The sound of the school fight song. The thousands of screaming fans supporting their team. The traditions, the pageantry and the pride of two teams battling it out on the gridiron on a Saturday. This is what college football is all about. After months of hibernation it is back and bigger than ever. So fans fire up those grills for your tailgates and put on your school colors because college football season is here! Every week I will breakdown and preview the best matchup the Big 12 has to offer and for this week’s pick, I will be previewing the Kansas State Wildcats taking on the West Virginia Mountaineers. Coverage will begin at 3:30 PM ET on ESPNU from Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, West Virginia.
What’s at Stake?
Both teams look to kick off conference play for the first time this weekend, as West Virginia and Kansas State have both wrapped up their non-conference games for the season. Kansas State enters the game with a 2-1 record with the lone loss coming against a good Stanford team in week 1. West Virginia on the other hand is 3-0 after a big win over possible Big 12 expansion candidate BYU. Dana Holgorsen has never beaten the savvy Bill Snyder in his first 4 tries and will look to do so on his fifth go around. Also many of the Mountaineer faithful haven’t forgotten that devastating lost last year in Manhattan that had many fans scratching their heads and searching for answers. This game has all the makings of an absolute brawl on Saturday (in a good way). Expect this slobber knocker to be a hardnosed, tough physical football game and while the winner may get some cuts and bruises, in the end it will be worth it because the victor will have a head start in a Big 12 that is up for grabs.
For Kansas State, they are ready to kick off conference play with a quality road win over West Virginia. The Wildcats got tested early in week 1 against Stanford and now they will face an undefeated Mountaineer squad. Bill Snyder’s team is always a tough, gritty bunch and they would love nothing more to spoil the party for Dana Holgorsen’s team. Also they want to show the rest of the Big 12 that they should be right in the thick of things in the Big 12 title race.
For West Virginia, they are only one of two undefeated teams in the Big 12 and they are trying to keep it that way when Saturday is all said and done. After all the questions surrounding Dana Holgorsen’s job status before the season, a win here would silence some of the critics as they look to be the new front runner of the Big 12 title picture. In the national picture the Mountaineers are currently unranked in the polls and if they come out on top this weekend, they could draw the attention of the entire country on them.
Kansas State Offense
Over the past few seasons Bill Snyder has had some tough, lay it all out on the line type quarterbacks and that hasn’t changed much at all with his quarterback Jesse Ertz. Ertz is completing only 56.4 % of his passes along with averaging a very low 139.3 passing yards per game. He has only thrown for 4 touchdowns as well as 1 interception through his first three games. Now these aren’t exactly mind boggling numbers, but make no mistake Ertz is a great fit with this run first attack. Although his passing stats are below average, he does make up for it with his legs where he averaging over 48 yards per game on the ground. Ertz currently leads his team in rushing, which weather you think that is a good or bad thing, it is still impressive to me. He is the glue that holds this offense together and while it may not always be pretty, Ertz isn’t afraid to take matters in his own hands when his team needs someone to make a play.
In the backfield the Wildcats will use a trio of backs to take some pressure off of Ertz. Charles Jones look to take up most of the carries. Jones is averaging only 35.3 yards per game and 1 score on the season. He isn’t the most dynamic back you will find but he is the one guy that the coaching stuff really trusts to carry the rock the most. Even though he was in Bill Snyder’s dog house last week, look to see him back in action on Saturday. Behind him is where things get very interesting. Dalvin Warmack is a playmaker with his game breaking speed. He only has 14 carries but he is averaging 8.7 yards per carry! That is crazy! Why this guy isn’t getting more touches is beyond me, but I fully expect him to get more involved as the season progresses. Last but not least is Justin Silmon who is kind of getting lost in the mix after being second on the depth chart before the season started. He only has 13 carries on the year but I don’t see him getting a ton this year if Jones and Warmack continue to stay on course.
Even though this is a struggling passing attack, we still have to talk wide receivers. To me it all starts with Byron Pringle who is thorough bred at wide receiver. This guy is an athletic freak of nature and he will be targeted more and more. He only has 4 receptions for 80 yards on the season but is by far their best pass catching target. Leading in the statistics category at receiver is the speedy Dominique Heath who has seen the end zone twice this season on 8 grabs. Behind these two is Deante Burton who has only reeled in 6 catches for 84 yards.
