The West Virginia Mountaineers aim to stay undefeated and climb higher in the polls, and there’s a good chance of accomplishing those objectives while hosting the Kansas Jayhawks Saturday. West Virginia improved to 4-0 overall and 2-0 in Big 12 play with its 42-34 victory over Texas Tech in Lubbock last week, and now the Mountaineers welcome the Jayhawks in what is one of the longest conference road trips of the season. Kansas, which fell to 2-3 overall and 0-2 in the league after a 48-28 home loss to Oklahoma State last week, hopes to pull off a major upset to get back on track and keep its bowl hopes alive.
Kansas at West Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: West Virginia -28.5
Three Things to Watch
1. West Virginia passing attack vs. Kansas pass defense
If the Heisman Trophy ceremony were held tomorrow, West Virginia quarterback Will Grier would be in New York for the festivities. Grier ranks among the nation’s best in a variety of passing categories, including completion percentage (72.1 percent, No. 4 among FBS players), yards per attempt (10.9, No. 3), QB rating (200.75, No. 3) and passing yards per game (371.8, No. 2).
The senior has thrown for 1,487 yards and 17 touchdowns with three interceptions, and he has spread the ball around among one of the best receiving corps in the country. All-America wideout David Sills V ranks third on his own team in receiving yards (294) behind 2017 1,000-yard receiver Gary Jennings (311) and 2018 breakout star Marcus Simms (433). All three have caught 22 or more passes. Jennings leads the team with six TD receptions, followed by Sills’ five and Simms’ two.
But Kansas could pose a threat to the West Virginia passing attack. The Jayhawks rank second in the Big 12 in pass defense (202.4 yards allowed per game), and KU leads the conference with eight interceptions.
2. Kansas rushing attack vs. West Virginia run defense
Kansas has a distinctive offensive strength as well. The Jayhawks rank fourth in the Big 12 in rushing (184.0 yards per game). Freshman tailback Pooka Williams leads the conference with an average of 118.5 rushing yards per game. Williams has averaged an explosive 7.9 yards per carry, totaling 474 yards on the ground with four touchdowns. Three of his teammates — Khalil Herbert, Dom Williams and Deron Thompson — have all surpassed 100 rushing yards on the season, giving the Jayhawks a balanced attack capable of posting big yardage. At its best, the KU offense rolled up 400 rushing yards and averaged 8.3 yards per carry against Rutgers.
However, the West Virginia defense will be the biggest test of the season for the Jayhawks. The Mountaineers have limited opponents to 131.0 rushing yards per game and 3.45 yards per carry. Last week, Texas Tech heavily utilized its quarterback running game to post 168 rushing yards and average 4.0 yards per carry against the Mountaineers, which were both season highs.
3. Lucky or good?
Kansas has been one of the nation’s best at forcing turnovers this season. The Jayhawks are tied with Florida atop the FBS leaderboard with 14 takeaways this season, and they hold a big lead in turnover margin (+12). Luck could certainly be a factor, since turnovers are highly random — especially fumble recoveries, of which the Jayhawks have six (fifth most nationally). Perhaps, as West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen put it earlier this week, it’s the “Rutgers factor.” After all, Kansas forced six turnovers (three interceptions and three fumble recoveries) in its 55-14 win over the struggling Scarlet Knights in Week 3.
Or, perhaps Kansas has an improved defensive unit capable of forcing turnovers frequently. The Jayhawks have a solid group of defenders, led by linebacker Joe Dineen Jr., who ranks second in the conference with 63 total tackles, and All-Big 12 candidates in defensive lineman Daniel Wise and defensive back Mike Lee. Eight KU defenders, including Dineen and Lee, have intercepted passes, and Lee is one of three to return a pick for a touchdown.
West Virginia is a heavy favorite, and rightfully so. The Mountaineers are ranked in the top 10 by the Associated Press and have played like a legitimate Big 12 title contender. Led by Grier and his top-notch receivers, West Virginia is by far the more talented team, and the Mountaineers have the added advantage of playing at home.
Also, Kansas’ strengths don’t seem like much of an edge now that conference play has started. The Jayhawks allowed a 71.4 percent completion percentage and surrendered a combined 569 passing yards in losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State over the last two weeks. KU also forced just one turnover combined in the two games. Offensively, KU managed an average of 121.5 rushing yards over the same period and allowed nine sacks. Overall, the Jayhawks have been outgained by 376 total yards over the last two weeks. Unless Kansas forces the Mountaineers to make a Rutgers-like number of turnovers, it will be very difficult to keep the score close.
Prediction: West Virginia 45, Kansas 20
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.