Few would have expected the Kansas State Wildcats to be sitting atop the Big 12 standings at this point in the 2020 college football season. Especially after K-State lost its opener to Arkansas State and later saw starting quarterback Skylar Thompson suffer a season-ending injury. Nevertheless, following a 55-14 victory over rival Kansas, the 16th-ranked Wildcats travel to face the West Virginia Mountaineers with a 4-1 overall record, including a perfect 4-0 mark in league play.
West Virginia was within striking distance of first place before it was upset in Lubbock last week. Coupled with a 27-13 loss to undefeated Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers' 34-27 loss to Texas Tech dropped their record to 3-2 overall and 2-2 in conference.
No. 16 Kansas State at West Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 31, at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: West Virginia -3.5
When Kansas State Has the Ball
Skylar Thompson's injury was one of the most significant any Big 12 team could have suffered, especially after he averaged 9.8 yards per pass attempt with four touchdowns and zero interceptions, and scored three times on the ground, in the first three games, including a 38-35 victory over Oklahoma. Nevertheless, true freshman Will Howard stepped up and has played nearly as well, completing 58.9 percent of his passes for 557 yards (9.9 yards per attempt) with three TDs and one interception. Howard (116 rushing yards, 4.6 yards per carry) has already fared better than Thompson (38, 2.0) as a running threat, including one touchdown on the ground.
K-State also has turned the majority of its rushing attack to a true freshman, Deuce Vaughn, who leads the Wildcats with 309 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 61 carries. Vaughn is remarkably the team leader in receiving yardage as well (and he ranks second in the Big 12) with 360 yards — 129 of which sparked the upset win over the Sooners — and a touchdown on 13 receptions. Senior Harry Trotter ranks second with 122 yards and three touchdowns on 42 carries.
Tight end Briley Moore, a graduate transfer from FCS Northern Iowa, leads the Wildcats with three touchdowns on a team-high 17 receptions. Moore's 234 receiving yards rank third to Vaughn and leading wide receiver Chabastin Taylor, who has accounted for 237 yards and a score on 14 catches. Malik Knowles was the team's leading returning receiver from 2019 but has yet to make a major impact offensively this season. In fact, despite being targeted 15 times, Knowles has more kick returns (5) than offensive touches, having caught just three passes for 42 yards and picking up three yards on one rushing attempt.
When West Virginia Has the Ball
West Virginia quarterback Jarret Doege set career highs in pass attempts (50) and completions (32) last week, and his 347 passing yards were the most since 2018, when he was a sophomore at Bowling Green. Doege leads the Big 12 in pass attempts per game (39.6) of which he has completed 64.1 percent. He ranks third in the conference with 1,389 yards and nine touchdowns and has also thrown three interceptions. Not much of a runner, Doege has one rushing touchdown among 17 carries and he has been sacked nine times.
Both Winston Wright, Jr. and Sam James rank among the top five in the conference in receptions, with Wright's 26 putting him second and James' tied for fourth with 24. The Mountaineers are the only Big 12 team with three players among the top 10 in receptions as running back Leddie Brown (19 rec., 138 yds., TDs) is tied for ninth. Brown also is one of just three Big 12 running backs to average more than 100 yards per game on the ground, and his 592 rushing yards and seven touchdowns trail only Iowa State's Breece Hall. Wright leads the team and ranks fourth in the Big 12 with 336 yards and has scored once. James is 10th with 234 yards and he has found the end zone twice. Bryce Ford-Wheaton has hauled in a team-high three TDs among his 13 receptions for 197 yards but he was shut out against the Red Raiders despite being targeted five times.
Despite allowing a season-high 34 points last week (though of course the final seven were scored against the offense on a 56-yard fumble return), West Virginia held Texas Tech to 348 total yards and still leads the Big 12 in total defense (261.8 ypg) and yards per play (4.31). The Mountaineers also lead the league and rank fourth nationally in success rate allowed on non-garbage plays against FBS opponents (27.9 percent), and have excelled on early downs, allowing just 4.2 yards per play, a 24.3 percent success rate, -0.311 expected points added per play, and -0.555 EPA per pass in those situations — all of which rank among the top six in FBS, according to cfb-graphs.com.
That defensive success, coupled with the home-field advantage (which is more travel-related than crowd atmosphere-related these days and K-State must travel nearly 1,000 miles to Morgantown), helps explain why the Mountaineers are favored by oddsmakers against No. 16 Kansas State. The Wildcats, which have allowed 427.8 total yards per game and 5.58 yards per play but have exceeded expectations by winning the field position battle (K-State ranks No. 7 nationally with an average field position margin of 10.7 yards) and playing great on special teams (including two punt return touchdowns by Phillip Brooks last week).
We know the first-place Wildcats are capable of beating anyone, but there's evidence to suggest West Virginia is actually the better team entering the game. Expect a close win for the Mountaineers.
Prediction: West Virginia 28, Kansas State 24
Podcast: Week 9 Preview and Predictions