The optimism of a fan base can change in an instant in college football. For instance, the West Virginia Mountaineers and Kansas Jayhawks both skirted by with wins against FCS opponents in Week 1 and were embarrassed in losses in Week 2. West Virginia was dominated 38-7 by Missouri, and Kansas fell, inexplicably, 12-7 to Coastal Carolina. Both offenses sputtered badly through two games.
The attitude around both programs suggested that Saturday’s Big 12 opener between the two might be the last opportunity for either to win in 2019. But things quickly changed. First, the Jayhawks beat up Boston College 48-24 on the road Friday night. Then, the Mountaineers clicked and beat NC State 44-27 in Morgantown. Now, Saturday’s matchup could keep hope alive for a bowl bid for the winner.
West Virginia at Kansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 4:30 p.m. ET
Available on: ESPN+
Spread: West Virginia -4.5
When West Virginia Has the Ball
No one posted a worse rushing offense through the first two weeks of the season than West Virginia. The Mountaineers gained just 64 rushing yards combined against James Madison and Mizzou, while averaging a pitiful 1.14 yards per carry. However, the Mountaineers finally got the ground game rolling in the win over the Wolfpack, racking up 173 yards on 28 attempts (6.2 yards per carry) and scoring three touchdowns. Kennedy McKoy scored twice and led the team with 66 yards on 10 carries.
The passing attack was more of a presence in Week 1, as quarterback Austin Kendall completed 27-of-42 attempts for 260 yards and two touchdowns and zero interceptions against JMU. But Kendall followed with three interceptions and just 141 yards and a TD in Week 2. Back on the upward swing, the Oklahoma transfer tossed three TD passes and posted a new career high with 272 yards in the win over NC State. His top target, Sam James, caught nine passes for 155 yards and a TD. Florida State transfer George Campbell also caught a touchdown pass — his third straight game with a TD catch.
Kansas has been far from dominant defensively, but the Jayhawks have shown improvement. The KU defense has held opponents to 4.97 yards per play this year, which ranks No. 52 in the country. In 2018, the unit allowed an average of 6.06 yards per snap, which ranked 100th. Azur Kamara (2.5 sacks) and Darrius Moragne (2.0 sacks) have been disruptive up front, while Hasan Defense started the season the right way with a pick-6 against Indiana State.
When Kansas Has the Ball
Kansas was limited in the running game during the first two weeks, but the Jayhawks exploded for 329 yards on 45 carries (7.31 yards per attempt) and scored three times in the win over Boston College. Khalil Herbert broke free for 187 yards and a TD on just 11 carries, scoring on an 82-yarder, and Pooka Williams Jr. scored once and gained 121 yards on 22 attempts.
The passing game also came alive against BC. After he was held to just 107 yards and was intercepted twice in the loss to Coastal Carolina, quarterback Carter Stanley completed 74.1 percent of his passes for 238 yards and three touchdowns and one pick. He has now completed 74.1 percent of his attempts for 586 yards and five TDs with three interceptions on the season. Newcomer Andrew Parchment has quickly become Stanley’s favorite target and leads the team with 19 receptions for 235 yards and two scores.
West Virginia stacks up similarly on defense, statistically speaking. The Mountaineers have been consistent, allowing an average of 359.7 total yards per game and 4.65 yards per play, good for No. 61 and No. 34, respectively, among FBS units. However, the Mountaineers have been very susceptible to the running game and currently rank last in the Big 12 and No. 100 in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (182.67) — just behind Kansas (182.00, 99th).
West Virginia’s pass rush has been arguably its best overall asset this season. The Mountaineers rank in the top 25 nationally with nine sacks. Darius and Dante Stills have recorded three apiece.
Following big wins over Power 5 opponents, both teams and fanbases have reason to hope 2019 won’t be a lost first season for their first-year head coaches. West Virginia’s Neal Brown found a running game, which should be a benefit against a Jayhawks defense that has been vulnerable. Of course, new KU head coach Les Miles has weapons in the backfield, and they should find room to work against a West Virginia run defense that has been the weakest in the conference so far.
The unit that limits the opposition on the ground should come out ahead, and at this point, West Virginia has a talent advantage up front on both sides of the football. Expect the Mountaineers to win at the line of scrimmage, and to carry momentum into the bye week.