By Ryan Decker, Originally published for West Virginia Illustrated
MORGANTOWN – For the second-straight week, the West Virginia Mountaineers (4-0) were in a game that pitted their strength – offense – against the strength of the opposition – defense.
Staring across the line of scrimmage was a Bill Snyder-coached defense that had limited teams to 11 points and less than 200 yards of offense per game this season coming in.
Kansas State’s defense kept the Mountaineer’s in check for most of the game, but 14 fourth-quarter points by WVU, combined with a missed field goal late by Kansas State, was the recipe West Virginia used to stay undefeated, winning 17-16.
“It was a weird game,” WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I just felt like we were able to move the ball. We couldn’t get points on the board for a number of reasons.
“They were the last team to beat us so we were pretty motivated.”
Kansas State showed Mountaineer fans why its one of the best teams inside the red zone in the country in the first quarter following a dropped pass interception charged to Skyler Howard that fell into the hands of Elijah Lee, the Wildcats’ best defender.
Despite missing two receivers on deep passes down field, Jesse Ertz completed a pair of first down passes to move the Wildcats inside WVU’s five-yard line. Two plays later, Ertz ran it in himself on an option play from two yards out.
Ertz totaled just 166 passing and 25 rushing yards in the game.
That was the only score in the first quarter, despite the Mountaineers holding the Wildcats to just 80 yards in the opening 15 minutes of play.
West Virginia on the other hand, gained 125 yards in the first half, just 54 fewer than what the K-State defense had allowed on average coming into the game.
KSU added points on field goals at the beginning and end of the second quarter, taking a 13-0 advantage into the half.
The Wildcat defense, which was ranked amongst the best in the nation, clamped down in the second, only allowing the Mountaineer offense to total 49 yards.
Part of the problems for West Virginia stemmed from issues on the offensive line, leading to Howard having little to no time to read the defense.
“We went back in halftime and talked about focusing on technique,” offensive line coach Ron Crook said. “Go back to fundamentals, go back to basics. Do the things that we work on everyday, that we talk about every day. The guys bought into it, took it to heard. Everyone across the board played better in the second half.”
Mountaineer drives in the first half resulted in three punts, a missed field goal, a turnover on downs and an interception.
West Virginia did manage to get on the board with its first drive of the second half.
A 31-yard pitch and catch to Daikiel Shorts moved the Mountaineers into KSU territory.
Later in the drive on third down and long, Howard rolled out to the right and attempted to find a receiver down field. The pass fell incomplete, but offsetting penalties kept the drive going.
A false start penalty called on Adam Pankey on 4th and 2 a play later forced Holgorsen to change plans from going for it on fourth down, and kicking a field goal.
Josh Lambert, who was returning from suspension and had missed one field goal attempt earlier in the game, nailed this one from 37 yards out.
KSU kicker Matthew McCrane added his third field goal of the day on the Wildcats ensuing drive, once again putting Wildcats up by 13 points.
West Virginia appeared to be putting a scoring drive together midway through the third quarter. Twice in the sequence Howard connected with Jovon Durante on pass plays to move the chains.
However, the drive came to an abrupt end when Rushell Shell fumbled the ball near the goal line, which was recovered by Kansas State.
The play of the game for West Virginia may have come on its next drive.
Howard sent a lofty pass down field that Shelton Gibson had to leap in the air to catch. In the process of making an acrobatic catch for a 52-yard gain, Gibson’s helmet was ripped off his head on the way down. No penalty was called, but the crowd, and Gibson, reacted to the catch.
“That was probably one of the sparks that we needed,” Howard said. “Him going up for it… I trust that guy, obviously, to go get the ball, no matter what situation. For him to get his head ripped off and still catch it that just shows you he’s hungry for the ball when the ball’s in the air.”
The big play turned into points at the start of the fourth quarter for WVU.
Justin Crawford bulldozed nine yards, with the help of his offensive line pushing him along, to get down to inside the one. Two plays later, he punched it in, the touchdown pulling the Mountaineers within six points, 16-10.
Crawford finished the game with 104 rushing yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Howard ended the day with 298 yards passing on 24 completions.
Kansas State began putting a lengthy drive together, trying to answer back, but penalties pushed the Wildcats backwards despite converting on 3rd and 15.
Ertz, trying to find a man deep down field, was intercepted by Rasul Douglas with just over four minutes into the final period as Douglas out jumped the receiver he was defending.
West Virginia’s defense came up big numerous times in the second half, stymieing Ertz and company to just over 100 yards of offense between halftime and the end of the game.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineer offense continued to pick up yards in bulk.
Crawford gained 21 yards on a run to change sides of the field, and White gained 13 on a screen play to move the chains.
Later in the drive, Howard scrambled to the near sideline looking for an open receiver, and found a streaking Durante near the back of the end zone for a score.
That put the Mountaineers in front for the first time in the game, 17-16.
Kansas State slowly went down field, attempting to use as much clock as possible and score to go ahead. The Wildcats made it as far as the Mountaineer 24 before kicking a field goal with just over 2 minutes remaining.
McCrane’s kick was wide of the mark.
The miss sealed it for West Virginia.
West Virginia gained a total of 422 yards on the day, while the defense limited KSU to under 300.
West Virginia is off next week before heading on the road to take on Texas Tech in Lubbock.