West Virginia Football: 10 Keys to Beating Kansas State
Before last Saturday, it looked like the Big 12 battle between the Kansas State Wildcats and West Virginia Mountaineers was shaping up to be a huge showdown between two undefeated Top 10 teams. However, the Mountaineers didn't hold up their end of the bargain, as they got walloped by Texas Tech 49-14 in Week 7.
Dana Holgorsen and the rest of the coaching staff have spent this week trying to figure out how to repair the defense and restore the team's confidence after such a huge letdown performance.
Kansas State comes to Morgantown with a 6-0 record and a Top Five national ranking, and the Wildcats look like they're going to be awfully tough to beat.
Here's a look at the 10 things West Virginia will have to do in order to win the crucial conference clash.
Toughen Up on Defense
We already knew that West Virginia's defense had some glaring deficiencies and holes following the unit's performances against Baylor and Texas. The Mountaineers gave up a combined 108 points and over 1,000 yards in those two games.
What was so disturbing about the defense's disastrous showing against Texas Tech, however, wasn't just that it gave up a bunch of points and yards; it was that the unit didn't show any type of toughness. Plus, there was a complete lack of effort and desire.
The loss of veteran leaders such as Bruce Irvin, Najee Goode, Julian Miller and Keith Tandy has clearly had a big effect on the overall continuity of the defense.
You can blame the struggles on inexperience at key positions, or on the fact that the players are still trying to adapt to first-year coordinator Joe DeForest's new 3-4 scheme. However, there's no excuse for playing soft.
If the defense isn't ready to match the physicality that Kansas State is going to bring to this fight, then it will be another long, embarrassing four quarters of bad defensive football on display once again.
Force Collin Klein to Win with His Arm
Kansas State QB Collin Klein is arguably the best and most dangerous running quarterback in all of college football.
Klein has the size, speed and strength to do serious damage to an opposing defense, which he proved last season when he rushed for over 1,100 yards and 27 touchdowns. The 6'5'', 226-pound senior has been equally as impressive running the football so far in 2012, rushing for 515 yards and 10 touchdowns in just six games.
While Klein may be a great runner, he's not a truly explosive passer who can consistently get the ball down the field with great regularity.
He's obviously not considered to be a top Heisman contender because he throws for 180 yards and a touchdown every game. There are 84 other quarterbacks in the country that average better production than that.
Given the way West Virginia's shaky secondary has played so far this season, it may sound stupid to dare a quarterback to beat the defense with his arm. But this is a special circumstance.
The Mountaineers have to focus on keeping Klein from beating them with his legs, and force him to instead try to win the game with his arm.
If this game turns into a passing shootout, West Virginia has a definitive advantage.
Contain John Hubert
Collin Klein gets pretty much all of the credit and recognition for Kansas State's success, but his backfield partner, RB John Hubert, also plays a key role as well.
This season, Hubert has looked like the reincarnation of former Wildcat great Darren Sproles, as he's rumbled for 611 yards and eight touchdowns.
Just like Sproles, the 5'7'', 191-pound junior won't intimidate a defense with his size, but he packs a ton of power and explosiveness into his compact frame.
Hubert currently ranks 15th in the nation with 20 rushes of 10 yards or more.
The West Virginia defense will definitely have its hands full trying to slow down both Klein and Hubert.
Give Geno Smith Time to Throw
West Virginia has only given up eight sacks in the first six games of the season. However, that has more to do with QB Geno Smith's pocket awareness and quick release than it does with how well the offensive line has played.
Maryland, Texas and Texas Tech all have quality defensive lines, and West Virginia had trouble dealing with the pass rush that all three of those teams sent.
Smith was under constant duress last week, as the Red Raiders, most notably DT Kerry Hyder, really manhandled the Mountaineers offensive line.
This is a veteran-laden group, led by experienced linemen like Joe Madsen, Josh Jenkins and Jeff Braun, which means better results are to be expected. The type of faulty pass protection we've witnessed in recent weeks is obviously very concerning.
Produce a Big Special Teams Play
West Virginia has yet to make a big momentum-swinging special teams play this season. The Mountaineers have not blocked a punt or a field goal yet, and they are averaging just 20 yards on kickoff returns and a measly four yards on punt returns.
This is the type of game where a big special teams play, whether it's a blocked punt or kick or an explosive return, could really have a huge impact.
Kansas State's punt and kickoff teams have both done a great job of coverage so far this season, but the Wildcats have yet to face a returner that's as explosive and dangerous as Tavon Austin is.
