It was a brisk, autumn evening at Milan Puskar Stadium back on Saturday, October 20, 2012, when the 13th-ranked Mountaineers — fresh off a humbling road loss to Texas Tech — welcomed Colin Klein and the fourth-ranked Kansas State Wildcats to Morgantown. Little did the 60,000-plus fans who packed the stadium with Old Gold and Blue that night know, but they were about to witness a bulldozing. While the Wildcats only put up 146 rushing yards as a team that night, it was Klein’s four rushing touchdowns, to go along with his 323 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air, that left scars that still haven’t fully healed on any diehard WVU fan.
That was the first taste West Virginia got of Bill Snyder’s offense — one that hasn’t really changed much since the Mountaineers joined the Wildcats in the Big 12 Conference. Kansas State relies on its disciplined offensive linemen to perfectly pull and pound its opponent’s front seven, who then allows the quarterback to delay behind the line of scrimmage and pounce when he sees a hole. K-State pairs this offensive strategy with an opportunistic defense that forces turnovers and tremendous special teams play.
Seems simple to beat in theory, but in reality, it’s been difficult for teams around the country to take the beating for four quarters from K-State’s line and, usually, a burly, smashmouth quarterback. There are few style points, but for a team that can’t always recruit the flashy five-star skill position player to Manhattan, Kansas, K-State’s gameplan gets the job done.
It took four losses, a one-point home victory and the magic of Will Grier last year for the West Virginia coaching staff to finally figure out the right formula on how to beat the Purple and Silver. Granted, the 2018 Wildcats aren’t even close to as good as the 2012 bunch that was led by Klein, and Grier, once again, threw for 300-plus and five touchdowns Saturday, but the Mountaineers don’t make a four-turnover performance look so easy, had it not been for a standout performance by the defense.
The Mountaineer defense held the ground-and-pound Wildcats to just 91 yards rushing on the day. Don’t look now, but the rush defense, which was near the bottom of the barrel in Division I last year, is 16th in the country through three games. West Virginia kept a solid contain on Kansas State’s rotation of quarterbacks and made it is running back Alex Barnes nearly invisible.
While it didn’t show up on the stat sheet this week, it’s the improvement on the defensive line that’s been the difference in turning in what was a liability in 2017 into a strength in 2018. Kenny Bigelow, Ezekiel Rose, Darius and Dante Stills, Jabril Robinson and Reese Donahue, collectively, are getting a solid push up front, which is allowing the next level of defenders to wreak havoc around the line of scrimmage. Nine of the team’s 10 tackles for loss in the contest were made by linebackers or defensive backs. I’m sure Tony Gibson was thrilled, as that’s what the 3-3-5 stack is designed for.
West Virginia’s best defenses over the last 10 years have come when the team’s had a strong defensive line. Scooter Berry and Johnny Dingle paved the way for Bruce Irvin, Chris Nield and Julian Miller. It appears that the torch is now being passed along to the current group of hogmallies up front. The offense is already making a strong case that it can score 40-plus points on average per game by the season’s end, so if the defense can continue to perform like it did Saturday, with the defensive line setting the tone, then blowouts like in 2012 will be out of the realm of possibility. Instead, the worst-case scenario would be shootouts.
Simply put, a strong showing by West Virginia’s defensive line means the 2018 Mountaineers can beat anybody.
You can never look too far ahead as a football program, especially one like West Virginia that has greatly relied heavily recently on an influx of transfers, who have only donned the Old Gold and Blue for a year or two. Following this season, the Mountaineers will have to replace three guys on the defensive line. Hopefully, the coaching staff puts more of an emphasis on recruiting high-quality prospects on the defensive line, given how important the position group has proven to be so far this year.
The recent facility upgrades have West Virginia keeping up with the Joneses in that department. It has a national reputation for developing quarterbacks and wide receivers, while also putting linebackers and defensive backs in the NFL. The next step toward becoming a blue blood in college football for West Virginia is creating beasts on the defensive line. So far, the 2018 group isn’t disappointing.
It would’ve been great to see them take on Klein back in the day.