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Amid Big 12 parity, West Virginia and Texas Tech aim to stay in the race

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Coach Kliff Kingsbury isn’t worried about No. 24 Texas Tech overvaluing its return to the AP poll for the first time since 2013.

“We’ve sat around for a year being told we’re the worst team on Earth, so that mentality hasn’t changed and that (ranking) won’t change anything,” he said.

The Red Raiders (4-1, 1-1) are aiming to change their luck after three straight losses to West Virginia (3-2, 1-1), which has a homecoming buzz surrounding Saturday’s noon kickoff. Against the backdrop of “Hail West Virginia” we check the storylines and march into Four-Down Territory:

Eyes on the prize

After opening league action by splitting two road games, West Virginia plays four of its final seven at home. Win out and the Mountaineers almost certainly will make the Big 12 championship game.

If running the table over the next seven weeks strikes you as pie-in-the-sky, that’s fair: West Virginia hasn’t won more than four consecutive conference games since 2005. Then again, Iowa State’s stunning upset at Oklahoma might foreshadow unforeseen circumstances, such as a team with two league losses making it to Arlington on Dec. 2

“The parity of this league is crazy,” said West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. “That was the message Dana had after the (TCU) game. Obviously we wanted to win that game but I don’t think anyone is going to go undefeated in this league. There’s a lot that could happen. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.”

TCU and Texas are the lone teams with 2-0 records in the Big 12. Right behind them are six teams at 1-1.

“It’s kind of stacked at the top with all those (1-1) records, but it will play itself out and anybody can beat anybody,” Texas Tech coach Kilff Kingsbury. “The fact that we have a championship game, that two teams are going to get in, makes it exciting for the fans and the players because you’re not going to be out of it until maybe late in November.”

Gibby’s Texas Tech hex

For two years running, West Virginia has unplugged Texas Tech’s high-powered offense. In 2015 the Red Raiders lost 31-26 while being held 19 points below their season average. Last year Texas Tech averaged 43 per game yet was steamrolled 48-17.

Tony Gibson’s defense did not yield a rushing touchdown in either game and was ridiculously stingy last season when allowing only 34 yards on 27 carries.

“Last year we just didn’t show up and got blown out,” said Kingsbury. “We got down early and they made us one-dimensional. We can’t allow that to happen this year. Our whole offense is built around running the football.”

The Red Raiders are coming off an eye-popping 313 rushing yards at Kansas — the program’s highest total since 2012 — but that follows two uninspired ground attacks against Arizona State (72 yards on 29 carries) and Oklahoma State (54 yards on 26 carries).

Quarterback Nic Shimonek, despite dialing back a bit against Kansas, still ranks as the nation’s No. 3 passer at 362 yards per game. He has thrown 14 touchdowns against three interceptions after biding his time behind Patrick Mahomes.

Keke Coutee ranks fourth among FBS receivers by averaging 117 yards, joining Dylan Cantrell, Derek Willies and Cameron Batson as the second-most productive foursome in the Big 12 (behind West Virginia’s unit).

But will they break the hex of Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense, which ranks 109th versus the run and 105th overall?

“He has done a tremendous job not just schematically but also recruiting to his scheme,” Kingsbury said. “You look at the past three or four years how many of those (WVU) guys have gone on to the NFL. It’s a huge number — you’re talking about linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks.”

Ka’Raun White breaking out?

Injured Chicago Bears receiver Kevin White is among the ex-Mountaineers returning to campus this weekend, where his younger brothers are off to encouraging senior seasons.

Kyzir White has a team-high two interceptions at Spur safety, while Ka’Raun White is coming off a career-best performance against TCU with six catches for 136 yards.

During Ka’Raun’s 76-yard touchdown last week, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen streaked down the sideline in celebration when he “felt a pretty big human” grabbing him from behind.

“That was Kyzir,” Holgorsen said. “He was grabbing me saying, ‘How about my bro! How about my bro!’ because he was so excited.
He’s going ’See, you need to throw him the ball!’ And I’m like, yeah I know. We need to show him the ball.”

Holgorsen said Ka’Raun seems to be showing the indicators Kevin displayed in 2014 before becoming an All-American. Currently David Sills (33 catches for 512 yards and nine TDs) and Gary Jennings (39 catches for 518 yards) are West Virginia’s top two receivers, followed by White with 23 receptions for 347 yards and three scores.

Spavital vs. Spavital

Jake calls the plays for West Virginia, while older brother Zac is the linebackers coach at Texas Tech.

“It’s a business,” said the Mountaineer’s Spavital. “He’s my brother, but I’m trying to whip his ass.”

They faced off only once before, in 2008, when Zac was the secondary coach at Houston and Jake a quality control assistant for Tulsa.

A year later they were on the same staff at Houston after Zac convinced Jake to stay in the college game instead of coaching in the high school ranks.

While West Virginia’s offense ranks among the FBS top 10 in scoring, yards and passing, Texas Tech’s defense has stabilized a bit thanks in part to two of Zac Spavital’s linebackers — Dakota Allen and Jordyn Brooks.

“Their linebackers are really good,” Holgorsen said. “They’re football players. “Now their other guys are getting off blocks, they’re getting in gaps and leaving plays for the linebackers. They’ve settled down.”

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