The classic take was manifesting itself as an ongoing repeat, the kind of horror story which has plagued the Mountaineers for the last four seasons against Kansas State. Lose the special teams battle, turn the ball over multiple times and fail to match KSU's sound, fundamental play. The first half showed itself as just that, West Virginia trailing 13-0 and threatening to allow the game to play out similarly to how it had last year, when the Wildcats took a gut-wrenching 24-23 win when WVU again allowed a return for a touchdown and failed on a key fourth down late in the game.
Just getting to the half was a much-needed break in this one. Kansas State had dominated the early proceedings by doing what it does. Bill Snyder's team protected the ball and field position with secure play calling, and rode its running game and a solid defense to maintain the shutout. It never truly had WVU on the ropes - KSU teams rarely do - but instead was methodically racking up the blows while the Mountaineers struggled to counter strike as the game slid into eerily familiar territory. K-State had more first downs, a better rushing game, had controlled time of possession and had scored on all three red zone chances.
West Virginia (and stop me if you've heard this before) failed to score in their lone red zone trip, couldn't convert third and fourth down situations at just 1-of-7 combined, and had suffered an early turnover that led directly to Kansas State's only score. The Wildcats absolutely maximized most opportunities, and took the gifts WVU gave in continual flags for holding and blocks in the back in the return game. But what KSU didn't do was deliver a decisive blow, and that was what left West Virginia in the game late.
The Mountaineers continued to dig in defensively in the third and fourth quarters, and managed to limit Kansas State to just 120 yards on 42 runs - part of just 286 yards of total offense compared to 422 for West Virginia. Tony Gibson was winning the battle of run fits and wits against the K-State power running game again, and it allowed the team to remain in the game long enough for a spark to finally ignite. The kindling was the relationship between Skyler Howard and Shelton Gibson, and it was their 52-yard completion that jump started a somewhat stalled offense.
Gibson, his helmet ripped off by the defender, jumped to his feet and began to pound his chest. As he did, what remained of the 61,701 became the rowdy crowd requested by head coach Dana Holgorsen. The Mountaineers, suddenly infused and inspired, began to finish behind the running of Justin Crawford and Howard's tenacity in both the run and pass. West Virginia used a major fourth and six completion to Ka'Raun White for a first down to set-up Crawford's crashing nine-yard run to the one. From there a sneak and a handoff to Crawford off a decoy sneak served the purpose, WVU pulling within 16-10 with 13 minutes left to play.
Gibson's defense continued to play diligently against KSU, and managed two stops before the offense pieced together the drive off the game, a nine-play, 57-yard march that ended when Howard rolled right under pressure and delivered a 28-yard strike to Jovon Durante in the back of the end zone for a tie at 16. The scoring catch will be recorded as just seven yards, but Howard's scramble left him almost out of the red zone and the rifle of a throw was caught by Durante just inside the back line on a rope.
With momentum finally on their side, West Virginia's defense rode out a final series in which Kansas State moved the ball 33 yards to WVU's 26 yard line to set-up the final chapter, another apparent late loss at the hands of the Wildcats. But Matt McCrane's kick sailed wide left, and with it the Mountaineers were left with the prettiest of goose eggs on the right side of the ledger. The left flatly read that West Virginia was 4-0, and knocking hard on the door of the Top 25. It was as satisfying a win as the program has had over its last 10 games, a stretch in which WVU is a vastly underrated 9-1.
Sure, there are issues, and concerning ones on all three sides. There's still some rather puzzling decision making by Holgorsen. West Virginia continues to struggle in the red zone with execution and finishing. The defense gave up a series of slant patterns for first downs which could have been more costly. The special teams shanked a chip shot field goal and again struggled in the coverage and return games, giving up unnecessary yardage and field position. But those are topics for another time, another night. This one was about getting as imperative a psychological victory as there has been since Karl Joseph went down with an injury - and maybe even before that.
West Virginia had to have this one, and getting it in the way it did should have raised by heart rates and hopes. There are aspects to clean up, especially as more Big 12 play looms in two weeks at Texas Tech. But what can't be denied is that the Mountaineers have the ability to correct those issues with that zero remaining on the right side. Perhaps Al Davis said it best after all.