Great teams overcome adversity and find ways to win. That is exactly what the West Virginia Mountaineers did against the Kansas State Wildcats on Saturday.
In West Virginia’s first three outings, the Mountaineer offense faced two solid defenses–Missouri and BYU. However, the Kansas State defense WVU met on the first day of October entered the contest as the No. 1 unit in the nation.
Early on, the Mountaineer offense was nonexistent. Quarterback Skyler Howard was thoroughly contained. WVU tallied 174 first-half yards, zero points, and was 1-for-6 on third downs. Since the Mountaineer offense couldn’t get into a flow during the first two quarters, the West Virginia defense had little margin for error. It allowed only 178 yards and even forced a turnover in the first half, the Wildcat offense still found a way to score on them. The Kansas State offense created 13 points in this game on drives of under 50 yards. It’s a formula Bill Snyder has used to flummox so many Big 12 opponents over the years. Kansas State might not gobble up massive chunks of yardage, but leveraging field position has often been the Wildcats’ best friend.
Kansas State owned a 16-3 lead late in the third quarter, putting the Mountaineers to sleep.
Late in the third quarter, the game shifted, and the home team awakened.
“You know the snowball effect where you get one thing going wrong and the snowball just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger?” Howard said. “You’re looking around like, man, we need a spark. We need something to happen.”
Less than two minutes left in the third, West Virginia and Howard got the spark that they were looking for.
With 1:39 left in the quarter, Howard dropped back to pass. He let the ball fly and hit wide receiver Shelton Gibson right in the hands. Gibson turned that catch into a 52-yard gain and put the Mountaineers at the Wildcats’ 21-yard line.
Six plays later, West Virginia cut Kansas State’s lead to six points, at 16-10.
After getting two stops against a stagnating KSU offense, the Mountaineers started at their own 44, shortening the field the way a Bill Snyder team would. In nine plays, West Virginia drove 56 yards to take the lead, 17-16, after a Howard touchdown pass.
“(Howard) does a good job of keeping the play alive,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said about on Howard’s last touchdown pass. “He kept that one alive and kept his eyes down field.”
West Virginia had turned Snyder’s modus operandi against the Wildcats, but it still needed to finish the job on defense. When Kansas State got to the WVU 24, it seemed that the visitors — who had not lost to the Mountaineers in four previous Big 12 meetings — would once again break a lot of hearts in Appalachia.
On the next three plays, West Virginia stonewalled KSU for a net total of minus-2 yards. Everyone knew what was coming next.
Earlier in the game, Kansas State kicker Matthew McCrane connected on field goals of 22, 31 and 37 yards. A 43-yard boot wasn’t a piece of cake, but it represented comfortable field goal range.
The one difference: Unlike the previous three field goals, this latest attempt occurred under the weight of game-deciding pressure. McCrane missed his kick wide left.
Jubilation coursed through Milan Puskar Stadium.
“The crowd got into it, juiced us up and we got some momentum,” Holgorsen said about the defenses second half performance. “Just played harder.”
After that missed field goal, West Virginia drained the rest of the clock and moved to 4-0 on the season.
“Finding a way to win is the most important thing,” Holgorsen said.
The come-from-behind victory further illustrates that the Mountaineers may be destined for an unforgettable season. West Virginia tallied 422 total yards against the best defense in college football. The Mountaineers also won another close game in a parity-filled conference. Winning razor-tight contests is how WVU — and any other Big 12 team — will win the league championship.
A yard-gobbling offense in a conference filled with weak defenses–plus a defense that has come up big in do-or-die situations–creates a winning equation for this team.
West Virginia is on the cusp of being considered a top-tier team in 2016.