Up front Kansas State will feature starters LT Scott Frantz, LG Tyler Mitchell, C Reid Navjar, RG Terrale Johnson and RT Dalton Risnor. Even though he is only a sophomore, RT Dalton Risner is the anchor of this unit starting all of 2015 and is the lone returning starter on the offensive line. C Reid Navjar and RG Terrale Johnson may be new but they both have some playing experience. The two newbies of the bunch are LT Scott Frantz and LG Tyler Mitchell, who both redshirted last season.
Run Forest run! That is the mentality for this offense. They are a heavy power run oriented team and no matter how sloppy it looks; they will continue to pound it out. It all starts with Ertz. Jesse Ertz is key in this offense not only with his arm but with his legs as well. This coaching staff will tell him to take off when things breakdown as well as executing designed run plays just for him. This offense also needs to find a back that can take some of the pressure of of Jesse Ertz so he doesn’t get beat up throughout the season. Dalvin Warmack has been very under used and his one of a kind speed is too hard to keep off the field for long. It is time to unleash him and find out if he can sink or swim against quality competition. Along with Warmack, WR Byron Pringle needs to get more involved as well. Whether it be through screen passes or jet sweeps, this guy needs to ball in his hands more often. These are two good players that I feel like need to see more touches if this offense is to take the next step. Up front these guys aren’t asked to do much pass blocking as they are asked to create running lanes to keep the ball on the ground. This offense is all about clock management and keeping the opponents’ offense on the sideline. Kansas State needs to find out how to use the weapons they have and find out quickly before its too late.
West Virginia Defense
Defensively the Mountaineers not only lose a ton of bodies but they lost a lot of key playmakers as well. So far this defense has played ok, but when you lose as many pieces as they have, it is hard to recreate the production that was lost.
The three defensive lineman for this group will be DE Noble Nwachukwu, NT Darrien Howard and DE Christian Brown. DE Noble Nwachukwu is the veteran up front staring for over two full season now and is probably the best pure pass rusher the Mountaineers have to offer at this point. In the middle NT Darrien Howard may be a new starter this year but he sure hasn’t played like it. He has done an excellent job taking up space and eating up blocks to keep his linebackers free. Howard has an impressive 11 tackles at his NT position. The other end of this three-man front is DE Christian Brown, who has been average so far.
The linebacker group has been very impressive thus far and the two main parts are SLB Justin Arndt and MLB Al-Rasheed Benton. Arndt is a ball hawk and has 18 tackles on the season along with 2.5 of them coming for a loss. He is perfect at finding the ball and getting after it at his strong side position. In the middle, much like his strong side backer Arndt, Benton is another go getter at his MLB spot and isn’t afraid to find the football to go make a play. At WLB is Sean Walters, who played mostly on special teams last season and has played ok through his first three ball games.
In the back end of this defense you will see a lot of new faces, but they are very athletic for being so green. The two corner spots will be held by Antonio Crawford and Rasul Douglas. Carwford is a former Miami transfer and has had 4 PBUs on the year while Douglas is a physical, tall lengthy corner who has had his fair share of PBUs and an interception. This secondary will feature 3 safeties with Kyzir White, FS Jeremt Tyler and SS Jarrod Harper. White and Tyler are both new but have been playing pretty good for the Mountaineers. White, much like CB Rasul Douglas is a tall cover man at 6’3. FS Jeremy Tyler has had 3 PBUs and 1 INT in his first three starts. The veteran of the group is SS Jarrod Haper who started 9 games last season due to injuries. So far Harper has racked up 18 tackles and sack. Those are very solid numbers coming from a strong safety.
While there may be a lot of new faces for Tony Gibson’s defense, there are some nice bright spots to look forward to as time goes on. Up front their defensive line may not be the most fearsome but they do a good job keep lineman off their linebackers. I would like to see a little more consistent pass rush from this line but so far it hasn’t cost them much. Linebackers Justin Arndt and Al-Rasheed Benton have been outstanding making plays and dragging down ball carriers. They are the best two of the defensive front and will continue to do so if they are free to run like they have been. This defense did however struggle at stopping the run last week and it may be a cause for concern. So far the secondary has done an ok job with being such an inexperienced group. This is the unit that will have it works cut out for them in a pass happy Big 12.
