Kansas at West Virginia: What to Watch for

Nov 21, 2015; Lawrence, KS, USA; An overall view of Memorial Stadium before the game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and Kansas Jayhawks. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 21, 2015; Lawrence, KS, USA; An overall view of Memorial Stadium before the game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and Kansas Jayhawks. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports /

Kansas football continues its road trip by going to Morgantown to play the West Virginia Mountaineers. Here’s what to watch for.

The Mountaineers are one of the more balanced offenses in the country. Can Kansas slow them down?

West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard is the straw that stirs the drink for the Mountaineer offense. He ranks 32nd in the country in passing with 2033 yards, and adds 13 touchdowns.  Howard is also a key component of head coach Dana Holgorsen’s rushing attack. Howard is third on the team with 68 carries for 183 yards and four touchdowns.

West Virginia, though nominally an Air Raid team, doesn’t really play like one. Instead of spreading four receivers sideline to sideline like the traditional Air Raid, the Mountaineers use formations with multiple running backs to generate misdirection and numbers to one side or the other. While at Oklahoma State, Holgorsen saw the Diamond Formation up close and personal against Oklahoma. The Diamond is a pistol look with a running back flanked to both sides of the quarterback and two receivers out wide. He still uses it frequently at West Virginia, as the full house backfield forces the defense to declare its strength on two fronts: numbers in the box and directional alignment. The multitude of lead blocks in the backfield force the defense to use eight defenders in the tackle box to stop the run, leaving the one high safety vulnerable to deep passes. Additionally, the defense has to declare a strong side, even against the balanced formation, or get shredded on the backside of the play. Holgorsen has used this power rushing attack to gain 4.8 yards per carry, 42nd in the nation. The good people at the Offensive Breakdown blog have described the scheme in much more detail here, for those interested.

Holgorsen and the West Virginia coaching staff have used this to great effect over the years, and rank 39th in the country in rushing yards per game, at 207. The passing game still relies on traditional Air Raid schemes, like mesh, shallow cross, and Y-Cross, just out of different looks than most Air Raid teams utilize. The Air Raid in West Virginia is still going strong, as the Mountaineers have piled up 290 yards per game through the air, good for 24th in the country. They also take their share of deep shots, as their 8.3 yards per attempt is good for 19th in the nation. Clint Bowen’s defense will have a difficult time with all that West Virginia will throw at it, especially without linebacker Joe Dineen, who was declared out for the season.

Will Kansas’s offense finally kick into gear on the road?

After a brutal offensive performance against Oklahoma, the Jayhawks get no reprieve this week against a stingy West Virginia defense, especially against the run. In conference play, West Virginia is only allowing three yards per rush. Khalil Herbert and Joe Gibson should return, adding another, more explosive, dimension to the Kansas rushing attack. The offensive line’s improvement will be key here. Beaty commented on the line’s improvement in his weekly press conference, “Well, I think one of the things that we’re actually doing better, and it showed two weeks ago, didn’t show quite as much this week, and it wasn’t necessarily what you think, is we’re actually playing better up front, and that was something that we had to get done, and it takes a little time to develop those guys, but we’re playing better up front, and that – this last week for them to actually – they didn’t play that bad.” Designed runs by Cozart is an additional element KU might use against West Virginia to spur the rushing attack. We saw more of that against OU last week.

The passing game has to be better as well, and that’s where West Virginia is more vulnerable. They’re 79th in the country in passing defense, allowing 239 yards per game through the air. However, it’s difficult to complete long passes against the Mountaineers, as they’re 21st in the country in yards per attempt, allowing only 6.3. Part of this is their relatively low completion percentage allowed, at only 55.2%. To this end, Montell Cozart seems to be the quarterback moving forward, as long as he stays healthy. Beaty confirmed that this week to the media.

More from Kansas Jayhawks Football

The Jayhawks need to sustain drives, and keep the defense off the field. The recipe is to be good on third down.

The Jayhawks have to be better on third down. The Mountaineer defense struggles somewhat in that regard, allowing offenses to convert 50% of the time. Kansas also struggles mightily in converting on the most important down in football. They rank 117th in the country, converting only 32% of them. The opposite is true of the Kansas defense. They’ve been remarkably good on third down, only allowing opponents to convert 35% of attempts, 39th in the country. Due to their very good running game, West Virginia usually has manageable third down distance, and it shows in conversion percentage. They convert 48.5% of them, 15th in the country. If Kansas can win the battle of third down, they might have a chance.

Bottom Line

This is a much better matchup for the Jayhawks talent-wise than last week in Norman. West Virginia beats people with physicality and scheme, not necessarily talent. The recipe for Kansas is simple: stop the run, sustain drives, and don’t turn the ball over. However, I’m not sure they can do any of those well enough to stay in this one. My prediction: 45-17 West Virginia.