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West Virginia vs Kansas Preview: Season 127, Episode 4 - Corner: Turned

The Mountaineers bounced back in a big way against NC State last weekend, but their first conference opponent is fresh off a statement win of their own.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

WHEN/WHERE

Date: September 21, 2019

Time: 4:30pm EST

Venue: David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium, Lawrence, KS

HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN

TV: Negative

Streaming: ESPN+

Radio: Click HERE for a complete list of radio affiliates in West Virginia. If you live outside of the state, or don’t live close enough to a radio affiliate, you can listen to the Mountaineer Sports Network from IMG on TuneIn Radio.

DEGENERATES UNITE

Spread: West Virginia -4.5

Over/Under: 49

The spread opened at WVU -6.5. Apparently people think the Jayhawks mean business.

#THREAD WATCH

KNOW THE ENEMY

Series History: (7-1). West Virginia has won 5 on the trot, and we still don't talk about the 1.

2019 Record: (2-1). Kansas started the year true to form, squeaking by Indiana State in the opener before succumbing to mighty Coastal Carolina in week 2. However, last Friday's beatdown of Boston College could mark a turning point, as it was the first time the Jayhawks have won on the road against a P5 opponent since all the way back in 2008.

Head Coach: Les Miles. The Hatter really needs no introduction, having won everywhere he's been this century. It'll probably take a year or two for the recruiting to catch up, but he definitely has the Jayhawks playing with a different edge than we're used to.

Offensive Coordinator: Les Koenning. BDV's cousin is in his first year in Lawrence but boasts 17 years of OC experience at the Power 5 level.

Defensive Coordinator: D.J. Eliot. Eliot was also hired by Miles last winter. He too sports multiple decades of experience and had previous successful stints as a DC at Colorado (2017-18) and Kentucky (2013-16).

WHEN WE HAVE THE BALL...

WVU players to watch: QB Austin Kendall, RB Kennedy McKoy, WR Sam James, WR Ali Jennings

Kansas players to watch: DL Darrius Moragne, LB Dru Prox, S Bryce Torneden, S Mike Lee, EDGE Najee Stevens-McKenzie, EDGE Azur Kamara

Kansas rarely fielded competitive units over the last decade, but some singularly talented individuals made them just that in 2018. The Jayhawks ranked between 75th and 92nd nationally in most major categories, which isn't really all that bad when you consider that they played 5 of the Top 22 offenses. Unfortunately for them, things will likely be much more difficult in 2019 due to the loss of just about everybody worth anything across the front 7, including nose Daniel Wise and tackling machines Joe Dineen and Keith Loneker. Their opponents to this point make it hard to get a read on how good they actually are overall, but there's no doubt that Les Miles and new DC D.J. Eliot have their guys playing hard.

Schematically they're a 3-4 base, but in the two games I've watched they've shown multiple looks. Against Boston College and AJ Dillon they loaded the box and played most of the game with their outside backers walked up as wide 9s, almost creating a 5-2 look. However, against Indiana State they played more of a 3-4/3-3-5 hybrid with safety Bryce Torneden stepping into the box. From a coverage standpoint they were mostly a mix of cover 2 and 3, though they did sprinkle some man in every now and then.

Defensive end Darrius Moragne stood out the most to me of any of the front three, but overall it's not a stacked bunch. The new linebackers have looked much more productive. Azur Kamara and Najee Stevens-McKenzie are both really athletic guys off the edge, and Dru Prox has been making plays all over the field, averaging a clean 10 tackles per game.

The secondary is without a doubt the most established group on the defense. Bryce Torneden and Mike Lee, last year's 2nd and 3rd leading tacklers, are back at the "Hawk" and free safety spots, respectively, while Jeremiah McCullough has stood out at strong safety. Out wide, the aptly named Hasan Defense returns at corner.

Defining success: Let's keep the running game going

Last week's performance by our three new starters up front was as surprising as it was necessary, and as predicted, the ability to run the football had a huge impact on our overall offensive output. We need to keep that going this week, and I think we can.