Kansas State will try to ground and pound their way through the entire ball game controlling the clock. Look for a heavy dose of Jesse Ertz, Charles Jones and Dalvin Warmack to try to wear this defense mentally and physically. The Defensive front for West Virginia will need to hunker down and tighten up those chin straps because this is going to be a slug fest. Expect to see West Virginia load up that box Saturday to try and stop the run. The Wildcats do have some weapons on the outside but their lackluster passing game wont scare the Mountaineer secondary too much at all. Kansas State could counter this by mixing in some play action passes or maybe by trying to get RB Dalvin Warmack the ball on the outside. Unless something changes in the Wildcats game plan, if West Virginia is able to stop the rushing attack from the Wildcats, they should be just fine.
West Virginia Offense
Leading the charge for the West Virginia offense is the gutsy gunslinger QB Skyler Howard. After starting his 18th game last weekend, he is no longer the new kid in Morgantown. Howard is completing 68.5% of his passes along with throwing 6 touchdowns and 2 picks. He is averaging an impressive 324.7 passing yards per game and has been fantastic so far. After initially walking on at Stephen F. Austin and then transferring to Riverside Community College, Skyler has had quite a unique journey leading up to West Virginia. Howard has beaten many odds up to this point and is a very underrated compared to the other quarterbacks in this league. Not only can Howard sling it through the air, he also can take care of business on the ground as well when needed.
The Mountaineers will us a solid duo of running backs this weekend much like they have all season long. The two guys carrying the football will be running backs Rushel Shell and Justin Crawford. They both look to replace now Philadelphia Eagles RB Wendell Smallwood’s production from a year ago. Shell is a very powerful runner who isn’t afraid of contact, running hard behind his pads. He has 43 carries on the season along with 215 yards and 3 scores. Meanwhile, his other half Justin Crawford has 42 carries and a total of 236 yards and a touchdown to go with it. Shell is averaging 69.7 yards per game while Crawford is at 75.7. Both have done very well and for the most part have exceeded some expectations for West Virginia fans. This is a very good duo and I like the way they both complement this offense.
The playmaker at the wide receiver positon starts and ends with Shelton Gibson. Gibson is a fantastic receiver and all he seems to be doing is making plays for his team. I raved about him during the offseason and he has certainly lived up to the hype catching 16 passes for 354 yards and 2 touchdowns in 3 games. Averaging 118 yards receiving per game, Gibson is one of the best in the Big 12 and also in entire country. Not to be lost in the mix is Howard’s second favorite target, Daikiel Shorts. Shorts is averaging 82 receiving yards per game as well as scoring 2 touchdowns. He provides a good second receiving option for the offense. A guy that I was very vocal about was Ka’Raun White. White is averaging 53 receiving yards per game and has a lone score on the season. I felt like he needed to really take that next step this season to make this group complete. So far he has done well but I still think we haven’t seen his full potential at wide receiver. Rounding out the wide receivers is Jovon Durante who made a few nice plays last week against BYU.
Up front is where it all starts for the offense. I had this unit as my #1 ranked offensive line entering the season and I still feel this way right now. It may look a bit different from the start of the season but make no mistake these hog mollies are here to punish defenses. The starting five will consist of LT Marcell Lazard, LG Tony Matteo, C Tyler Orlosky, RG Kyle Bosch and RT Adam Pankey. The three players that stand out in this bunch are Orlosky, Bosh and Pankey. Orklosky is one of the best centers in the country and his accolades alone can prove just that over the past few seasons. Beside him is RG Kyle Bosch who has been superb since arriving in Morgantown from Michigan. Let’s not forget RT Adam Pankey who got into some trouble before the season and now has settled down becoming a fixture in the starting lineup. He is the true definition of a road grader. The left side will feature two new but familiar faces in LT Marcell Lazard and LG Tony Matteo.
