Gameday: Saturday, September 22, 2018
Location: Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, WV
Opponent: Kansas State Wildcats
Predicted Season: 5-7, Offense - 34th ; Defense - 85th
Streak: West Virginia has won the last two
The West Virginia Mountaineers will enter the 2018 Big 12 conference slate against the purple wizard himself, Bill Snyder. Snyder is the master of getting 4-star production out of 2-star talent. The Wildcats were once a thorn in the Mountaineers side, winning the first four games 140-69, but we broke through in 2016 beating the Wildcats 17-16 on a Skyler Howard to Jovon Durante touchdown. That winning streak continued last year as the Mountaineers used a Will Grier Hail Mary at the end of the first half to suck the wind out of the proverbial sails and went on to a 26-20 win.
Any game against Bill Snyder has to be considered a toss-up because Snyder employs the old gunslinger mentality of always having one more ace up his sleeve and never entering a gunfight he doesn’t give himself an extra advantage. The Wildcats run QB Power Iso on nearly every play, whether it actually is a QB run or not. This threat of a run helps neutralize a defense and gives the offense a 7-on-6 advantage on most plays. They also take the play clock down to the last possible second, limiting the amount of possessions in a game. This “hold them so the other team can’t” strategy helps keep the track teams that many Big 12 offenses employ at bay.
The Wildcats were near the bottom of offensive rankings in six areas last year and near the top in three. Particularly the Wildcats did something almost impossible, they were decent on first down success rate but had one of the worst third down yards to go average. So basically the Wildcats succeeded on first down but failed on second down. That isn’t something you say a lot.
The Wildcats dealt with a lot of injuries, particularly at quarterback where they started 3 different quarterbacks. This year, with Jesse Ertz gone, Skylar Thompson and Alex Delton will battle it out. The good news for them, they get a host of their offensive cast back, as the Wildcats return 77% of their 2017 offensive production.
Leading rusher Alex Barnes returns and if the combo of Thompson/Delton are healthy, Barnes should be able to improve on his 819 yards. Leading receiver Byron Pringle is gone but Isaiah Zuber who led the team with 51 catches is back.
Where the Wildcats are usually strong could be a potential problem for Snyder. KSU only returns 54% of their defensive production from last year, a team that was exposed in most areas of the passing game. The typical Bill Snyder defensive philosophy is bend-but-don’t-break, willing to let you march down the field, provided you did it in 10, 12, or 14 play drives. Snyder gambled, effectively for most of his career mind you, that college kids are not as nuanced at maintaining focus for 12 plays a drive for 60 minutes. We are, after all, humans who are prone to error. One mistake could put an offense behind the chains and then the defense could strike.
The Wildcats suffered a lot of injuries last year which definitely hurt their overall production numbers but the guys who were on the field and created negative plays for the offense are mostly gone. Jayd Kirby, Will Geary and Tanner Wood, who combined for over 25 tackles for loss last year are gone. Defensive end Reggie Walker does return but after a disruptive freshman campaign his production took a dive.
Now the Wildcats not only have to break in new defensive players, they also have to break in a new defensive coordinator. Former defensive coordinator Tom Hayes retired, turning the reigns over to Blake Seiler, a former KSU walk-on in his own right. As anyone can tell you, its one thing to be a player on defense, it is another to be the guy designing defensive strategies. Seiler knows what Snyder wants to do on defense but will he be up to the challenge of devising schemes that will put his players in position to make plays?
When you are a university that doesn’t have the resources or infusion of talent that is afforded to schools like Oklahoma or Texas, you have to find ways to flip the field and give yourself an advantage. Bill Snyder has done that with special teams throughout the course of his career at Kansas State. 2017 may prove to be one of his best, or toughest, challenges as he is going to have to replace his entire special teams units.
According to S&P+, the Wildcats were the #1 special teams unit last year. Kicker Matthew McCrane is gone. Punter Nick Walsh is gone. Return man DJ Reed is gone. All three were All Big 12 players last year. Kansas State even needs a new long snapper. Add in the departure of returner Byron Pringle and you have will be a challenge for Snyder. Expect Snyder to pour lots of energy into this unit but having so many new moving parts will likely produce unexpected errors.
The matchup between the Mountaineers and the Wildcats has been one that has trended well for the Mountaineers. After an absolutely crushing defeat during their inaugural Big 12 season, the point differential in this game has slowly eroded, game by game. A 41 point defeat gave way to “only” a 23 point defeat the year later. That became a 6-point loss in 2014 and a one-point heartbreaking loss in 2015. After breaking through with a 17-16 win in ‘16, the Mountaineers continued the trend and won the game 28-23 last year.
If trends are to be followed, you would expect the Mountaineers to win by at least a touchdown and possibly even comfortably. I wouldn’t count on it but if this is going to be the year that West Virginia has a season where it punches well above its head, winning this game by a double-digit score would go a long way in proving they are ready for the challenge.