Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers open conference play with a visit from Bill Snyder’s Kansas State Wildcats, who have proven themselves a most frustrating foil over the years. The Mountaineers have yet to beat Kansas State since joining the Big 12, but a win this weekend on Homecoming could provide the confidence needed to make a run at a conference title.
Record: (2-1). Kansas State has certainly cut an impressive statistical profile after pounding Florida Atlantic and FCS Missouri State these past 2 weekends, but they opened the year with a two score, albeit hard fought loss at Stanford. They definitely look much improved, but it’s hard to know exactly what to make of them at this point.
Head Coach: Bill Snyder. The Purple Wizard really needs no introduction. Snyder has been coaching in some capacity since the Civil Rights movement, but has spent all 22 of his years as a Head Coach in Manhattan, amassing a record of 202-112-1 over 2 separate stints spanning from 1988-2005 and 2009-present. He has a well-earned reputation for doing more with less than just about anyone in the country, and is truly one of the legends of the game.
Offensive Coordinator: Del Miller and Dana Dimel. Two long-time Snyder assistants, Miller and Dimel both returned to State in 2009 after spending the Wizard’s retirement as OC/RB coach at San Diego State and TE/FB coach at Arizona, respectively.
Defensive Coordinator: Tom Hayes. Hayes is entering his 5th year in charge of the Kansas State defense, and is another guy with decades of experience. His units line up in a traditional 4-3 with 2 deep safeties and have a reputation for being fundamentally sound, yet surprisingly opportunistic.
OUR OFFENSE VS THEIR DEFENSE
Players to watch: LB Elijah Lee, LB Charmeachaelle Moore, DE Jordan Willis, DT Will Geary, S Dante Barnett
There’s not a whole lot of mystery around what State is going to do defensively: they’re going to line up in a traditional 4-3 with 2 deep safeties and make you drive on them. It’s bend-but-don’t-break on steroids: they won’t give you anything easy and absolutely refuse to give up big plays (6.3% defensive BP%, 3rd and 1st in the country in explosive runs and passes allowed, respectively), which is bad news for offenses like ours that thrive on them. Don’t let that RZ TD% fool you either; they’ve been especially good at not breaking this year. That 100% is literally a 1 for 1, as in they’ve only allowed their opponents, which include Christian McCaffery and #7 Stanford, to enter the red zone one time through 3 games.
The strength of the unit is probably the front 7, where they return most of the guys who made it hard on us last year. Will Geary and Elijah Lee were preseason All-Big 12 selections, and Dante Barnett has provided a big boost in the secondary after missing last year through injury, but the most notable returnee for Mountaineer fans is probably Charmeachaelle Moore. Moore, you might remember, had 17 tackles against us last year, including the stop on Howard on that crucial 4th and 1. He, Lee, and Will Davis form one of the more athletic trios of backers in the conference, so it will be imperative this week that our offensive line works together to reach them so we can run the ball. Also, much like BYU’s Warner and Pau’u, Lee and Moore are extremely versatile and rarely come off the field, making it difficult to force their defense into a favorable look using personnel packages.
There are two areas of vulnerability that I think we need to focus on when attacking them: the young half of their defensive line and the corners on the outside.
Up front, Geary and Willis are both good players, but they generally line up next to each other while two redshirt freshmen (Trey Dishon and Reggie Walker) line up opposite them. Both of those guys seem to have acquitted themselves well, but I still think we need to attack them whenever possible. I especially think we can get after Walker, who’s athletic but at just 235lbs is a little light in the ass for a traditional 4-3 defensive end. We need to make him prove himself at the point of attack.
We also need to make their guys prove themselves on the outside. Barnett’s presence seems to have largely stabilized their back end, but I still think that both Shelton Gibson and KaRaun White can win their 1 v 1 matchups if we can get them isolated. Sophomores Duke Shelley and DJ Reed both stand 5’9 and only weigh 160 and 188, respectively, so I think White in particular has the physicality to cause them some problems. Deep balls obviously should and will be involved, but I wouldn’t mind seeing us throw him some screens, as well, just to make those guys prove that they can tackle.
OUR DEFENSE VS THEIR OFFENSE
Players to watch: QB Jesse Ertz, RB/FB Winston Dimel, WR Dominique Heath, WR Deonte Burton
Everything the Wildcats do offensively starts with QB Jesse Ertz, a junior who missed all of last season after getting injured on their second play from scrimmage. The Wildcats run a relatively conservative (60/40 run/pass) version of the spread, mixing designed QB runs, read options, fullback dives, and play action passes into a cocktail of mind-numbing, clock-churning efficiency. It’s not dissimilar to the way they play defense, in that regardless of what happens, they’re going to stay patient, execute, and wait for their opponent to make a mistake.
On the surface, their offense’s statistical profile isn’t nearly as impressive as their defense’s, but if you dig a little deeper you can see that it might just be because they haven’t been on the field that often. The Wildcats have only run 180 plays this year, good for 3rd fewest in the country, so it makes sense that their per game totals aren’t overly impressive. Looking at their Big Play % though, you can see that they are a much improved unit overall from a year ago. So far they’ve generated big plays on a Big 12-leading 15% of their snaps, which is about 1 every 6.5 plays, and is nearly twice as good as the 8.5% that they posted last season.
