In year three, most Mountaineer fans did not think that 9 games into the season we would be under .500 and fighting just for bowl eligibility, yet still not three games ago, fighting for bowl eligibility might have been seen as a fantasy by some. West Virginia still has bowl eligibility hopes and now has three games to win two with one of those games being the Kansas Jayhawks.
Fans are anxious. When head coach Neal Brown broke out his mantra of “Trust the Climb” during his first year, the slogan depends on which portion you emphasize. TRUST the Climb asks that you suspend your disbelief and trust the coaches to do what it takes. Trust the CLIMB would portend that the team is trending upward. Many people have focused on the “climb” portion of the mantra and asking if we are climbing is worthwhile 31 games into a coaches tenure.
After playing Oklahoma close, a 16-13 loss that Oklahoma never lead until the final whistle, players and fans felt that the team had played the best team in conference and if they could play that way the rest of the year, this team would be back in Dallas facing the Sooners. The team followed that close loss up with flat performances against Texas Tech and Baylor, ending any goodwill and hope of a Big 12 championship and now putting just making a bowl game in doubt.
Coming out of the bye the Mountaineers did what teams are doing to TCU (minus Baylor) and just ran over them. Then came the upset when the Mountaineers shocked Iowa State 38-31 and suddenly the team found itself back at .500, sitting at 4-4 with 4 games remaining.
Thinking the team would win all four games remaining was again fantasy. This team was just too inconsistent and too young to be asked to go 6-0 in the second half, even if the schedule was easier. This weekend’s loss to Oklahoma State wasn’t surprising - even if the effort and performance was. Now, at 4-5, a bowl game is still in the sights and the Mountaineers are looking at teams that will determine how Neal Brown’s third year will be judged.
At 6-3, the Wildcats already have losses to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. They play Baylor next week so the Wildcats are set for a bowl but have no real shot at a playoff. They are playing for a good season, a good bowl and hope for 2022. I say that because without the need to make a bowl, teams can become complacent. Not saying K-State is going to ease up on us, but sometimes that first sigh of relief “we made a bowl game!” takes the edge away.
Now - for the numbers - the Wildcats are very similar to the Mountaineers. Both score about mid 20s a game, give up low 20s a game, average 370-ish yards a game and allow 350ish yards a game. Two very evenly matched opponents.
One big caveat to that is how the Wildcats get there. If you were to defend the Mountaineers, you would load the box and blitz. Play man, key on Leddie Brown and blitz the ever-loving daylights out of Jarret Doege. The Wildcats allow opponents to complete over 70% of their passes while only generating 2 sacks a game. Where it comes down to Kansas State is they are fairly good at now allowing opponents to run in space. Think back to Oklahoma when Neal Brown said the team failed to generate yards after catch. Kansas State does that, allowing only 11 yards per completion. Everything is in front of them. But you’re going to complete a lot of passes.
Kansas State is almost a must-win because look who follows the Wildcats - the evil empire themselves - the Texas Longhorns. Texas plays Kansas this week and should come to Morgantown at 5-5. That’s important because after the Mountaineers, the Longhorns play the Wildcats. Imagine this scenario - Texas enters the last weekend of the season at 5-6 (meaning West Virginia beat the Longhorns) and need to beat Kansas State at home to get to a mediocre bowl game. How’s that bet feel?
So Texas is going to want to avoid playing for their fate on the last weekend of the year and want to turn Sark’s first year into a bowl game. They’ll be motivated, but once again that completion percentage state looks like it may be important. Texas is 120th in the nation in opponent completion percentage. Worse, Texas has a TCU like rush defense, allowing 200 yards per game. The Longhorns do not get after the quarterback, averaging 1.6 sacks per game. A team that gives up a lot of yardage on the ground, doesn’t sack the quarterback and lets the quarterback complete a lot of passes? How do you feel about those chances?
I don’t want to count the chickens before the eggs hatch but the Mountaineers have to look at this game as a win. Now it would be great if the Mountaineers roll into Lawrence, Kansas on a two-game winning streak and start eyeing up potential bowl matchups. Even at 5-6, you have to like the Mountaineers chances, with them fighting for a second straight bowl game and a chance to say three straight years of more wins. Those are all on the table. Kansas is a tough game because you are going to be playing in a stadium with 6,000 people on a cold, miserable day with no energy. You have to generate all of your own energy. But Kansas is still Kansas and they are near the bottom of every category. Can’t stop the run. Can’t stop the pass. Don’t generate a pass rush. Their season is over.
West Virginia has at least three games left on their season and all three are winnable game. Saturday was bad but sometimes Saturday’s are bad. Burn the tape. Yell at the players. Get back to work. Two road games, one home game and a chance to end the year at 7 wins. The chance is there, the Mountaineers just have to seize it.