By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
You wanted to know why West Virginia University jumped to the Big 12, you say.
The answer to that is easy. Just look what’s going on at Milan Puskar Stadium at Mountaineer Field at 7 p.m. tonight — No. 17 West Virginia vs. No. 4 Kansas State.
The opponent isn’t Syracuse. It isn’t South Florida or even Rutgers.
It is an unbeaten team with eyes on a national championship and a quarterback, Collin Klein, with eyes on the Heisman Trophy, and a coach, 73-year-old Bill Snyder, who is heading toward the College Football Hall of Fame.
It is a life-and-death game for the Mountaineers and for quarterback Geno Smith and his Heisman Trophy credentials.
Needless to say, a sellout crowd will be on hand, as well as Fox TV cameras bringing the show to the nation.
It may get better than this — WVU is coming off its first defeat, a rather gory 49-14 loss at Texas Tech that kept it from being a meeting of undefeated, Top 5 teams — but it does not get any more meaningful to the Mountaineers and their program.
Win this and they jump back into the Top 10 and remain in contention for the Big 12 championship and, who knows, a chance to get back into the national championship picture.
Lose it and, well, how does unranked and a two-game losing streak sound going into an off-week?
“Kansas State definitely presents a great challenge. They play tough football,” said WVU’s and the nation’s leading receiver, Tavon Austin. “That’s what Texas Tech did; they came in and hit us in the mouth. They’re going to come in like that this week, and we need to be prepared.”
This is a team that is different from anything WVU has seen this year and will see in the Big 12. It is a run-first, spread option team with a quarterback in Klein who reminds people a lot more of Tim Tebow than he does of Peyton Manning.
“Offensively, it starts with their quarterback. Collin Klein is a tremendous football player. You watch him on tape, and you have to stop the run because between him and their running back, John Hubert, they rush for 200 some yards a game,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said.
That may just play into WVU’s hands, as it has been totally inept all year at stopping the passing game but has gotten passing grades, so to speak, against the run.
“We will work hard on trying to stop the run, and we want to make them pass,” Holgorsen said. “You look at them throwing the ball, and it doesn’t look very good, but it goes exactly where you want it to go. They have big-play potential outside, and they have some receivers that can really run. You spend so much time on stopping the run that they have guys that make plays on the outside, and they do a great job on third downs.”
But just when you think they are running …
“A lot of times, he’ll look like he’s running the ball, then he’ll pretend to run the ball but throw it deep, and he has the arm to complete it,” said linebacker Doug Rigg. “The biggest thing for us is that we have to read our keys. We can’t just assume it’s going to be a run and give up receivers going deep.”
Already this season the Mountaineers have given up 15 pass plays of 30 or more yards, seven for touchdowns.
“They create such a different challenge than last week,” defensive coordinator Joe DeForest said. “It’s the total opposite. We’re going to have to get more hats on the ball.”
How they hope to accomplish that he won’t say.
“I don’t want to give away the game plan, but obviously you are going to have to keep a lot of sets of eyes on him,” he said, hinting that some kind of spy will be assigned to Klein.
Kansas State also will offer a throw-back philosophy in how it runs its offense.
“They stay out there, and it is going to be like it was against Maryland,” Holgorsen said, who expressed frustration with the style of play after the Maryland game. “They are going to huddle; they are going to sub; they are going to get their personnel groups in; they are going to go to the line of scrimmage, they are going to try and draw you offsides; they are going to make sure that they are in the right play; and they are going to play ball. We are going to have to do a good job of being patient and making sure that we take advantage of our opportunities.”
In the meantime, WVU must recover from last week’s loss and fight through injuries. The most notable new injury has sidelined cornerback Brodrick Jenkins, who will be replaced by true freshman Ricky Rumph.
Whether or not star wide receiver Stedman Bailey, who leads the nation in TD receptions with 14, is back from an ankle sprain was unclear in mid-week, as was the situation with running back Shawne Alston, who has sat out a month of games with a thigh bruise.
Austin said Bailey will be back, while starting offensive guard Jeff Braun, also out with an ankle, vowed he would return for the game.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.