LAWRENCE, Kan. — For now, any talk of West Virginia’s ineptitude in the running game can be put to bed.
Kennedy McKoy and Leddie Brown each rushed for more yardage than the Mountaineers had in their first two games combined, while Martell Pettaway added a pair of touchdowns that proved critical in a 29-24 road win over Kansas.
West Virginia finished with 192 rushing yards, a season-high. Overall it was WVU’s best rushing performance since gaining 232 yards at Texas last season.
Count Kansas coach Les Miles among the surprised.
“I have to be honest with you, I didn’t expect them to be that good,” Miles said. “They made plays, and I think our defense was on the field in the first half just seemingly forever.”
The Mountaineers, who came into the game ranked 95th nationally in third-down conversions, also picked up first downs on 9 of their 18 attempts. As a result, WVU had a 15-minute advantage in time of possession, holding the ball for 37:41.
It’s the first road win and first Big 12 win for first-year West Virginia coach Neal Brown.
“Good win. First road win. I’m proud of our young group,” Brown said. “We didn’t play our best, but we found a way. You’ve got to find a way to win on the road. You’ve got to grind it out… we showed good poise here today.”
Saturday’s game was tougher than nearly every tangle with the Jayhawks over the last eight years. Kansas’ 2013 win over West Virginia was the only previous time the Jayhawks finished within 16 points of the Mountaineers since WVU joined the Big 12 in 2012.
The margin was a show of how quickly former LSU coach Miles has re-energized the culture at KU. The listed attendance of 35,816 appeared fairly close to reality, and Kansas fans gave their team a standing ovation after the game despite the loss.
“It’s a credit to Coach Miles and his staff,” Brown said. “They’ve done a good job. They’ve made significant progress in a short amount of time.”
This one wasn’t put to rest until the Mountaineers defense forced Kansas running back Pooka Williams out of bounds at the WVU 12 on the tail end of an attempted miracle hook-and-lateral play as time expired.
West Virginia seemed to give itself enough breathing room when Pettaway’s 7-yard touchdown run gave it a 29-17 lead with 5:04 remaining. But an attempted trick play on a 2-point conversion failed, and Kansas kept itself alive when Carter Stanley hit Andrew Parchment for a 3-yard touchdown pass with 2:10 left.
Sam James alertly knocked the ensuing onside kick out of bounds, but Kansas got the ball back with 32 seconds left following a Josh Growden punt that rolled into the end zone for a touchback. The Jayhawks moved the ball to midfield before attempting their final play.
It was not a banner day for the West Virginia defense, which allowed 417 yards on only 56 plays. But the defense made what Brown called the biggest play of the game, an acrobatic Keith Washington interception near midfield in the fourth quarter. Washington’s takeaway set up the 11-play drive that culminated in Pettaway’s touchdown.
“I kind of baited the quarterback a little bit because I knew I had safety help over the top,” Washington said. “In the beginning, I thought I misjudged it a little bit, but God blessed me and I made the play.”
The ensuing 11-play touchdown drive featured 10 runs and a sweet release for an offensive line that was maligned following a Week 2 loss at Missouri.
“It’s a mindset. We haven’t changed fundamentals or run schemes,” said senior left tackle Colton McKivitz. “It’s just guys playing hard. That’s been the biggest key for the past two weeks. We’re getting mad, we’re getting angry coming off the ball.
“The first two weeks we were the talk of the team for not doing our job. So they’re taking it to heart and those young guys are playing physical. They have some aggression with ’em.”