On the flip side, the Mountaineers will have to beware of letting up a big play by the Wildcats' dangerous returners, Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson.
Lockett is averaging 30 yards on kickoff returns and has already brought one back to the house, while Thompson is averaging 33 yards on punt returns and he's already brought one back for a score as well.
Create a Consistent Pass Rush
West Virginia's defense has faced 72 total pass attempts in the last two games against Texas and Texas Tech, yet the defense has only managed to produce two sacks during that time.
That is simply not acceptable.
Yes, having young, inexperienced players fill in for an injured Will Clarke last week clearly hindered the pass rush. However, that's no excuse, as the rest of the front seven simply didn't produce when they needed to, as they allowed QB Seth Doege to sit in the pocket and pick apart the secondary.
Coordinator Joe DeForest showed some creative blitz packages against Maryland that confused the Terrapins offensive line and resulted in five sacks that game. However, we haven't seen those type of blitzes in the last two weeks.
Outside of Clarke, no one on the defensive line seems capable of getting to the quarterback. However, linebackers Terence Garvin, Josh Francis and Isaiah Bruce are all athletic rushers who can be used on different types of blitzes.
Collin Klein may not be the same caliber of passer as Doege. Still, if you give any FBS quarterback four seconds to sit comfortably in the pocket, they're going to find holes in coverage, especially with the way the Mountaineers secondary has been covering this season.
Establish the Running Game
When comparing the running games of Kansas State and West Virginia, obviously, there is no comparison.
The Wildcats average 250 yards on the ground per game and 5.7 yards per carry, while the Mountaineers average just 158 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry.
Given how explosive West Virginia's passing attack can be, the Mountaineers don't have to outproduce Kansas State on the ground in order to win. However, they're going to have to establish a consistent ground attack similar to what we saw against Texas.
In that game against the Longhorns, Andrew Buie had a breakout performance, rushing for 207 yards and two touchdowns on 31 carries.
Buie, Dustin Garrison and Shawne Alston (if he's healthy) have to be able to balance out the offense and keep Kansas State's defense from dropping seven men straight into coverage without hesitation on every play.
That certainly won't be an easy task considering potential All-American linebacker Arthur Brown and the rest of the Wildcats defensive front-seven have been holding opposing rushers to an average of just 3.1 yards per carry.
Win the Turnover Battle
It wouldn't be a bold prediction to say that whichever team wins the turnover battle is going to win this game.
Kansas State and West Virginia currently rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the Big 12 in turnover margin.
The Wildcats have caused 15 turnovers (nine fumble recoveries and six interceptions) and lost just four (two fumbles and two interceptions), while the Mountaineers have caused 10 turnovers (five fumbles and five interceptions) and lost just three (two fumbles and one interception).
Since the start of the 2011 season, Kansas State has lost the turnover battle in a game on four different occasions. In three of those games the Wildcats either lost or won by just three points.
During that same time frame, West Virginia has lost the turnover battle in a game on five different occasions. In four of those games the Mountaineers either lost or won by just three points or less.
Everyone loves to talk about how offenses and defenses match up, but turnovers usually play a huge role in determining the outcome of games between two evenly matched teams.
Don’t Commit Costly Penalties
West Virginia only committed two penalties against Texas Tech, but that had a lot to do with the officials keeping the flags in their pockets and letting both teams play.
If you watched closely, there were some clear holding calls that should have been called on West Virginia's offensive line (personally, I counted three on just Pat Eger).
Josh Francis' offside penalty early in the third quarter cost the Mountaineers an interception deep in their own territory. Luckily, Ricky Rumph bailed him out on the next play by recovering a fumble.
Those are the type of detrimental penalties, along with holding penalties on the offensive line that push the offense back and kill drives, that could really make a difference in a close battle.
Kansas State is one of the most disciplined teams in college football, averaging just three penalties per game. West Virginia has to match that discipline and avoid costly penalties.
No Dropped Passes
Geno Smith certainly wasn't as accurate with his passes against Texas Tech last week as he was in the first five games of the season. However, Smith didn't get a lot of help from his receivers, who let him down with a few inexcusable drops.
Ivan McCartney's dropped pass on a key third down in the middle of the third quarter was the most egregious of them all, but there were other passes that should have been caught as well.
Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey have proved that they both have sure hands. However, West Virginia's other receivers can't afford to drop passes that are thrown right at them, especially on critical third-down plays.