Iowa State has bounced back and forth between quarterbacks Joel Lanning and Jacob Park since the first day of spring practice, but appears to have found a workable solution. Park, who is a better passer, is now the starter and primary operator of the offense, while Lanning is helming a run package designed to take advantage of his ground skills. Lanning's appearance might seem to be a giveaway in terms of guessing run vs. pass for the defense, but he can throw it well enough to keep defenses at least somewhat honest. He has thrown 121 consecutive passes without a pick.
Against Park, WVU will be in pass defense mode first. The Georgia transfer has completed two-thirds of his attempts in his last four outings, and averaged a solid 237 yards per game. While one of those was against the woeful Texas Tech defense, he also put up very good numbers against Kansas State and Kansas, which have respectable defenses. Lanning, who directs the “Lan-Ram” running game sequence, will have the Mountaineers thinking run first, but again, it can't sell out as it has against some QBs who would have had difficulty completing passes against air.
The challenge here for WVU is to remain aware of which QB is in the game, and to react accordingly. Identifying that and getting the appropriate personnel on the field, and the best plays called, will also be a focus for the coaching staff. That can be a bit harder than it sounds, as attention has to be paid after every snap for a potential QB switch. One miss, and a defense can be caught in a bad situation. It has to account for Lanning in all run scenarios, and will have to defend receivers without a surplus of safety help.
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WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen brushed off questions about red zone scoring earlier this year, but that doesn't hide the fact that it's still a major issue. The Mountaineers have failed to score at all on 10 of their 49 red zone possessions in 2016. What's worse, they have settled for field goals on 13 other inside-the-20 possessions, leaving them with just a 53% touchdown scoring rate.
ISU, conversely, has scored on 35 of its 38 red zone chances, and holds a 63% touchdown scoring rate on those possessions. If there's a key to this game, it lies inside the 20-yard lines.
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Check that last. If there's a bigger key to this game, it's in the attitude of the teams. West Virginia has to put aside last week and realize that it has the chance to still forge a special year. Iowa State will likely be treating this contest as its bowl game and be fired up to send the seniors out on a winning note, while also wanting to keep its winning streak alive as a building block for 2017. The Cyclones typically don't lie down for any opponent, and there's no reason to expect it in this game. If West Virginia plays with the poise that it showed in nine games prior, it has a good chance to overcome the Cyclones' emotional push and win, but it can't overlook ISU due to its record, or play with the carelessness that it showed in its two losses.
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Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell and WVU assistant Matt Caponi share an alma mater – Division III power Mount Union. The Raiders recently saw their 112-game winning streak in regular season contests snapped when they lost to John Carroll 31-28. Campbell, the youngest coach at a Power 5 school, graduated from Mount Union in 2002, while Caponi finished his degree there in 2005. Each was part of three national championship teams, and both were on the same squads in 2000, 2001 and 2002 – all three of which won those titles.
The Cyclones also feature former Mountaineer Mark Thurston on their football staff. Thurston, the Cyclones' assistant director of scouting, was a linebacker at WVU from from 1997-99. Playing 17 games during the last two years, he totaled 43 tackles and four sacks for the Mountaineers.
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None of WVU's three wins over the Cyclones could be categorized as huge, but the best one in the series is probably the 37-24 victory in Ames two seasons ago. That triumph broke a three-game Big 12 losing streak and helped secure a Liberty Bowl berth for the Mountaineers. Coming one season after a bowl-less 2013, it was a reasonably important marker in the rebuilding of the program.
On a snowy, frozen Senior Day, WVU recorded 570 yards of offense, split perfectly evenly between the run and the pass. The Mountaineers trailed 21-7 before rallying behind three Skyler Howard touchdown passes and a trio of Josh Lambert field goals while holding ISU to just three points over the game's final 40 minutes.
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Coming into the season, ISU's Mike Warren was the feature back, and along with wide receiver Allen Lazard, the best offensive player on the team. As the season has progressed the sophomore, who rushed for 1,339 yards a year ago as a freshman, has been supplanted by freshman David Montgomery, who has started the last three games. This is the perfect example of the phrase “building quality depth”. Getting someone ready to play as a backup is one thing, but it's quite another when newcomers supplant existing starters – not to mention stars. Montgomery is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, and looks to have put Warren into a backup role.
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Some view it as a rationalization, but I fully agree with Holgorsen's comment about the College Football Playoff getting too much attention at the expense of the battle for good seasons and other bowls. Yes, the goal should be to get to the CFP and play for the national title. That's important, and it should always be the first priority. However, teams that don't make it can still have very good seasons,
If this sounds like I'm advocating a “trophy for everyone” position, well, I'm not. There are probably a few too many bowls, and 6-6 teams probably shouldn't be there. Getting to a minor bowl shouldn't be used as a shield to mask program problems or shortcomings, either. However, there has to be room for some balance. If WVU can find a way to win its last two games and finish 10-2, that's not a failure by any rational measure. That's a very good, and perhaps even a great, season. The idea that you have to win every game and win the title or the season is a bad one is garbage.