As I mentioned earlier, the Jayhawks stacked the box with 8 and sometimes even 9 guys against Boston College, and though the Eagles were ultimately unable to take advantage through the air they were still able to run for 228 yards and a TD on 48 carries. I think we can draw some confidence from that success. We probably don't run it quite as well as they do, but Kendall and the receivers have been good enough that Kansas won't against be able to load the box in the same way either. If we can get some early push against their front it should put them in a "pick your poison" position as the game wears on.

WHEN THEY HAVE THE BALL...

WVU players to watch: DT Dante Stills, NT Darius Stills, LB Josh Chandler, SPEAR Jovanni Stewart

Kansas players to watch: QB Carter Stanley, RB Pooka Williams, RB Khalil Herbert, WR Andrew Parchment

Offensively the Jayhawks were every bit as offensive as we were through two weeks, but like us they appeared to turn a corner last week. In a continuation of who they've been over the last few years they again make their living on the ground, but some slight formational tweaks have given them a slightly different look than in years past.

They still run mostly 12 and 22 personnel out of a mix of shotgun and pistol, but this year they've added some ace wing and I-form stuff that wasn't nearly as prominent pre-Hatter. Based on my viewing they seem to have two primary packages out of the shotgun and pistol, both out of trips. In the first, they package zone read with either X screen or screen action with a cheeky slot wheel and an inside stick option where the guy changes his route based on what's there. The second is more of a pass-run option that's very similar to that stick-delay combo that we ran all the time with Will last year, where Stanley will take the snap and hit a quick hitch if it's there, and if it's not he'll give it to the running back. Both were extremely effective against BC, though that might say more about the Eagles than the Jayhawks. The stuff out of ace and I-form is nothing fancy - power off-tackle, toss sweep, and counter.

Stanley has been OK so far in year two, completing 71% of his passes for 5 touchdowns against 3 interceptions. I say OK in spite of that completion percentage because I felt like he got away with a lot of bad throws in my limited viewing and fancy that our own secondary won't be quite as forgiving. He's a decent athlete and is surprisingly unafraid to lower his shoulder as a runner, which might be why they'd prefer one of the running backs to carry it.

Another reason is that the backs are undoubtedly the strength of the team. Pooka is small but runs hard and is really hard to get on the ground, especially in 1-on-1 situations. He's not on the same level athletically as Tavon was, but the style is comparable so gang tackling will be essential. Ditto for Herbert, who is slighty less shifty but ran for 291 yards against us in 2017.

Out wide they had some uncertainty coming into the year, but I actually liked what I saw from their receivers against BC (again, not sure who that says more about). Andrew Parchment is particularly slippery in space, but Stephon Robinson and Daylon Johnson both flashed some ability after the catch, as well.

Defining success: Corral Pooka and Herbert

As mentioned, the Jayhawks are very much a run-first team - 60% overall and 64% on 1st and 2nd downs. That means shutting that down has to be our top priority, and I am by no means expecting it to be an easy task.

Pooka and Herbert are quietly one of the more talented backfields in the Big 12, their line is big and experienced, and they won't be deterred from running it even if we're able to come out get some early stops. However, if we are able to come out and slow them down then I really don't see their path to success. Stanley has been decent on the RPO and play-action stuff when the threat of the run stalls the pass rush and opens up throwing lanes, but if we're able to create some negative plays on early downs and get them into obvious passing situations, I don't think he has the talent to beat us.

SPECIAL TEAMS

I was actually fairly impressed by the Jayhawks specialists in the Boston College game. Both the punter and kicker have strong legs, and the coverage teams seemed athletic and tackled well, particularly on kickoffs. The kicker's a lefty, so when they're not trying to kick it through the end zone they'll place it into our right corner. In the return game, #88 looks explosive and nearly broke one last weekend.

CLOSING ARGUMENT/PREDICTION

I'm proud of Kansas for turning a corner last weekend and representing our conference well, but we turned a corner of our own, and against a far superior opponent. Les Miles has definitely brought a different energy to Lawrence, but if we're being objective the talent disparity still tips pretty heavily in our favor. If we're able to replicate last week's performance on the ground, I don't expect us to have much trouble. Let's go get number three.

West Virginia 34-20 Kansas