By Cam Huffman
Coming off its first loss of 2012, a 49-14 setback on the road at Texas Tech, No. 17 West Virginia (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) is looking to get back in the win column and start climbing back toward the top 5, where it was ranked before the upset in Lubbock, Texas.
A sellout crowd in Morgantown should help — West Virginia is 19-3 in night games at Milan Puskar Stadium since 2000 — but nothing will come easy against No. 4 Kansas State (6-0, 3-0 Big 12), which has already knocked off Big 12 preseason favorite Oklahoma earlier this season.
Cornerback Brodrick Jenkins has been ruled out for the Mountaineers and will likely be replaced by freshman Nana Kyeremeh, who has made some big special teams plays this season and has been looking for an increased role.
Star wide receiver Stedman Bailey is a game time decision, according to head coach Dana Holgorsen, as are defensive lineman Jeff Braun and defensive lineman Will Clarke. Holgorsen said running back Shawne Alston has looked better, but his status is still questionable with a thigh bruise. Dustin Garrison, who had offseason knee surgery and has slowly made his return, is closer to 100 percent and is likely to get a few more carries this week.
Rain could impact the tailgates around Mountaineer Field, as there's a 30 percent chance of showers starting at 1 a.m. this morning in Morgantown. The chance of precipitation goes down to 20 percent at 4 p.m., and by game time, it's down to 10 percent. Temperatures, according to Weather.com, will hover around 50 when the game begins and drop to the mid-40s by the game's conclusion.
The Mountaineers and the Wildcats split their only two previous meetings. WVU won the first game on Nov. 8, 1930 in Morgantown, 23-7, but KSU got revenge the next year, coming back to Old Mountaineer Field and winning 19-0.
WHAT THIS MEANS
First place in the Big 12 is on the line. Kansas State holds the outright lead coming into the game as the only undefeated team left in the conference — both overall and in conference play.
WVU, though, is in a four-way tie with TCU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma at 2-1 and could get very much back into the mix with a win. TCU and Oklahoma both have to come through Morgantown before season's end.
WVU is trying to climb back up the top 25 ladder, while KSU is looking to stay close to the top, and inch closer to the No. 1 spot.
The Heisman Trophy might also be in play today. According to ESPN’s Heisman Watch, WVU's Geno Smith is currently in front in the race for college football's biggest individual honor. The Wildcats' Collin Klein is third on that list.
The quarterback that plays the best today, could take a firm grasp on the award.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Collin Kelin, QB. — Klein isn't a traditional quarterback, but the 6-foot-5, 226-pounder definitely gets the job done. He's fourth in the Big 12 in rushing — not just among quarterbacks — at 85 yards per game, and he leads the league with 10 rushing touchdowns. He's not as big a threat through the air, but he can throw when he needs to do so, and he's completed nearly 67 percent of his passes for 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns.
Arthur Brown, LB. — The senior captain was labeled as the country's best middle linebacker by WVU's head coach. He's the team's leading tackler with 47 stops, including four tackles for loss. He also has three pass breakups, a sack and a fumble recovery.
Geno Smith, QB. — Perhaps the nation's most productive offensive player, Smith is poised for a big game after not living up to his own standards last week against Texas Tech. He leads the Big 12 with 378.5 passing yards per game, as well as 25 passing touchdowns. He's completed 75 percent of his passes and hasn't thrown an interception in 259 attempts.
Josh Francis, LB. — The senior is second in the Big 12 in tackles for loss with 9.5, and he's tied for fifth in the league with three sacks. His ball hawking skills will be critical against the Wildcats' option attack.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Kansas State will be looking for long, sustained drives to burn clock and keep the WVU offense on the sidelines. To keep that strategy from being successful, the Mountaineers need to get off the field on third downs and end Wildcat drives when they have the opportunity.
It will also be important for the Mountaineers to avoid unproductive possessions on offense. The possessions are likely to be fewer than usual, so WVU can't afford to come away empty.
KSU's main focus when WVU has the ball will be avoiding big plays. Texas Tech forced the Mountaineers to try to drive the field a little at a time, and WVU had a difficult time staying patient.
The team that runs the ball the best will also have a big edge. The Mountaineers are undefeated under Holgorsen when rushing for more than 150 yards in a game. KSU lives on the ground, and, even though it has one of the worst pass defenses in the league, WVU's plan has to be to force the Wildcats to throw the football.
Holgorsen on Kansas State — “They are probably the most disciplined team I have seen in a long time on all three sides of the ball. They are extremely disciplined. They don't make mistakes on any side of the ball. They play with tremendous effort, and they play extremely physical football. They are as smart of a football team as I have seen in some time.”
KSU head coach Bill Snyder on WVU — “They have a very talented football team, and it is not just Geno Smith. They have extremely fine receivers. They have a very talented offense. They have good specialists. They have good return guys, who also serve as wide receivers. I know their numbers have not been as good on defense, but they have been able to outscore people.”
They have been able to play well on defense when they have to.”