On October 1, 2011, Kansas State played host to a team that featured an early Heisman favorite and, frankly, a dreadful defense. The Wildcats were 3-0, with tight wins over Eastern Kentucky and Miami, while the Bears were a much more exciting 3-0, having averaged 51.3 points per game in wins over TCU, Stephen F. Austin and Rice. While we still knew at this point that Bill Snyder might always have a few tricks up his sleeve, most seemed to assume that Baylor and Robert Griffin III would win. And in averaging 6.9 yards per play to KSU's 4.5, they probably should have. But they didn't.
For a good portion of the game, Baylor looked to be in complete control. The Bears scored touchdowns on three consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters, averaging almost 14 yards per play in the process. But two early fumbles gave KSU both scoring opportunities (the Wildcats kicked a field goal after one fumble and missed a field goal after another) and chances to completely dominate the ball. In the first half, KSU ran 43 plays to Baylor's 28. Despite two long touchdowns, Baylor only led, 21-19, at halftime. In the second half, the Bears stretched the lead to nine points late in the third quarter, but the Wildcats' defense had something saved in reserve. Baylor's last eight plays: a rush for no gain, a six-yard loss on a fumble, an incomplete pass, an interception, a sack, a nine-yard pass, a two-yard run and a fourth-down incompletion. After gaining 409 yards in 48 plays in the first three quarters, Baylor gained 20 in 14 plays in the fourth -- Griffin's body language went from "completely in control" to confused and beaten -- and KSU scored the game's final 10 points to win.
Why is this relevant? Because KSU is going to attempt to follow the exact same recipe on Saturday in Morgantown. No team in the country is more realistic about its strengths and weaknesses than Kansas State; whereas Snyder's late-1990s KSU teams intimidated you and blew you off of the field with an impenetrable defense and unlimited big plays on offense and special teams, Snyder's current team plays Rope-a-Dope, absorbing plenty of punches and somehow delivering a surprising knockout blow the moment the opponent loses focus.
Against West Virginia, the Wildcats are all but guaranteed to follow the Baylor blueprint: Run the ball, work the play clock down to one second, convert every third-and-manageable (we'll say four or fewer yards), hack at the ball, do whatever they can to put Geno Smith on his rear end as much as possible, hold onto a couple of defensive surprises just in case they need them late, and at all costs, avoid catastrophe.
They did exactly that earlier this year in a 24-19 road upset of Oklahoma, too (a win that keeps looking better when you see how well Oklahoma has played the last two weeks). They ran two-thirds of the time (running back John Hubert had a great game), they held Oklahoma to 70 plays (more than Baylor, but fewer than they would prefer to execute), they converted so well on second-and-manageable that they didn't even face many third-and-manageables (and as a bonus, Collin Klein was 4-for-4 passing on third-and-6), they recovered two enormous fumbles (one at OU's 2, which was recovered for a touchdown, and one at KSU's 6, which ended a likely scoring drive), and they sacked Landry Jones twice and hurried him two other times. And in the process, they became the first ranked opponent to win at Oklahoma in the Bob Stoops era. Piece of cake.
It is difficult to pick against WVU in Morgantown, but it is also pretty difficult to pick against Bill Snyder, isn't it? Despite only mediocre-to-good play-by-play performance, and despite no margin for error whatsoever, the Wildcats are 16-3 since the beginning of the 2011 season. Somehow, they always come up with their two or three best plays of the game in the two or three biggest plays in the game. It shouldn't work this much, but it does, and at this point it is probably fair to assume it will continue to work as long as Klein is in the K-State backfield.
But Snyder is not the only reason this game is fascinating. No other team in the country reflects its own coach's personality as much as both Kansas State and West Virginia reflect theirs'. Kansas State is crafty, conservative, and opportunistic. Under Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia is cocky, aggressive and explosive. The first-time head coach has led the Mountaineers to a 15-4 record in his first season and a half, and despite some ugly defensive play, WVU could once again be the favorite in the Big 12 if they are to take out Snyder's Wildcats on Saturday.
Texas Tech used WVU's cockiness against it in an upset blowout last week, dominating in the trenches and daring Geno Smith to make passes he couldn't necessarily make with regularity. Here's what Mike Nixon had to say about Tech's performance against WVU at Football Study Hall:
As the West Virginia defense continued to hemorrhage points at a ridiculous rate, Smith threw long-ball after long ball as if he wanted to get 14, 21, or even 28 points back on one great throw. For the first time this season, Smith failed to take what the defense was giving him (not that they were giving him much) and consistently forced the long-ball in hopes of igniting a comeback. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, Smith simply couldn’t connect. After starting out 4-for-5 on long pass attempts, Smith went 0 for his next 13.
One of the main culprits to Smith’s rough day was the pressure the Texas Tech front-four consistently got on the Mountaineers. Red Raiders coach Tommy Tuberville said the game plan was to press the West Virginia receivers on the outside and take their chances with Smith’s vertical accuracy. The plan worked. What greatly helped the Red Raiders execute the game plan was the pressure their defense was able to get without having to bring an extra defender, something the West Virginia offense generally exposes very well. Consider that in the first half alone, the Red Raiders were able to get pressure (force a scramble or get a hit on the quarterback) at least eight times when rushing just three or four defenders. The strong rush with seven- and eight-man coverages contributed greatly to Smith’s worst outing of the season.
Tech was able to dominate West Virginia's offensive line to an extent with a line that stands up to the run well (ninth in Adj. Line Yards) but doesn't generate a ton of pass pressure (83st in Passing Downs Sack Rate). Kansas State is weaker against the run (30th in Adj. Line Yards) but a little better at rushing the quarterback (51st in Passing Downs Sack Rate). Speedy ends Adam Davis and Meshak Williams are both under 250 pounds, but have combined for five sacks and 10 tackles for loss; if they and tackle Javonta Boyd (5.5 tackles for loss) can get solid penetration and cause confusion for Smith with just a four-man rush, KSU should be able to slow WVU down at times, especially considering cornerback Nigel Malone is one of the best either receiver Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey will face this year.
Make no mistake, thought: West Virginia is going to move the ball quite a bit. Geno Smith is still the Heisman favorite for a reason, and honestly, after losing the plot for a while against Tech (as described above), it would be shocking if he didn't perform well and the Mountaineers were held completely in check for a second straight week. KSU won't win by trying to completely shut down Smith and company, but the Wildcats' Rope-a-Dope could still work. You don't have to stop WVU every time -- just stop them enough for your own offense to control the proceedings. KSU's offense is quite a bit more explosive this year and should find plenty of different avenues for exploiting such a shaky West Virginia defense and keeping Smith, Austin, Bailey, et cetera, off the field.
It is incredibly easy to underestimate Kansas State. I do it all the time, in fact. In KSU's the past two seasons, I have probably said "surely this is the week their margin for error catches up to them" about 10 times, and I've really only been right once, in last year's blowout loss to Oklahoma.
I'm going to continue doubting them to a certain degree -- I say West Virginia wins by six -- but I don't think they mind too much. They're doing just fine without my full-fledged support.