(Neal Brown pregame Zoom conference)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Coming off of their second bye week of the season, West Virginia is gearing up for a stretch of games that will make up half of their regular season. A run of five games in five weeks begins Saturday at noon when the Mountaineers host Kansas at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The Jayhawks bear great resemblance to what they have been over the past decade. KU brings an 0-3 record to Morgantown with a season-opening loss to Coastal Carolina and blowout defeats at the hands of Baylor and Oklahoma State.
West Virginia will face standout Kansas running back Pooka Williams for a third time. He ranks 12th in the Big 12 in rushing this season, numbers that actually place him behind teammate Velton Gardner. In two games against the Mountaineers, Williams has rushed 27 times for 141 yards.
“He has the ability to make you miss,” said WVU head coach Neal Brown. “They use him in a variety of ways. I fully expect to line him up all over the field, motion to him in the backfield, throw to him out of the backfield, line him up in the slot. They have been creative, this year and in the past getting him the football.”
“To me, he is as good as or maybe one of the best in the league,” said WVU co-defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley. “He can make mistakes and make them look good. He can go way away from where the play is designed to go and he can go 80 yards, 60 yards. He can score a touchdown on you from anywhere on the field.”
“He is a very active player,” said WVU junior defensive lineman Dante Stills. “He is quick. He is fast. We got a taste of that the last two years. Coming into this game, we have to remain focused and make sure he doesn’t make any explosive plays.”
Kansas owns the worst offense in the Big 12 (14.7 points per game) and the league’s worst defense (44 points per game allowed).
“You see their youth,” said WVU offensive coordinator/receivers coach Gerad Parker. “They are starting to play around with front and predominately a three-down front that is going to have a chance to apply edge pressure. They are starting to grow and get better production out of their secondary.”
Saturday’s game could have shades of West Virginia’s season opener against an overmatched Eastern Kentucky team where ultimately the game is more about the Mountaineers than their opponent. Much of the bye week has been focused on player development prior to game planning for the Jayhawks.
“You get a bye week and you like to turn it into somewhat of a short camp which you can continue to sharpen your skills,” said WVU co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae. “Coach gave us the opportunity to do that all week last week. We feel good about it all.”
West Virginia’s passing offense ranks fourth in the Big 12 (263.7 yards per game) but Brown acknowledges there is significant room for improvement in that phase of the game.
“If you look at the pure statistics of it, we don’t look like a team that is struggling throwing the football,” Brown said. When you get into it and you look deeper, our yards per attempt is not very good and that tells you we are not real explosive. That’s something we have to work on. There’s two ways to do it — you have to throw the ball downfield or you have to make some people miss. That was our big point of emphasis.”
West Virginia is defending against the pass than any other Big 12 team (166.3 yards per game).
“When you start talking about quality defensive play, those are the defenses that show up week in and week out regardless of the opponent, regardless of home or away, it doesn’t matter,” Brown said. “They show up each and every week and they are productive. My hope is and our defensive staff’s hope is that we get to that point. I don’t think we are at that point yet.”
Starting offensive lineman James Gmiter missed that Baylor game after testing positive for COVID. His status for Saturday’s game is unknown. For the most part, West Virginia has been able to avoid disruptions to their practice schedule and player availability due to COVID.
“I am hesitant to even talk about it but we have been fortunate where we haven’t had a lot of missed practices or missed games due to COVID,” Brown said. “Our installation and things like that and what we have worked on has been pretty consistent in what would occur in a normal year. Hopefully we can continue to stay COVID free.
“The unpredictability of college football I think is going to continue until teams and leagues can get in some kind of rhythm. My expectation is that when you get into November, it is going to clean up some and the style of play and the quality of play will resemble what we have all been accustomed to.”