By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
A year ago, when Kansas State came to Morgantown, expectations for a great football game were everywhere.
While West Virginians were deflated over having suffered their first defeat of the season the week before at Texas Tech just when national championship talk was beginning to surface for a team that had started with five consecutive victories and boasted of the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in quarterback Geno Smith, that was viewed simply as a misstep in the march to a Big 12 championship.
But Kansas State put an end to such thoughts with a 55-14 exclamation point.
Although the hype is totally different this season, as is the site, that being in Manhattan, Kansas, at 3:45 p.m. today in a game televised by Fox Sports 1, WVU gets a chance for a taste of revenge in what has become a crucial game in the Mountaineer season.
A 3-4 start with a 1-3 record in the Big 12 for West Virginia and a 2-4 start with an 0-3 conference record take any championship considerations out of this game, but it could prove to be a turning point toward respectability for whichever team can pull out the victory.
The cast of characters has changed dramatically, Geno Smith having moved from West Virginia to the New York Jets to be replaced by Clint Trickett, and the Wildcats’ quarterback Collin Klein, who accounted for seven touchdowns in last year’s game, has left to be replaced by a “two-headed” quarterback tandem of Daniel Sams and Jake Waters.
Sams is a running quarterback good enough that he is the team’s leading rusher and third in rushing in the Big 12 with 87 yards a game, while Waters is the fourth-leading passer in the conference at 172.7 yards a game.
This has presented a problem for defenses but maybe more of a problem for coach Bill Snyder, who has not yet created an identity for his team.
“Offensively, they are kind of searching a little bit because they are dealing with the same thing a lot of teams are dealing with because they are replacing a fantastic quarterback, much like we are, and are trying to figure out who is going to be the guy and how you are going to structure things around him,” Holgorsen said.
With that said, Holgorsen senses that Sams is edging in front in the quarterback battle.
“It looks to me like they have been settling in on Sams a little bit. They are two different type guys; they do different type schemes with the two of them. We will have to prepare for both.
“Sams presents problems from an athletic point of view, as he is their leading rusher. We will have to keep him in check. He is 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, really fast, very athletic and will hurt you with his feet. The last game against Baylor, he controlled the game and clock. He did a phenomenal job of keeping them in the football game.”
West Virginia, of course, has finally settled on Clint Trickett as its quarterback, and he comes off his best game against Texas Tech, completing 27 of 43 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown.
The big difference is that Trickett is now healthy, the sprain in the AC joint of his throwing shoulder now healed. That has allowed him to not only play but practice and get more familiar with an offense that gave him troubles earlier in the year.
“It was a lot better,” Trickett said of the shoulder following the loss to Texas Tech. “Baylor was a struggle, but playing hurt is part of it. Being able to come out here and be healthy, even though we didn’t get the win, it was some sort of a confidence boost because our offense looked more fluid. We looked more in sync. We have to build off that.”
It is especially important this week because if Kansas State has a weakness it is in defending the pass, an area WVU is improving in.
K-State ranks sixth in the Big 12 giving up 226 passing yards a game while allowing 61.4 percent completions, with only Iowa State’s 63.1 a higher percentage.
The pass defense seems to be the only real problem; K-State ranks in the middle of the Big 12 in just about all other categories and is improving.
While WVU comes into the game off a heartbreaking defeat to Texas Tech when it blew an 11-point lead in the second half, Kansas State is coming off three consecutive tough losses, 31-21 at Texas, 33-29 at Oklahoma State and just 35-25 at home against Baylor, a team that scored 35 points against WVU one play into the second quarter.
“(You have to) stop the run,” Holgorsen said when asked how they slowed down Baylor’s offense. “They are thick up front in the middle, and they play with tremendous effort. They are going to give you five in the box. They gave Baylor five in the box, and so did we, and they run through us.
“Baylor did a good job of coming right off the ball and moving us. You heard me talk about them moving the line of scrimmage — they did not move the line of scrimmage against Kansas State.”
That will put a burden on the WVU offensive line if the Mountaineers want to run the ball.
“It is going to be a challenge blocking their guys. They do a great job with their D-line and linebackers on filling gaps and holding them on the line of scrimmage and not letting you establish the line of scrimmage. They played physical against Baylor,” Holgorsen said.
Can WVU go on the road and win this game?
“We’ve shown we can play at a high level, and we’ve shown we can play at a very low level,’’ Holgorsen said. “We need consistency on defense, and we need to continue to improve offensively and get into a rhythm and glue it together with special teams. We need them to do what we’re asking them to do, which will lead to a victory.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.