MANHATTAN. Kan. — A week after proving they weren’t soft, West Virginia players get to do it again, versus a team that has owned them through much of the Big 12 era.
The Mountaineers (6-3, 4-2) are 2.5-point underdogs as they visit Kansas State (5-4, 3-3) and aiming to prove their gritty win over Iowa State wasn’t a one-time deal.
“It wasn’t scheme or anything like that, it was just mental,” said offensive tackle Colton McKivitz. “We were harped on all week and I think we all got tired of being called soft and being told we weren’t tough enough to play four quarters. We were fed up and kind of annoyed with hearing that kind of talk.
“This week, It will be the same thing all over again with Kansas State. They are also a very physical group, so we’re going to have to do the same thing.”
So let’s pull on that windbreaker and dig into the storylines by heading into a breezy Four-Down Territory:
Twice-bitten in the Little Apple
West Virginia stands 1-4 in the series since joining the Big 12, losing both times in Manhattan.
The last trip resulted in a 24-23 loss that was particularly disheartening after K-State rallied from 10 points down at halftime — with receiver Kody Cook taking over as the emergency quarterback.
That was Tony Gibson’s only visit to Bill Snyder Family Stadium, where the West Virginia defensive coordinator was surprised by the electric atmosphere supporting a 5-6 team.
“They had a losing record and there wasn’t an empty seat there,” Gibson said.
That game joined a string of 38 consecutive sellouts that continues into this week. In fact, K-State is one of the few FBS schools where attendance consistently exceeds capacity (50,000).
K-State’s quarterbacking scenario won’t be fully understood until game time. Snyder contends 19-game starter Jesse Ertz could return for the first time since being injured at Texas on Oct. 7. Second-stringer Alex Delton has been knocked out of the past two games, most noticeably by a helmet-to-helmet targeting hit last week. No. 3 quarterback Skylar Thompson, the most dropback-oriented of the trio, appears to be the only completely healthy option.
“Regardless of who’s in there, they’re going to do what K-State always does,” Dana Holgorsen said. “They’re going to run QB power, QB counter, use those blocking tight ends, and then when you come up to defend the run they’re going to throw it on you.”
The Wildcats’ pop passes off run fakes have attracted WVU’s attention, particularly where downfield linemen are concerned. Holgorsen pointed out left guard Abdul Beecham blocking 5 yards downfield on an overtime touchdown pass at Texas Tech.
“We’ll keep our eye on how far the linemen are downfield,” Holgorsen said, with a tongue-in-cheek follow-up. “Luckily I have a great relationship with the Big 12 officials so I know they’ll be on the lookout.”
WVU pass-first again?
The run-heavy game plan used against Iowa State probably won’t be duplicated, because K-State’s defense typically commits to a heavy box.
“It’s going to be hard this week,” Holgorsen said.
Expect Will Grier and his band of Mountaineers receivers to take ample chances downfield. The Wildcats secondary, aside from D.J. Reed, lacks athleticism — one reason why the defense ranks 125th against the pass (295 yards per game).
Mountaineers not folding
Not that West Virginia will be wasting the week of testosterone-building that preceded Iowa State. The offensive line no doubt will face some third-and-shorts.
And a defense that took the toughness challenge to heart by holding the Cyclones to one touchdown could return several injured starters.
“I’m proud of the guys for how they responded,” Holgorsen said. “I’ve been in the situation before where you call them out and they fold up like a tent.”
Albeit against long odds, the Mountaineers remain in the hunt for a Big 12 championship game berth — odds that depend upon them finally getting a ‘W’ in Manhattan.