I have been very impressed with this West Virginia offense. Dana Holgorson is doing a marvelous job in being balanced offensively. They can run the football when they need to and can air it out when it’s necessary. Anytime you are able to execute this well, it becomes very difficult for the defense to take away the things you are good at. Skyler Howard has been better than advertised and his offensive line has been stellar both protecting him and in the run game. In the passing game West Virginia will try to spread the ball around, but for some reason or another it always ends up in Shelton Gibson’s hands (can you blame them?). The duo in the backfield along with the run blocking has been getting the job done and will continue to make life easier for quarterback Skyler Howard.
Kansas State Defense
On the defensive line there’s no one better to start with than DE Jordan Willis. Willis currently has 3.5 TFLs with 2 of them coming from sacks. He also has a forced a fumble as well as recovering one too. Jordan is by far the best pass rusher for the Wildcats. In the middle is DTs Will Geary and Trey Dishon. Geary has played outstanding up front and has recorded 7 tackles and a fumble recovery of his own. Trey Dishon is the inexperienced one as he redshirted in 2015. The other DE of this group is Tanner Wood who has tallied up 4 TFLs including a sack and a forced fumble.
At linebacker Elijah Lee is the one to keep your eye on. As expected, he leads the team in tackles and will stop at nothing to drag down ball carriers. He is the guy that sets the tone up front for this defense. Joining Lee, is linebackers Will Davis and Charmeachealle Moore (what a name!). Davis has seen some playing time before, but he will need to step up his play if he wants to be a factor on defense. Moore on the other hand, is coming off a strong season last year and has continued to build on that momentum by doing the same so far in 2016.
The back end of this defense has been phenomenal through its first three contests. At NB the Wildcats will try Donnie Starks who is a very aggressive defender and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty in the run game. The two corners of this defense include Duke Shelley and D.J. Reed. Shelley is the 2nd leading tackler on the team. Even at his size at 5’9 he can defiantly pack a punch. Reed is a former community college player and has been a bit of a surprise in his pass coverage with an interception and 3 PBUs. Kendall Adams will get the nod at FS, where he has one pick and has came on strong since his freshman year last season. I saved the best for last in SS Dante Barnett. After being injured for almost all of 2015, he is back and better than ever. He looks like his old play making self out there and can bring the wood to anyone at anytime. As 3-time team captain, he not only provides leadership to his teammates but he is the best safety in the entire country in my opinion. This is a guy on offense that you have to see where he is lined up before every play.
This defense is playing out of its mind right now and I love it. There aren’t many defenses that will scare you in the Big 12 but this is one of them. Up front the defensive line does one heck of a job stuffing the run and in the back end they can matchup with almost anybody. The two main pieces are LB Elijah Lee and SS Dante Barnett. Anytime these two players are in the game they are sure fun to watch. What impresses me most about this group is they may not have a bunch of big name superstars but they play very physical and aren’t scared of anyone they face. This defense is the best in the Big 12 and I can honestly say that with confidence.
West Virginia brings a very balanced attack on offense that can keep defenses guessing all game long. Expect to see a fairly even mix of the run and the pass from the Mountaineer offense. West Virginia will try to get its ground game going with Shell and Crawford and if that doesn’t work, don’t be surprised if they run some read option with QB Skyler Howard to try and even things out. This offense will do its best to try and spread the Wildcat defense out to create gaps up front and to try to get their offensive weapons like wide receivers Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts out in space to make plays. Defensively Kansas State will have its hands full trying to slow down all the fire power the Mountaineers have on offense. The good thing is that they have probably seen the best rushing attack they have all year in their first game against Stanford. They did a pretty good job slowing down Christian McCaffrey so that is a good sign for the Wildcats. With that being said, Kansas State has not seen a group of wide receivers this good all season long which will be key in stopping this offense. The matchup to watch here will be the Kansas State defensive line going against a very good West Virginia offensive line. Whoever can win the battle up front will have the edge in this matchup.
Kansas State wins if they are able to run the ball and keep the Mountaineer offense on the sidelines. Anytime you are able to control the clock as much as they would like to, it makes it difficult for any offense to score a ton of points. If the Wildcats are able to dominate the time of possession, I would expect them to come out on top.
West Virginia wins if they are able to slow down the Kansas State rushing attack. If the Mountaineers can do that they will find this game to be a lot easier than expected. If the Wildcats are unable to control the clock it gives West Virginia that many more opportunists to score points. If they can hold Kansas State to under 200 yards rushing, I like their chances to stay undefeated.
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