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Mountaineers focusing on growth as season nears midpoint

“Getting better” is the theme while preparing for Kansas.

West Virginia v TCU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

As West Virginia watched time tick away on the scoreboard of AT&T Jones Stadium in Lubbock, it seemed to come more with a sigh of relief than a shout of victory.

The No. 9 Mountaineers (4-0, 2-0) knocked off the then-No. 24 Texas Tech Red Raiders 42-34 in their first true road game of the season. One would think that a road win over a ranked conference opponent would bring immediate celebration, but after WVU nearly watched a 25-point lead vanish by not scoring a single offensive point in the second half.

“We focused all week on starting fast, we did that, I guess I just forgot to tell them you’ve gotta play the whole game,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen quipped at his weekly press conference.

After reflecting on the game, Holgorsen was confident of one thing: his team is still “looking to get better.”

“We’re approaching mid-season, so we’ve got some things we’ve got to get accomplished if we want to win,” Holgorsen stated matter-of-factly. “We’ve got to line up and practice with as much energy and excitement as we can.”

Which brings the team to prepare for Kansas. The Jayhawks (2-3, 0-2) have not won a Big 12 conference game in 12 tries, dating back to a win over Texas in November of 2016. For Holgorsen, improvement is the goal for this week of practice and Saturday’s game.

“We’ve got to approach this in a business-like manner,” stated Holgorsen. “It’s an opportunity to work on things we’ve gotta work on.”

What does the head coach see his team needs to work on most? Well, he specifically mentioned penalties in his Tuesday presser. He also stated that missing the canceled game at N.C. State put the team a week behind in learning and growing.

“Because we missed the one game, we’ve still got things we’ve gotta learn with this team. We’re one game from the halfway point, but it doesn’t feel that way,“ he said.

An interesting take on how the skipped game has affected the team from the head coach, but it does bring up a good point. The lost game has put the team behind schedule in evaluating itself, which means the coaching staff still has schemes and lessons it needs to install into the team.

“We’ve gotta get out there and improve on things before it’s too late,” Holgorsen reiterated. “There’s just a bunch of things we’ve got to improve on and I can’t wait to get out there Saturday.”

All that said, Kansas does provide some interesting wrinkles that will demand WVU’s preparation. So far this season, they’ve proven to be a bit stingy on defense and have utilized a three-quarterback system incredibly effectively.

“They’re doing a great job of protecting the football. I’ve never seen a team play three QBs and not give up a pick,” noted Holgorsen. The Jayhawk QBs have combined for eight touchdowns and 879 yards passing. Though not prolific, it is true that Kansas has not thrown an interception all year.

On the ground, Pooka Williams Jr. has four touchdowns in the first five games and averages 7.9 yards per carry. He is the conference’s leading rusher.

“He’s got lightning-quick speed. He starts, he stops, he’s a dynamic player and they move him all over the place,” Holgorsen said of the freshman from Boutte, Louisiana.

Last year, Khalil Herbert racked up 291 yards and two TDs on the ground against WVU, a sight Mountaineer fans remember all too well. So far this season, WVU has given up 131.0 yards per game on the ground, which is about 50 yards per game fewer than 2017. Now, when Holgorsen talks of improving, holding KU backs below their 184 YPG average would be a good benchmark to clear.

Another benchmark for WVU will be to continue their scoring proclivity, which may seem to be a tougher task than expected against KU. The Jayhawks have only allowed one team to break 30 points against them, a margin WVU has broken in every game.

This lower scoring defense is due to a change of philosophy from KU defensive coordinator Clint Bowen.

“We’re going to have to be patient,” stated Holgorsen. “They’re playing more off than they have in the past and they’re playing more safeties than they have in the past.”

This scheme should help WVU prepare for future conference foes, who may adopt a similar “keep everything in front” style of defense.

“WIll (Grier) is going to have to assess things and get us into good plays, whether those are runs or passes,” the coach said, pointing to the continual growth of the starting QB.

Overall, Holgorsen will be challenging his team to practice with the same intensity as gameday so a second half like Texas Tech doesn’t happen again and so the team can make real strides in training.