(Neal Brown pregame Zoom conference)
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Near the midway point of the Big 12 Conference season, Kansas State is best positioned to challenge Oklahoma State at the top of the league standings. The Wildcats (4-0) and the Cowboys (3-0) are the lone teams without a conference loss. League preseason frontrunners Oklahoma and Texas are both 2-2 in league play.
In the second season since Chris Klieman replaced legendary head coach Bill Snyder, K-State’s blueprint for success remains largely intact.
“When you think Kansas State, whether it is under Coach Klieman or Coach Snyder, it is a disciplined football team that plays extremely hard and they are difficult to prepare for in all three phases,” said WVU head coach Neal Brown.
After a season-opening loss to Arkansas State, the Wildcats have won all four of their league games. That includes a 38-35 win at Oklahoma on September 26. They held Texas Tech to 21 points and yielded just 14 in wins against TCU and Kansas.
“I would say they are one of the top two most talented teams at defensive end,” Brown said. They really rush the passer. (Wyatt) Hubert is special.
“They have answers for everything that you do. They always play the run well.”
“What better compliment can you give to a group or a staff of an opponent you are playing, is that they play extremely hard,” said WVU offensive coordinator/receivers coach Gerad Parker. “They know where to line up. They know what their assignments are. And they all converge to the ball in a hurry.
“It reminds me of a good, solid Big 10 defense. They’re hard-nosed. They’ll line up for you and play a front that doesn’t change all that much. They know where they are going to be. You know where they are going to be and it is still hard to gain yards.”
After a season-ending injury to quarterback Skylar Thompson, true freshman Will Howard has stepped into the starting spot and is performing well. He became KSU’s first true freshman to win his first career road start, doing so at TCU. Standing 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Howard can scramble as well. He averages 4.6 yards per tote.
“Will Howard has a real calm demeanor about him,” Brown said. “He is a big kid and a strong runner. He makes two or three really difficult passes each game he has played for explosive plays.
“If you look at them in a lot of offensive categories, the numbers don’t blow you away. But then you look at scoring offense and it is impressive. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”
“He is a big kid and you always have to be aware of that going in that if you are able to get to him, you have to be able to bring him down,” said WVU co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Jordan Lesley. “And he is a good runner too.”
Last week, the Mountaineers faced a Texas Tech offense that played with a fast tempo. That will change this week against the Wildcats.
“They don’t do anything hardly ever to beat themselves. If you have a weakness, they usually find it,” Lesley said. “They are simple and they are subtle. And that is the sign of a good football team. And they huddle, which is something new.”
Howard is joined in the backfield by fellow freshman Deuce Vaughn. The running back is the only player in the Big 12 to lead his team in rushing (319 yards, 4 TD) and receiving (360 yards, TD). At 5-foot-5, 168 pounds, Vaughn will provide a similar defensive challenge as Kansas’ Pooka Williams.
“Anytime you play well against Pooka, I think you feel good about your chances against anything you would see throughout the season,” said WVU co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Jahnile Addae. “This kid is dynamic, probably dynamic in a different way. But he poses the same issues. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He can make you miss in a phone booth and those things are scary for defenses and defensive coaches. We trust and believe in our guys and we know they are up for the challenge and will compete.”
Traditionally strong on the special teams units, K-State features the nation’s best punt return unit (25.8 yards per return) and they have returned two punts for touchdowns.
“It is in their culture,” Brown said. “They have a lot of walk-ons and some of them earn scholarships. They just play extremely hard. They have blocked three punts this year. They do a great job with what I call a direct angle. The guys they put in position to block a punt, they take the fastest line between them and the punter.”