It was rock bottom. Before a smattering of fans inside a field ringed by a running track, the West Virginia Mountaineers put for the their most embarrassing performance in recent memory, losing to the Kansas Jayhawks and handing coach Charlie Weis what would be his only Big 12 win. The memories of that putrid performance still linger near the surface for this Mountaineer team and the disgust is palpable every time coach Dana Holgorsen is forced to hold his nose and speak of the unspeakable.
Atonement begins in earnest now. This 2014 Mountaineer squad has emerged as a potential force to be reckoned with, dispatching one pair of foes and entering the 4th quarter of play against the #3 Alabama Crimson Tide and #4 Oklahoma Sooners with a chance to win. But now we see if potential can translate into accomplishment as a fan base hungry for success looks at the meat of their Big 12 schedule with growing expectations.
And no slab of beef looms more appetizing than the Kansas Jayhawks, a conference basement dweller who just this past week dismissed their head coach. Mountaineer fans know all about taking KU for granted though, so before making any assumptions let's kick the tires of the Rock Chalkers and see what they're made of.
Kansas stands at 2-2 with wins against SE Missouri State and Central Michigan but both losses coming by wide margins to Duke and Texas. Offensively they average 359 yards a game (100th nationally), with 193.5 of those coming on the ground and 165.5 through the air. Against FBS competition however (Texas and Duke) those averages drop to 310 total, 187 on the ground and 117 through the air. The run-focused spread offense that the Jayhawks run hasn't met with much success against FBS foes with a combined average of 3.8 ypc against those FBS foes.
Quarterback Montell Cozart has been largely ineffective, completing just slightly over half his passes for 5 TDs (none against FBS competitions) and 7 interceptions. The more reliable option for the Jayhawk offense would seem to be running backs De'Andre Mann and Corey Avery, averaging 5.7 and 4.7 ypc respectively. If the Mountaineers can stifle the Kansas ground game Cozart hasn't yet shown that he'll be able to make them pay for it through the air. Kansas rarely if ever flings the ball downfield, relying instead on short passes near the line of scrimmage. Mountaineer corners should feel free to press the issue with minimal help over the top - at least until it's exploited. Last year's KU victory was won in the trenches - if WVU can own the line of scrimmage it should be a short, relaxing day.
When WVU gets the ball the Jayhawk defense would seem to be exactly what the doctor ordered for a Mountaineer rushing attack looking to find a foothold. Duke tailback Shawn Wilson ran for a school record 242 yards on a paltry 12 carries earlier this season against a KU D that has given up an average of 167 yards a game on the ground. With the deep Mountaineer running back bench Kansas could be seeing fresh legs even late in the game and that could spell trouble. The man to watch on the Jayhawk D is linebacker Ben Heeney, who is leading the conference in tackles while averaging nearly 11 per game.
But all eyes will be on Clint Trickett to see if he can remain on his 400 yard per game pace (3rd nationally). He should be able to operate with little interruption as KU has managed only 6 sacks on the year - 97th nationally (ironically tied with WVU) but if the ‘Eers do rely on the ground and can build a lead his day could end early to give true freshman William Crest some (kinda) meaningful reps.
When Clint does chuck it downfield he'll be throwing to receivers facing a DB corps that they regularly beat in last year's contest. Kevin White and Mario Alford have emerged as two of the nation's preeminent big play threats and there's every reason they'll have opportunities to further cement that stature against Kansas.
The X factor of course is how Kansas will respond to interim coach Clint Bowen in the wake of Charlie Weis' firing. Certainly Bowen will provide his own "decisive schematic advantage" but will it be enough to catch the Mountaineers unaware? We've all seen teams mount a surprising rally behind a temp (remember USC last year) but there's also a reason Kansas was Kansas. At the end of the day West Virginia will determine whether or not they win this game and if they're going to do what so many of us hope they can and get an easy win here.