By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
For an early December game that matches a pair of teams out of championship consideration and without any BCS implications, West Virginia’s first matchup with Kansas in Milan Puskar Stadium at 2:30 p.m. Saturday offers more than its share of intrigue.
Rather than two teams just playing out the string, West Virginia is caught up in trying to get itself the best bowl game it can get, which would be a trip to San Diego and the Holiday Bowl, and to cosmetically improve its record from 6-6 to 7-5.
“There is a big difference in 7-5 and 6-6 in our minds. We will work our tail off to get as prepared as we can,” Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
On the other side, Kansas would certainly enjoy upsetting the Mountaineers to end a 20-game Big 12 losing streak and get Coach Charlie Weis his first conference victory.
The intrigue, however, comes in Kansas’ approach to the game, for Weis is an innovative offensive coach who found early on his passing attack was futile and opted to go to a running game, but made it a running game that could change shape from week to week.
“We haven’t exactly been lighting it up in the passing game this year. As we kind of evolved during the season, I felt it was important in the first year here to get something we were good at and hang our hat on that one thing on a weekly basis,” Weis said.
“Going into every game plan we all say, ‘OK, how can we be able to successfully run the ball with what we have at our disposal against who we’re going against and what they do?’ We come in and ask, ‘How are we going to run the ball against West Virginia?’ and the rest of the game plan sort of falls off of that.”
Holgorsen is aware of this and understands the challenge that presents.
“These guys do a lot of different things,” Holgorsen said. “We don’t, and a lot of teams in our conference don’t. We only get 20 hours a week with them. It is our philosophy to keep things consistent throughout the week.
“Do we tweak things?” the coach continued. “Yes. At this time of the year, who you are is who you are. We have 11 games to look at, and we have to figure out what their approach is going to be. If we fail to recognize that, then we will have to do a great job of that in the game.”
This becomes even more difficult to figure, even though “you are who you are” when you look at the matchups.
Teams have had trouble running against WVU all year but have thrown at will against them.
Does Kansas continue to run the ball? Or do they try to surprise WVU by throwing it?
“It is a good question,” Holgorsen said. “They tried that earlier in the year and weren’t that successful with it. That is why they settled in to being a zone read team.
“They have two really good backs. Their starter, James Sims, is going to be a 1,000-yard guy after he didn’t play in the first two or three games. They are going to give it to him quite a bit because he is one of their better players.
“The Tony Pierson kid looks like Tavon (Austin) because he plays a lot of different positions. They get him the ball in a variety of ways. If they split him out and throw it to him, we are going to have to cover him.”
Holgorsen then added an interesting twist to the problem.
“If they do throw more, we can obviously use the work. We want to continue to put our kids in positions where they can make plays, get their technique better, get their assignments better and tackle better. We want to continue to age these guys at a faster than normal rate,” he said, almost as if that would turn the game into a scrimmage.
Kansas’ run game is good enough to rank 19th in FBS football, making it formidable.
However, it comes across a good run defense in West Virginia, ranking 40th and giving up only 141 yards a game ... but part of that is because opponents throw so much against them.
And that is what figures to be tested by the Jayhawks. Holgorsen just can’t be sure how.
“You have the material and you do like you do every week,” Holgorsen said of his preparation. “You look at what they do in certain situations, and what they do against specific defenses. You just try to figure it out. When it gets down to it, it’s still just football. We are going to look and see what their tendencies are. We want to defeat some blocks and make tackles.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.