Much like last week, priority #1 will be containing the quarterback. He may not be quite the athlete that Taysom Hill is, but through 3 games Jesse Ertz is leading their team in both carries and yards, and his legs are a threat that we need to be very aware of. Most of their offense is built around that threat, as well, so if we can take it away it’ll really put a big damper on the rest of what they try to do.
However, if we fail in that regard, they have some guys on the outside in Deonte Burton and Dominque Heath who can hurt us, especially in the play action game. Burton you’ll remember from last year as the guy who caught that 80-yard TD from their backup receiver-turned-quarterback, while Heath is a sophomore who leads the team in catches, yards, and offseason nominations from State fans as the guy most likely to step into the random-dude-who-breaks-Mountaineer-hearts role, which was most recently occupied by Morgan Burns and Tyler Lockett. Ertz isn’t an especially good passer (56.4% completions and 7.6 ypa are both 2nd worst in the Big 12), but Snyder has long found ways to be effective with duck-throwers, and given the current state of our defense, the talent of those receivers, and the fact that Kansas State’s receivers always seem wait for our annual matchup to go off, it’s of the utmost importance that we stay disciplined and keep everything in front of us on the back end.
After our relatively ho-hum display in the 3rd phase last week I decided to add an extra section to our previews going forward. I guess it’s fitting that it would make its debut for Kansas State after what Morgan Burns did to us last year.
Bill Snyder’s teams are always disciplined in coverage and strong in the return game, and this year is no different. They haven’t allowed enough points yet to get a feel for their kick return game, but Dominique Heath has already taken a punt to the house and as a team their 15.7 yards per return is good for 14th nationally. If that last sentence alone isn’t enough to trigger you, consider the fact that we’re ranked 83rd nationally in punt coverage, allowing almost 10 yards per return. Are we in our fetal positions yet?
The Wildcats are solid on the other side of things, as well. Their kickoff man and punter are both in the middle of the road with regards to average distance, and their coverage units both rank in the Top 40 nationally, giving up just over 18 yards per kick return (good for 37th in the country) and 3.2 yards per punt return (29th). I’d love to give them a little piece of their own medicine and hit a big play on special teams, but here’s to hoping Gary Jennings isn’t overly shy with those fair catches on Saturday.
One area where they do look a little shaky is in the field goal department. Matt McCrane was 7/7 on kicks last year in limited action but is just 2/4 this year as the lone starter, with a long of 30 and both misses coming from 42. Kansas State isn’t a team that generates a ton of big plays, and they certainly don’t score on many of them, but with our defense the way it is it’s still likely that they’ll be driving on us, so it’s important that we force this guy to make kicks. If we can keep them out of the end zone and maybe get him to miss one early, it could end being huge factor if the game stays close down the stretch.
Over the past few years, my buddies and I have often joked about how even though we love being in the Big 12, we miss being able to hate teams. I think it’s because we just don’t have enough history with most of them yet, but to this point it’s been impossible for me to think of Texas or Oklahoma in the same way that I think about Pitt or Virginia Tech or Maryland. Kansas State though.. maybe it’s a sign that we’re finally moving into our moody Big 12 adolescence, but I’m starting to really not care that much for Kansas State. A big part of it is obviously the whole “we haven’t beaten them yet” thing, but I think the other big part of it has been the way that they beat us, especially last year. There’s just something so nauseating about the smug way they sit back and watch us dig our own graves. I’m getting pissed off just thinking about it.
This is the year though. It has to be, right? Right? Our offense is good enough to move the ball on them, so as bad as our defense is, all they have to do is slow down a team that already goes slow. That’s doable, isn’t it? Besides, we’re probably as much better than them on offense as they are than us on D. The difference this year though is, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think we have an advantage at quarterback. Skyler Howard has been nothing short of excellent through 3 games against 3 solid opponents, ranking in the Top 25 in the country in completion percentage (68.5%, 9th), yards per attempt (9.0, 23rd), and yards per game (324.7, 14th). More importantly though, with the exception of 2 or 3 questionable decisions he’s finally eliminated most of the mistakes that have held he and the team back over the past few seasons. He’s just a better player than Ertz is at this point, and that has to count for something.
Overall, I can’t help but feel confident. As improved as State appears to be through the first month of the season, I still don’t think they’re good enough to beat us if we don’t beat ourselves. I’ve been a Mountaineer fan for long enough to know that there’s a pretty good chance that we will (especially against K-State), but we were the better team last year and I think that’s the case again here. Also, this is one of the few games where I think that the players and coaches actually want it as much as the fans do. There’s just no way they’re about to let a team that’s beaten us 4 years in a row walk into our house on Homecoming and make it 5. The bell tolls for thee, Purple Wizard.
West Virginia 33 Kansas State 26