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West Virginia vs #16 Kansas State - Season 128, Episode 6 - A Super Spooky Wildcat Bounce Back

The 16th-ranked Kansas State Wildcats are coming to town for a Halloween showdown - can West Virginia shake off last weekend’s disappointing 4th quarter and give Mountaineer Nation something to celebrate Saturday night?

NCAA Football: Kansas at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

WHEN/WHERE

Time: 12:00pm EST

Date: October 31st, 2020

Venue: Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, WV

HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN

TV: ESPN2

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. We will also include the stream in our game thread, which will go live at 11:00 AM ET.

SiriusXM Satellite Radio will also be broadcasting the game on channel 81 on both Sirius and XM branded radios.

Streaming: ESPN app or WatchESPN.com

DEGENERATES UNITE

Spread: WVU -4

Over/Under: 46

THREAD WATCH

Good guys: The Mountaineers are dressing up as Skylar Howard for Halloween. I like.

Bad guys: As if Kansas State has a twitter account that broadcasts fun things like this ahead of time. Most likely silver, white, purple. Perhaps silver, white, silver.

KNOW THE ENEMY

2020 Record: (4-1). Kansas State has largely picked up where they left off in 2019, with the lone blemish coming in a shocking season opening upset at the hands of Arkansas State in which they were without several starters due to the ‘rona.

Series History: (5-5). We’ve taken four in a row from them after they swept the first four Big 12 contests from us. 5 of the last 6 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less.

Head Coach: Chris Klieman. Klieman undoubtedly exceeded expectations in Year 1, somehow winning 8 games after being picked to finish 9th in the conference. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he built a winner so quickly after he won 4 National Championships in 5 years at North Dakota State.

Offensive Coordinator: Courtney Messingham. A journeyman with over 30 years of collegiate coaching experience, Courtney Messingham is in his second year in Manhattan after holding the same position under Klieman at North Dakota State. The Wildcats under Messingham have taken extremely good care of the football (just 2 turnovers this year!) and are outstanding in the red zone, leading the country in red zone efficiency for the second consecutive year.

Defensive Coordinator: Joe Klanderman. Klanderman also followed Klieman to Kansas State from North Dakota, but is only in his first season running the defense after coaching just the safeties a year ago.

WHEN WE HAVE THE BALL

Key players: DE Wyatt Hubert, LB Elijah Sullivan, SS Jahron McPherson, NB AJ Parker, CB Justin Gardner

Kansas State is your standard bend-but-don’t-break defense, giving up just 23.8 points per game despite surrendering nearly 430 yards per game. However, they’ve regressed a bit in 2020 after returning just 5 starters from last year. Through 5 games they find themselves to be average or just below in most statistical categories with two very notable exceptions - takeaways, where they rank 15th nationally with 10, and red zone defense, where they rank 17th nationally by allowing scores just 72% of the time.

They’ll line up in a base four-man front with two linebackers and five defensive backs providing the back stop. The rotation up front is led by Wyatt Hubert, who’s following up a 1st team All-Conference selection in 2019 with 4 sacks and 25 pressures while ranking in the top 20 nationally in pass rush productivity per PFF. The supporting cast has been effective, as well, with fellow edge rushers Khalid Duke and Bronson Massie and interior lineman Eli Huggins all ranking in the top 10 in the Big 12 in pass rush grade. They’ve been somewhat less effective against the run, so hopefully that’s something we can take advantage of on Saturday.

The linebackers are deep and experienced, with upper classmen filling the entire rotation. Elijah Sullivan will be the most familiar name and is leading the team in tackles, but Cody Fletcher, Daniel Green, and especially Justin Hughes are all very serviceable players who put in solid shifts every week.

The secondary returns starters AJ Parker and Jahron McPherson at nickelback and free safety, respectively, but the standout performers have actually been corners Justin Gardner and Ekow Boye-Doe. Gardner is actually grading out as the top defensive back in the conference per PFF. All told the group has combined for 6 interceptions and 16 PBUs and have taken 2 of those interceptions back for touchdowns, so we really can’t afford any sloppiness from either our quarterback or receivers.

What to watch: Can we play a clean game? Please?

