MORGANTOWN — With one emphatic fourth-down stop, it became clear that this edition of West Virginia-Kansas State might be different than those in recent memory. It may turn out the same thing could be said of the Mountaineers defense as a whole.
The crowd of 59,245 at Milan Puskar Stadium started to buzz when officials called for the chains after K-State quarterback Skylar Thompson was stuffed on a third-and-short sneak at the Wildcats 39-yard line early in the second quarter.
Sure enough, he was short by a few links. The Mountaineers had bested the Wildcats at their own power-oriented game.
So 78-year-old Kansas State coach Bill Snyder decided to double down. Surely his boys would be able to push over WVU’s defensive line to get the eight or so inches needed for a first down. This is the type of thing his program is built on.
Even though it was early and his team was on the wrong side of the 50, Snyder decided to go for it.
But instead of ramming straight ahead, the Wildcats got cute. After calling a timeout to discuss its options, K-State went with a pitch to running back Alex Barnes. WVU linebacker Dylan Tonkery was there almost as soon as Barnes took the toss, taking him down for an emphatic 4-yard loss that gave the crowd an even bigger jolt.
The play was blown up so quickly that it looked like the Mountaineers knew exactly what was coming. Turns out they did.
“I was like ‘I doubt they are going to run the exact same play. I’m thinking option right here,’” Tonkery said. “I kind of scooted back, scooted out, and that’s exactly what they ran.”
Tonkery’s stuff set the tone for everything that happened afterwards.
“Turnovers and stops like that create lots of momentum,” said defensive lineman Reese Donahue. “That’s something that everyone can feed off of. That’s not just a defensive thing. You can feel the whole stadium rocking and the offense gets going. That creates a lot of energy. Stops like that change the game.”
Even though it was the defense making the play, the WVU offense broke out of a turnover-prone muddle immediately thereafter. In their first four drives of the game, the Mountaineers had two turnovers, a missed field goal and a touchdown.
The next four drives after the fourth-down stop all resulted in touchdowns.
The defense never stopped, either.
Kansas State didn’t convert a third down until the 12:45 mark of the third quarter. The Mountaineers held the Wildcats to 91 rushing yards, their first time limiting an opponent under 100 rushing yards since the 2016 Russell Athletic Bowl. More importantly, WVU kept an opponent out of the end zone for the first time since a 30-6 win over Iowa State on Nov. 28, 2015.
“It’s a big confidence boost to keep a team out of the end zone,” said safety Toyous Avery. “It just makes us want to go even harder to prove every other week that we can keep doing that.”