Justin Crawford and the Mountaineers head to Lawrence to open Big 12 play against the Jayhawks
West Virginia and Kansas get ready for Big 12 play trending in different directions. After a tough loss to Virginia Tech to open the season, the Mountaineers have ripped off a pair of big wins against overmatched East Carolina and FCS opponent Delaware State. Meantime, the Jayhawks began the season with relative optimism, beating FCS member Southeast Missouri State, before falling to a pair of MAC teams in Central Michigan and Ohio.
The Jayhawks are still in full-blown rebuild mode and now their competition gets ramped up with Big 12 play here.
West Virginia at Kansas
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 12 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: West Virginia -21
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Kansas’ defense stop anyone?
The Jayhawks just allowed a combined 87 points and 721 passing yards to a pair of MAC teams. Enter: Will Grier and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, who are licking their chops at the prospect of facing this KU secondary. It’s a young secondary, which includes three sophomore starters who have struggled at times in Hasan Defense, Bryce Torneden and Mike Lee.
Granted KU’s run defense hasn’t been much better, giving up nearly 350 yards the past two games combined. Meantime, West Virginia returns the Big 12’s leading rusher in Justin Crawford, who has rushed for at least 100 yards in the first three games this season.
Last season, West Virginia piled up 605 total yards against Kansas, and that was with Skyler Howard, who isn’t half the quarterback that Grier is.
2. Mountaineers' secondary
West Virginia’s secondary has been good enough, but far from spectacular. The Mountaineers gave up more than 320 passing yards against East Carolina in Week 2 and now faces a Kansas offense under new coordinator Doug Meacham who wants to throw, throw and throw some more. KU quarterback Peyton Bender has thrown 109 passes the past two games. Even KU head coach David Beaty admitted after losing to Central Michigan in Week 2, the Jayhawks had to get back to running the ball more. They did, sort of. Going from 62 pass attempts in Week 2 to 47 in Week 3.
Also note, KU’s offensive line has struggled, allowing five sacks of Bender against Ohio. West Virginia’s defensive line isn’t its strength, but it will look much improved against KU.
Regardless, KU is going to try its best to beat WVU in a shootout. So if the Jayhawks can somehow pick up a couple of quick scores early on, maybe, just maybe, we’re looking at an upset brewing.
3. Special teams
Another great way for a team to pull off the upset when facing a three-touchdown spread is by having some special teams magic. Despite all of the struggles from Kansas, special teams has been a bright spot. The Jayhawks' are allowing only 12.2 yards per kickoff return, which ranks second in the nation. Meantime the Mountaineers haven't fared as well (71st in FBS at 20.1 ypr) despite playing two inferior teams.
But on the flip side, West Virginia has been one of the best kickoff return teams in the country, averaging 31.4 yards per return, good for 12th in the country. Marcus Simms opened last week's game against Delaware State with an 80-yard return.
This was the year I thought Kansas may finally turn the corner under third-year head coach David Beaty. Granted, turning the corner by Kansas standards meant reaching the three- or four-win mark. But based on what we’ve seen through three games, including two losses to MAC teams, it feels like the Jayhawks are still a year away. The offense has been inefficient, with Peyton Bender only completing 58 percent of his passes in new offensive coordinator Doug Meacham’s Air Raid offense. On the other side, the defense has been surprisingly bad. Dorance Armstrong Jr. was the preseason pick for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, but as a team KU has just three sacks in two games, with Armstrong yet to record one (he had 10 last season).
Meantime, Will Grier has been outstanding for West Virginia since taking over the reins following his transfer from Florida. He’s thrown 11 touchdowns to two interceptions, while completing nearly two thirds of his passes. The wide receiving corps doesn’t have one star, but is a deep and veteran group made up of Gary Jennings, David Sills, Ka’Raun White and Marcus Simms. The running game has talent behind Justin Crawford with Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway and Tevin Bush. The Mountaineers will be able to beat the Jayhawks in any fashion they choose.
Prediction: West Virginia 49, Kansas 21
— Written by Pete Mundo, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as well as owner and operator of HeartlandCollegeSports.com, a site for Big 12 fans. Mundo also is a sports anchor at CBS Sports Radio and can found on Twitter @PeteMundo. Follow Heartland College Sports on Twitter @Heartland_CS.