I'll be honest with you - I don't know much about Kansas State. In fact the only substantial chunk of any of their games I've watched was that well-documented home loss to the Auburn Tigers. What I saw was a talented team with a scrappy and effective defense but unreliable offense. A star player in Tyler Lockett who was talented, but nooooot quite good enough to put his team on his back and carry them (exhibit A: his mishandling of a sure touchdown in the end zone that careened off his hands before landing in the hands of an Auburn defender).
But like I said, I don't know much about the Wildcats. Let's learn together.
Their best win: A 31-30 win on the road against the then 11th-ranked Oklahoma Sooners. This game was memorable for Sooner kicker Michael Hunnicutt whiffing on a field goal from just 19 years away that would have given OU a 2 point lead with just under 4 minutes remaining. QB Jake Waters looked great, passing for 225 yards, a pair of scores and no interceptions. WVU fans might be interested to see that OU's Sterling Shephard ran wild for 15 catches and 197 yards.
Their worst loss: That would be a 41-20 shellacking at the hands of a TCU Horned Frogs squad fresh off their last-second win in Morgantown. Trevone Boykin put on a show, running for three touchdowns as TCU made their strongest case to date to be in the playoff. The Frogs dominated from the start, jumping out to a 14-0 lead and never trailing.
And somewhere in between there lie the real Wildcats. They've played very good defense at times, shutting out the Texas Longhorns and holding Oklahoma State to just 14. As Bill Snyder teams tend to be, K State is predictably careful with the ball, tanking 30th nationally in turnover margin at +.55 a game. They've only lost 3 of their 9 fumbles this year, not good news for a WVU team that has only recovered two fumbles all season.
State averages 36.2 points per contest and gives up 21.1. Their offense is nothing that will blow your skirt back. They rank 76th nationally in rush yards per game with 157.3 and rank 41st in passing yards per game with 265.2. WVU has better numbers in both categories. On the defensive side the Wildcats give up 126.8 yards per game on the ground (23rd nationally) and 220 through the air (58th nationally). It's a good defense but one that WVU should be able to move the ball on if they can execute.
The good news for Clint Trickett is that the Wildcats are near the bottom nationally in sacks with just 14. The bad news is that the Purple Kansas front is still very solid and will probably ratchet the pressure up as they'll be facing a quarterback who is very little threat to run for one of the rare times this season.
So that's what we know about Kansas State. Now here are the 3 things I'll be looking for from The Mountaineers.
Can Clint Trickett get back on track?
Trickett was on fire early in the year and still ranks 7th nationally in pass yards per game with 317.3. In the last few games however he's been unreliable and has taken fewer and fewer shots downfield. For a WVU receiving corps that has perhaps the best jump-ball receiver in the nation in Kevin White and the fastest in Mario Alford, that's a huge advantage that hasn't been exploited. Speculation has been rampant about Trickett's heath and in particular the well-being of his arm, and while the WVU staff has been predictably tight-lipped, hopefully the week off was enough time for Trickett to strengthen up and get back on track.
Can WVU live the Dream?
In the past 3 games WVU's Dreamius Smith has set the mark for longest run of the season for the Mountaineers; 40 against Oklahoma State, 50 against TCU and 62 against Texas. He's also scored in all of WVU's last 4 games - often on a drive where he himself did most of the work. He's averaged 10 carries a game over that span.
Wendell Smallwood is clearly wearing down as the toll of a heavy workload has finally caught up with him. Rushel Shell is a weapon, but more of the bludgeoning kind than the quick-strike kind. Dana Holgorsen acknowledged that Dreamius had his best game of the year against Texas, so it's almost certain he'll get a heavier workload. The question is whether or not Smith is ready to step in as an every-down back.
While he's unquestionably the best home run hitter on the staff, sometimes you just need to get to first or second base. Smith needs to be willing to hit the holes hard even when it might not result in a long run and grind out the yards necessary to keep drives going.
It's Kevin White time. After going 2 consecutive games without a score for the first time this season, White needs to be targeted on long passes and more importantly in the red zone. This Mountaineer run unit that has found varying levels of success and they are only at more of a disadvantage close to the goal line where defenses are packed in. White is a unique weapon and the Mountaineers have to use him when they get in scoring position. That he's been targeted only a couple times in those situations over this two game losing streak is malpractice.
Not to mention he was just named as one of 10 semi-finalists for the Biletnikoff Award given to the nation's best receiver and while he's clearly in the top-tier of candidates he's facing some stiff competition and a big game late in the season would weigh heavily in the eyes of voters.
Interesting tidbit I picked up on the Twitters this week:
The last time WVU lost a Thursday home football game? In 1926 against Washington and Jefferson. The Mountaineers are 13-0-1 since.— Blue & Gold News (@BlueGoldNews) November 14, 2014
In all fairness a lot of the Mountaineers big Thursday night tilts in the last few years have been on the road (Louisville '06, Cincinnati '09), but they've also reached up and played some of their best football on Thursday night in Morgantown - think Auburn '08. If the Mountaineers can put together a performance like that it would get them back on track and restore what had been a positive trajectory for the season.
If you want a little more game prep reading material, you can't do much better than Jed Drenning's Hot Reads column over at WVUSports.com. Here's a taste:
Pop quiz. Since the West Virginia defense first ventured into the pyrotechnic world of Big 12 passing games in 2012, what school’s quarterbacks have consistently inflicted the most damage? Sure we’ve seen some remarkable efforts from various gunslingers the last couple of years...... but that pales to the gruesome nature of the defensivectomy KSU quarterbacks have performed on West Virginia the last few seasons. In two games, Wildcats signal callers have combined to go 38-of-44 (86 percent!!!) for 624 yards and seven touchdowns. Pitching in to do his part in last year’s 35-12 KSU win in Manhattan was former junior college All-American Jake Waters (10-13-198-3/0). The weapon of choice in the K-State aerial assault on WVU has been Mountaineer killer Tyler Lockett. In just two games against West Virginia, Lockett has managed 17 grabs for 305 yards and five scores.
So maybe I need take back what I was saying about Lockett being good-but-not-good-enough. He's certainly been plenty good against the Mountaineers. But give it a read, Jed does good work.
Finally Vegas has WVU installed as a 2.5 favorite and no less than Phil Steel himself has picked the Mountaineers to win by 4, stating that his formulas give WVU a 4.5 point advantage even before home field advantage is taken into account. On the other side of the coin, Kansas State is 5-1 against the spread in their last 6 games as an underdog.
All in all it figures to be a fun night in Morgantown as the rested Mountaineers look to get back on track and secure a better bowl. Stick with us here on the Musket for in-game commentary, immediate recap and game analysis.