MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As West Virginia aligned in victory formation, one of the few things its offense got right during Saturday’s second half, coach Dana Holgorsen began a series of sideline handshakes.
He lingered several seconds longer upon reaching defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, sharing an extended bro hug that vanquished the frustration of Manhattan trips past.
Gibson’s defense, placed in perilous positions throughout the game, churned out save after save to turn back Kansas State for a 28-23 win.
“Last week I told y’all I could not have been prouder of how these guys did their jobs and beat Iowa State,” Gibson said. “Well, they turned around and did it again.”
The Mountaineers (7-3, 5-2) remained a factor in the Big 12 championship race despite not scoring a second-half point for successive weeks. That the defense kept the lead safe was a relief. Equally impressive was getting to halftime with a lead at all, considering WVU committed four turnovers.
K-State began six possessions on West Virginia’s side of the field, an ideal scenario for freshman quarterback Skylar Thompson find his footing. And what became of these six starts in plus-territory? What was the combined damage? Six points.
Gibson’s defenders forced four field-goal attempts, one after Wildcats cornerback D.J. Reed returned an interception to the 3-yard line, leading the coordinator to joke: “We scripted that. We needed some red-zone work.”
Holding K-State short of its 33-point scoring average hinged on plays like freshman safety Kenny Robinson picking off Thompson in the red zone in the fourth quarter. The Wildcats gained 332 yards — some 46 below what they had been generating — and produced only 14 first downs on 16 possessions.
Even after allowing a season-low 4.9 yards per play, West Virginia remains 102nd nationally in total defense, not the kind of metric that typically warrants celebrating. Yet Gibson’s guys are trending up for a second consecutive week after coaches went away fro midseason norms by heightening the hitting during practices.
“You hear all of the negative media out there —how they called us soft and not physical — so we kind of took that to heart in practice,” said senior safety Kyzir White. “We were making sure we did everything full-speed, and I think that helped us out during the games.”
Another abnormality surfaced in Manhattan: For the first time in his four seasons as a coordinator, Gibson didn’t use the dry-erase board on the bench. He didn’t need to redraw run fits or blitz schemes for his defensive front “because whatever they were doing was working.”
Gibson’s unit has handled business against Iowa State and K-State, the No. 8- and No. 9-ranked offenses in the Big 12. This week brings Texas, whose offense ranks seventh.
“These kids are responding. They’ve got juice,” Gibson said. “Hopefully, they’ll have juice next week too.”
Noon kick for Texas
With the Texas game slated for a noon start on ESPN, the Mountaineers’ 2017 home schedule will conclude without a night game.
Three receivers for 1,000?
With at least three games remaining — and a long shot at four if the Big 12 championship game becomes a reality — West Virginia is on pace to have three receivers with 1,000-yard seasons.
Gary Jennings’ 938 yards lead the team, while Ka’Raun White has 907 to go along with 10 touchdowns. David Sills, whose 18 touchdowns top the FBS, has 856 yards.
If the starters stay healthy and reasonably productive, the Mountaineers would become only the sixth FBS team to field a trio of 1,000-yard receivers.