the likes of Oklahoma, 48 and 40 versus Texas, 38 against TCU and 37 versus Texas A&M, why over the course of four Big 12 games has KSU been able to hold West Virginia to such low totals?
The answer, like our primary question, is at least two-fold. First, Kansas State doesn't make an abundance of mistakes. There are few missed tackles, broken assignments or blown coverages. The 'Cats often stick to a two-deep shell, forcing teams to work for eight to 10-plus play drives to score. They'll give the short and intermediate completions, tackle immediately, and believe their run fits, sound structural play and ability to keep plays in front will place the execution onus on the opposition enough that the other side caves before they do. It's worked to the degree of 195 wins in 298 career games, a whopping 156 more victories than any coach in a rather pedestrian school history.
But the problem also presents it self on the two other "sides of the ball." If the Wildcats aren't scoring with blistering effectiveness via special teams returns - something they did each of the last two seasons against WVU - they're consuming chunks of time and yardage on the majority of drives. Even if Kansas State doesn't score on a possession, it runs clock and at least tilts, if not flips, the field position in its favor. KSU doesn't get caught behind the sticks or allow many negative yardage plays; It led the Big 12 and ranked 16th nationally last season with only 39.3 penalty yards per game, and its 4.38 penalties per game were second in the conference.
Combine that with the methodical play of its offense, and it takes away drives from the opposing offenses. Take a look at the scoring possessions for K-State against West Virginia the last two times the teams played at Milan Puskar Stadium:
KSU - DeMarcus Robinson 7 yd TD pass from Jake Waters (Kick by Matthew McCrane Good) 8-49 4:04
KSU - Matthew McCrane 36 yd FG, 8-65 3:45
KSU - Tyler Lockett 43 yd punt return TD (Kick by Matthew McCrane Good)
KSU - Matthew McCrane 44 yd FG, 7-61 2:34
KSU - Matthew McCrane 19 yd FG, 6-14 3:05
KSU - Matthew McCrane 32 yd FG, 9-49 4:31
That's an average of eight plays, 47.6 yards over a span of 3:36 without including the punt return for score. Keep in mind that three of those drives ended in field goals, meaning Kansas State moved the ball, but not nearly the length of the field. Just on the scoring drives alone, K-State has kept the ball for nearly 18 minutes of game clock. Here's the real kicker: This was the game where WVU held Kansas State to just one net rushing yard. The Wildcats won time of possession 31:33 to 28:27 without being able to run the ball, and while converting just 4 of a combined 15 third and fourth downs. By all statistical analysis, the Mountaineers should have blown this game open.
So why didn't they? The old issues reared the head. Clint Trickett threw two interceptions. West Virginia fumbled three times, losing two. It allowed a 43-yard punt return for a score when Nick O'Toole kicked to the opposite side of the coverage. The offense had possessions of 1:07, 1:16, 1:06, 0:53 and 1:08, with two others of less than two minutes. That's seven of WVU's 12 total possessions that lasted a combined 8:07. If one takes the shortest five drives, it totals just 5:30, or an average of 1:06. Add in the two others, and the average jumps to just 1:10 per possession.
Not surprisingly, West Virginia scored on just one of these drives, that off a Josh Lambert field goal for the final points of the game in the 26-20 defeat. That means six times WVU sent its defense back on the field without gaining points and with just 70 game clock seconds of rest. The average number of plays? Just over three. The Mountaineers actually lost yardage on two of the drives. What the offense has done is blow up possessions at the expense of a defense already facing a tiring task handling a physical rushing game and trying to remain mentally focused against an assignment-based football team.
K-State, meanwhile, is changing field position, providing at least adequate breaks for an already rested defense, and starting to impose the cumulative effect of its power game will. Notice that the Wildcats gained just one yard rushing in the game. But Bill Snyder never went away from it, running 29 times (against 34 passing plays) because the veteran mentor understood the benefits weren't necessarily in the yardage, but in everything else associated.
It's an ideal which was lost on the early versions of Air Raid offenses, but one which Dana Holgorsen has gradually embraced as he has advanced as a head coach. And it's why West Virginia has its best chance to secure a win over Kansas State for the first time in Big 12 play. The Mountaineers are expected to have a better front than K-State's defensive counterparts. WVU has protected the pocket effectively - it has yet to give up a legit sack - and been able to manufacture gains in the rushing game. Justin Crawford and Rushel Shell have flexed cutability and deft vision while slashing through the second level. Add in the vertical and mid-range threats on the outside, and high level play by quarterback Skyler Howard - whose timing with the receivers has been quite adroit - and West Virginia is more complete on offense than it has ever been under Holgorsen.
What is must do is showcase that, and get the ball in the hands of the hot back while not being afraid to grind out a win against Kansas State. The defense is likely to sit in the cover two, and force extended, pragmatic drives with throws underneath. The Wildcats want to use their even, four-man front to gain leverage on the edge, and funnel the run game back into the middle, where it has help from the linebackers. That should leave some cushion along the interior line where West Virginia can quick hit it, or get the backs behind a lead blocker to exploit numbers.
K-State will also use a 5-2 bear look against a two-man backfield (usually flanking the QB), leaving the middle more open while trying to take away the edge by walking a linebacker up to scrimmage. Stanford, the lone legit offense the Wildcats have faced, had great success throwing over the top, their receivers beating the corners and getting over the free safety. The Cardinal wideouts also got the outer hip inside of the corner playing outside leverage and running the vertical seam route, where the safety didn't roll over in time.
The zone read run was also effective, with the backs awaiting an opening, then cutting to allow the backside linemen to block into the second level, which opened space with the 'backers cleared. All this is in West Virginia's playbook. What might not be is Stanford's willingness to match the patience demanded by Kansas State's defense, and take what was available instead of forcing plays. The Mountaineers simply can't try for plays that aren't available,or afford another multiple turnover performance. It must protect the ball, use its punt team to change field position as needed (even kicking out of bounds if required) and play with the knowledge that its offensive line and running game - and the continued vertical threat of forcing the DBs to run with the receivers - will pay dividends into the latter stages of the contest.
Merely hurrying up, as Holgorsen has point out, often leads to little more than faster three-and-outs. The Mountaineers have winnable indvidual match-ups, but they have to morph that into an overall team game that helps defense and special teams. WVU certainly understands what its up against in Kansas State's defense. Though that No. 1 total yardage ranking won't hold, and the Wildcats haven't faced a passing attack like that of the Mountaineers, it's still a sound unit.
With the defensive complications in run fits and pocket pressure Tony Gibson is dealing with post-BYU, and some personnel and schematic changes on special teams after multiple break downs last week, the offense is the side West Virginia must turn to in this game. After the defense has kept it in so many past series games, it's time for the offense to get past the 23-point glass ceiling and help the other two sides of the ball in the process. That starts by understanding the value of a complete team game, and how offensive execution fits into that symbiotic relationship.null