By Cam Huffman
After playing eight straight games against teams that will end their season with a trip to a bowl game, a matchup with a 1-10 Kansas team should be a relief for West Virginia (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) and head coach Dana Holgorsen.
The Jayhawks that will come to Morgantown for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. contest — which will be shown locally on ROOT Sports — have lost 10 straight games and have very little for which to play this weekend. But Holgorsen said the matchup might not be as easy as it appears on paper.
For starters, Kansas has played some good teams very close. It lost just 20-14 at home against Oklahoma State, had Texas on the ropes before losing that game 21-17 and took Texas Tech to overtime before losing 41-34.
“If our guys have learned anything this year, it is you better be ready to play,” said Holgorsen. “All of the opponents in the Big 12 can win on any given day. Kansas is no different. They are a couple points away from having three Big 12 wins this season. We have to play hard.”
On top of that, Kansas makes preparation difficult because head coach Charlie Weis — who won Super Bowls as the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots — is more multiple than just about anybody on offense. The Jayhawks haven’t played since losing to Iowa State 51-23 on Nov. 17, and with the extra time to put together a plan, Holgorsen knows he’ll see some wrinkles.
“These guys do a lot of different things,” said Holgorsen. “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? Yes. At this time of the year, who you are is who you are.
“With Kansas, they do a variety of things on special teams and on offense. 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-game.”
One big question is how much the Jayhawks will throw the football.
Kansas is last in the Big 12 in passing offense, averaging just 151.5 yards per game through the air, and it has made a change at quarterback, starting redshirt freshman Michael Cummings, more of a running quarterback, who excels at the zone read. Behind Cummings and running back James Sims, who’s averaging 119.5 yards per game on the ground, Kansas has the league’s second-best rushing offense, averaging 216.6 yards per game.
“They have become more of a running team,” said Holgorsen. “They are going to lean on their two good running backs — James Sims and Tony Pierson. They are a top-20 team in the country when it comes to rushing offense.”
But if there’s anything WVU’s defense has done well under first-year coordinator Joe DeForest, it’s stop the run. The Mountaineers are giving up 141.2 yards per game on the ground, good enough for fourth-best in the Big 12.
Against the pass, however, WVU ranks dead last among 120 FBS teams, yielding 346.2 yards per game through the air.
Will Kansas change its tendencies to try to exploit the Mountaineers’ weakness?
“It is a good question,” said Holgorsen. “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, Sims, is going to be a 1,000-yard guy after he didn’t play in the first two or three games (because of a suspension). They are going to give it to him quite a bit, because he is one of their better plays.
“The 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. 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.”
When all is said and done, Holgorsen said, it’s more about making plays than calling them.
“You have the material, and you do like you do every week,” he explained. “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 want to defeat some blocks and make tackles.”
And on offense, don’t expect the Mountaineers to change a thing.
“Our offense is going to do what we do,” Holgorsen promised. “We will get the ball into a couple of our players’ hands as much as we can. (Kansas defensive coordinator) Dave Campo is a pretty good football coach. They present some problems with what they do. We are going to figure out what to practice against and make some in-game adjustments. It is business as usual, and we are looking forward to the game.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH