Wildcats, Mountaineers begin Big 12 title trek
When you think of great Big 12 rivalries, the Kansas State-West Virginia matchup is not front of mind. In fact, in a lot of ways this still seems completely bizarre that they are conference mates to begin with. But I digress. The last four showdowns between these two have seen the outcome decided by a total of 13 points with two games being one-point decisions.
Last week the Mountaineers fell victim to Hurricane Florence as their much-anticipated matchup with NC State got cancelled. So they’ve been sitting on the shelf for two weeks. The Wildcats, who normally get four-star performances out of two-star talents, have started 2-1 with wins over FCS opponent South Dakota and UTSA surrounding a bad blowout loss to Mississippi State in week two.
Although they are sizable underdogs on the road in Morgantown, you can never underestimate a Bill Snyder-coached team as he always seems to have a gadget play or two to pull on an unsuspecting opponent. Either way, this should be fun.
Kansas State at West Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Spread: West Virginia -16
Three Things to Watch
1. The Heisman candidate
All eyes will be on WVU quarterback Will Grier as the former Florida Gator kicks his Heisman campaign into high gear now that Big 12 play has begun. He also has a little bit of ground to make up since he didn’t get his marquee matchup with NC State. Of his 60 passes thrown so far this season Grier has missed on just 14 of them and also has nine TDs. He is third in the country with a 77 percent completion rate and also third in passing efficiency at 229.4. While Grier could have turned pro, his high-octane targets Gary Jennings and David Sills also skipped on taking their wares to the NFL last April and will be names worth watching on Saturday in controlling the ball over the course of the game.
2. The turnover battle and the red zone
One characteristic of Bill Snyder-coached teams is their usual diligence in taking care of the ball and taking advantage of their opportunities. But this has been a different breed of Cat this year as KSU has suffered seven fumbles (and forced only one) and has just two touchdowns in eight trips to the red zone (as opposed to 7-for-11 for their opponents). The ‘Neers have lost just one fumble and one interception and also have been a perfect nine-for-nine in the red zone with six of those hitting pay dirt. If those trends continue here on Saturday… that is grim news for the Purple Gang.
3. The offensive lines
Snyder complained after their game with Mississippi State that the Wildcat front five played “soft” against the Bulldogs and did not assert themselves as they’re capable. Keep in mind this is a line that returned all five starters for 2018 and had 124 combined starts, so it was expected to be a team strength. If the Cats can’t get a solid push against the Mountaineers it will be a long day for the Wildcats. Considering that their defense gave up 389 rushing yards and 10 yards per carry to Mississippi State two weeks ago, you have to figure the Mountaineer front should be able to plow some running lanes for Martell Pettaway and Leddie Brown. So this WVU offense won’t need to rely solely on Grier’s arm and his receiving corps.
You get the feeling this is a matchup of programs that are drifting in two different directions. Kansas State struggled in spots in both of its wins over what were perceived to be inferior opponents. West Virginia has a Heisman contender at the controls and a bevy of receivers to stretch the defense vertically.
Though players like quarterback Skylar Thompson and running back Alex Barnes are steady, the Wildcats appear to be lacking in big-play potential on offense, other than the opportunistic Isaiah Zuber, who salvaged the season-opening win over South Dakota with a couple of big plays late in the game. The Mountaineers are chock-full of electric skill position players and difference-makers all over the field for Will Grier to throw to. And that will be the big difference here. One team can make the big play, the other team relies on getting a lead and methodically keeping it. If WVU goes up early, this one could be a boat race for the rest of the afternoon.
Prediction: West Virginia 42, Kansas State 17
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.