A different sort of problem
MORGANTOWN - Everyone knows the basic bad news regarding West Virginia's defense: The Mountaineers can't defend against the pass.
Here's the good news about the next opponent the Mountaineers face: They don't generally rely on the pass.
So, does that mean that No. 4 Kansas State (6-0, 3-0 Big 12), which comes to Morgantown for a prime-time game with No. 17 West Virginia (5-1, 2-1) Saturday night, is a better matchup than has been generally faced for that woeful defense?
"I hope so,'' coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They could be.''
It's not that the Wildcats don't present offensive problems. Far from it, in fact. K-State averages nearly 41 points per game and 427.5 yards. That's not good for a defense that has allowed an average of 52 points and 593 yards in three Big 12 games.
But where West Virginia has had the most trouble - by far - is defending the pass. In the first six games of the season, the Mountaineers have faced three of the top four passing offenses in the country (Baylor, Marshall and Texas Tech; the only top-four passing offense it hasn't faced is its own) and the results have been pitiful. Out of 120 FBS programs, WVU is in the bottom three in both passing yards allowed and pass efficiency defense.
But Kansas State has thrown the football only 118 times in six games, or roughly the same as West Virginia's last three opponents in half that number of games (119). Only 12 schools in the country average fewer yards passing than K-State.
But that doesn't mean that facing the Wildcats necessarily will be a break for West Virginia's defense.
"With any team there are challenges and this one just happens to be stopping the run,'' Holgorsen said. "Then when they're going to throw the ball, [we need to be] making plays downfield. We haven't done a very good job of making plays downfield. That's a little bit of an understatement.''
Indeed, but against the Wildcats the first priority has to be stopping a running game that averages 248 yards and ranks 11th in the country. Tailback John Hubert averages 101 yards and 6-foot-5, 226-pound quarterback Collin Klein 85. Klein has also scored more rushing touchdowns than any other active player except Wisconsin's Monte Ball.
And they do it all out of an option attack that spreads the field, but doesn't rush things. Kansas State is averaging just 63 plays per game - nearly 100 fewer than WVU in the same number of games - and just patiently picks away at a defense. Klein is deceptive, looking more like a tight end than a quarterback but running the ball as often and as well as a tailback.
"It's tough. He's averaging 100 yards a game and doesn't make any mistakes,'' Holgorsen said. "We try and junk up the box and stop the run and put more people in there, but then you're weak on the outside. He throws it to those fast guys outside and we have to make plays out there.''
Defending it, though, is like defending any other option attack, which the Mountaineers haven't done much this season except a bit against James Madison.
"You have your keys, you have your responsibilities and you have to look at it and you have to develop some tendencies that help you defend it,'' Holgorsen said. "Regardless of what people are doing offensively, we're going to coach our guys to carry out their assignments when it comes to matching up with the sets and being able to execute with good technique.
"We lost a whole lot of technique on both sides of the ball last week [in a 49-14 loss at Texas Tech] because our mind was all screwed up. We lost sight of what is important, which is understanding exactly what your assignment is, what to do and do it without hesitation when it comes to trusting your technique and triggering it. We didn't do a very good job of that."
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.