Then-freshman wide receiver Malik Knowles catches the ball during the football game against West Virginia at Bill Snyder Family Stadium on Nov. 16, 2019. The Wildcats lost to the Mountaineers with a final score of 24-20. (File Photo by Logan Wassall | Collegian Media Group) The Wildcats look to go 5-0 in conference play on Saturday for the first time since 2014. The Mountaineers are sitting at 2-2 in conference play with wins over Kansas and Baylor.
Head coach Neal Brown is in his second year in Morgantown, West Virginia. He is one of four Big 12 Conference coaches hired prior to the 2019 season, and the only one of the now second-year head coaches with a win over Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman.
The Mountaineers have a four-game winning-streak against K-State, and the series is tied at 4-4 since West Virginia joined the Big 12 and 5-5 all-time.
West Virginia’s balanced spread offense is run by junior quarterback Jarret Doege, who is a good passer but not much of a rushing threat. His legs are not a limitation, though. He can scramble around and avoid sacks, but he prefers to use his legs to buy time to find an open receiver downfield.
Junior running back Leddie Brown is the rushing threat in the offense. He is second in the Big 12 in all-purpose yards and third in rushing yards per game. He gets a lot of carries in the offense and pounds out 5.8 yards per rush.
West Virginia’s offense tries to find a way to get Brown the ball on handoffs and in the passing game, but receiver Winston Wright is Doege’s favorite target. Wright gets 5.6 catches per game.
They run almost entirely out of the shotgun with 10 personnel (one running back, zero tight ends) or 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) and like to send Brown out of the backfield as a fifth receiver or use him on running back draw plays.
On defense, the Mountaineers are stout. Brothers Darius and Dante Stills hold down a defensive line that limits opponents to just 109 yards per game — they are No. 2 and No. 4 in the Big 12 in tackles for loss, respectively.
What is technically a three-man front usually looks like a four with linebacker redshirt freshman Jared Bartlett lined up as a stand-up end to get an extra rusher.
The Mountaineers also move around sophomore Tykee Smith and let him play as a linebacker or safety depending on the position. At 5-foot-10, 198 pounds, his position is technically called SPEAR, but it is the same safety-linebacker hybrid that is becoming popular to stop pass-oriented offenses.
“That’s good enough for a Wildcat first down”
K-State will struggle to get explosive plays against this defense, so the team needs to move the ball methodically and keep the offense on the field with third down conversions.
The third done has been a struggle on both sides of the ball for the Wildcats this season, only better than Kansas in conversion percentage on offense and defense. Part of that deficiency may be lack of success on early downs leading to too many third and longs.
Last week, the worst defense in the Big 12 held K-State to just 4-12 on third down. At some point this season, this glaring weakness will bite the Wildcats and, in a likely low-scoring affair in West Virginia, it could be the difference.
A little help from my defense and special teams
Since 1999, K-State leads the nation in non-offensive touchdowns. Last week against hapless KU, the Wildcats cashed in two punt return touchdowns and a pick-six. The Wildcats made up for poor offensive showings with scores and good field position from the defense and special teams.
The Wildcats lead the conference in turnover margin and it is not particularly close. The K-State defense takes the ball away eight more times than the offense coughs it up. K-State needs to add to that margin and probably score at least one non-offensive touchdown this week.
K-State senior kicker Blake Lynch will be a key in this game as well. Coming into the season, he was one of the most accurate kickers in program history at 89.2 percent, but this season he has only converted 70 percent of his field goals.
K-State needs him to be accurate and will potentially rely on deep kicks from Lynch — whose season long is 53. Ideally, he kicks more extra points than field goals. K-State should make it a point to convert red zone attempts into touchdowns instead of field goals, even if it means taking some risks.
PREDICTION: Points will be at a premium in Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday. The difference in the game is the special teams or defense giving K-State a short field to score a touchdown and Lynch hitting a game-winner late in the fourth quarter. 20-17 K-State wins a nail biter.