As I mentioned above, Kansas State has gotten away with giving up a lot of yards this year by getting stingy in the red zone, allowing scores on just 13 of their opponents' 18 trips down there, and forcing some timely turnovers. Unfortunately, none of this sounds very encouraging as a West Virginia fan because we’ve watched our Mountaineers move the ball up and down the field all year without much to show for it on the scoreboard. That’s where I see the story of this game being told - can we avoid making too many of the exact kinds of mistakes that we’ve been making and Kansas State has been feasting on this year? If we can, I'm confident that we can move the ball and put up points on them.

WHEN THEY HAVE IT

Key players: QB Will Howard, RB Deuce Vaughn, WR Chabastin Taylor, TE Briley Moore

Personnel wise, the first thing worth noting is the absence of quarterback Skylar Thompson, who’s unfortunately out for the year with an injury after a promising start to the season. However, true freshman Will Howard has come in and played pretty well in his stead. He hasn’t completely filled the void in the passing game, completing just 59% of his passes to Thompson's 64%, but he provides more than enough of a threat on the ground to worry me after last weekend.

The best player on their offense through 5 games has undoubtedly been true freshman running back Deuce Vaughn. The diminutive Vaughn has been good as a runner, averaging a surprising 3.4 yards after contact and 5.2 yards per carry, but he’s been an absolute revelation as a receiver, averaging 27.6 yards per reception on 13 catches and holding the second highest receiving grade in the entire country behind Florida TE Kyle Pitts. All told he’s averaging 133 total yards per game (36% of their total offensive production) and 9 yards per touch, so we absolutely have to be aware of where he is and what he’s doing at all times.

Outside of Vaughn, their primary weapons are tight end Briley Moore and wide receiver Chabastin Taylor - nobody else on the team averages more than a reception per game. Both of these guys are vertical threats in their play-action passing game, and given our history against tight ends I’m particularly weary of Moore.

They're replacing nearly everybody up front and have been predictably average as a result. The nature of the way they play dictates that they haven’t given up a ton of sacks or TFLs, but PFF has them grading out just 6th in the Big 12 in run blocking and 9th in pass blocking. I’m optimistic that our front seven should be able to control the line of scrimmage.

What to watch: Are we winning first and second down?

When you consider their reliance on play-action to create explosive plays in the passing the game, it makes sense to me that we try to avoid the situations where that’s most effective - second and third down and manageable. The best way to do that is to win on first and second down. If we’re able to knock them off schedule and get them into obvious passing situations on third down, the play-action game will be far less effective and I like our chances to get them off the field.

One thing we need to be especially cognizant of in those situations will be their use of Vaughn in the screen game in an attempt to slow down our pass rush. 315 of Vaughn’s 359 receiving yards have come after the catch this year and 9 of his 13 receptions have resulted in first downs - we can’t let him leak out of the backfield and extend drives.

SPECIAL TEAMS

As per, Kansas State has been taking care of business in the third phase, grading out as the top team in the country per PFF. They have dangerous returners for both punts and kickoffs, and fifth-year senior Blake Lynch is one of the most reliable field goal kickers in the conference. Punter Ty Zetner has done a nice job controlling field position for them, as well, leading the Big 12 with an average net of 40.2 yards per punt and ranking in the top 10 nationally with over 4 seconds of hangtime per kick.

FINAL THOUGHTS/PREDICTION

You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson in Lubbock last weekend, but the more I’ve looked into this one, the more I’m talking myself into it. On the surface Kansas State seems like a bad matchup for us, what with the mobile QB and the takeaways and such, but after digging into things a little bit I can’t help but think they’re a very beatable football team. They aren’t overly explosive on either side of the ball, they’re just really good on special teams, they’re good in the red zone, and most importantly, they consistently make less mistakes than their opponents. It really is that simple. Oklahoma outgained them by 130 yards and had 18 more first downs, but ultimately couldn’t overcome 4 turnovers and lost by 3. Ditto for TCU and Texas Tech, who both outgained the Wildcats on the way to losing close games.

I just can’t help myself, gang. We’re more talented than they are on both sides of the ball, and we’ve generally been good enough on special teams to break even with them. I realize that us being our own kryptonite all year plays right into their hands, but at some point we have to get out of our own way and play something resembling a complete game of football, right? Right?!? Why not now, on Halloween, against the one dumb team it almost never seems to happen against? Let’s go.

West Virginia 27 - 17 Kansas State