MANHATTAN, Kan. — If a team could be built specifically to attack West Virginia’s weaknesses this season, it would bear an unfortunately uncanny resemblance to Kansas State.
The No. 24 Wildcats (6-3, 3-3 Big 12) are just about everything the Mountaineers (3-6, 1-5) are not — experienced and in complete control of the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
Kansas State starts eight seniors on offense and six seniors on defense. West Virginia counters with five freshmen starting on offense and two more starting in the defensive backfield.
Outside of Oklahoma, this game may represent the steepest hill of coach Neal Brown’s first-year climb. And given that K-State handed the Sooners their only loss, it may be even tougher.
“They’re a veteran team. Extremely disciplined,” Brown said. “That’s the culture in that program.”
Of the four new coaches in the Big 12, K-State’s Chris Klieman is experiencing the smoothest transition. That’s due to the roster he inherited from the retired Bill Snyder as well as the successful culture he brought with him from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. Klieman won four national championships in his five seasons leading the Bison.
“The defining factor for them is third downs,” Brown said. “On offense they’ve converted them, and on defense they’re getting off the field.”
Defensively, the Wildcats are third in the nation on third down, allowing opponents to convert just 26 percent of the time. Offensively, they rate 27th, converting 45 percent of their attempts.
Because of that third-down success, K-State is fifth in the country in time of possession, maintaining the ball an average of 34:26 per game. To put that in full perspective, the Wildcats hold onto the ball longer than triple-option teams Army and Navy.
Of course, if K-State were unbeatable, three teams wouldn’t have done it already. However, the Wildcats’ weaknesses have not corresponded with West Virginia’s strengths.
In its three losses, Kansas State has been gashed for an average of 211.8 yards per game on the ground. West Virginia has not eclipsed the 100-yard mark in the running game since beating Kansas on Sept. 21.
The Wildcats are also the only team in the country to allow their opponents to score on every single trip into the red zone. Part of that is circumstance — they’ve also allowed only 22 trips inside the 20-yard line, which rates 12th nationally.
At any rate, red zone offense was exposed as one of WVU’s biggest weaknesses last week. The Mountaineers were scoreless on four of six trips inside the 25 against Texas Tech and rate 114th nationally in red zone scoring.
Easier said than done. Much easier. Kansas State has only turned the ball over four times this season. But that also means the Wildcats may be ill-suited to adjusting to sudden changes. If West Virginia can get the ‘Cats out of their comfort zone, it will give itself a chance.
K-State’s defense is susceptible to the big play, rating 75th nationally in plays of 20 yards or more allowed. West Virginia hit a couple of 50-yarders against Texas Tech, both of which should have been touchdowns. It’s not a stretch to think the Mountaineers can do a better job stretching the field against the Wildcats.
First and second down
The Wildcats are wildly successful on third down because they force opponents into third-and-long and move the ball well enough to be in third-and-short. If the Mountaineers can get the Wildcats out of their element on third down, once again they’ll have a chance to disrupt the norm.
PREDICTION: Kansas State 31, West Virginia 17