West Virginia gearing up for always-difficult Kansas State

MORGANTOWN — Trends sure have shifted in the West Virginia-Kansas State football series.

Coach Dana Holgorsen’s program went 0-4 against the Wildcats upon entering the Big 12, but have eked out victories the past two years. Even though the No. 12 Mountaineers (2-0) are 16-point favorites entering today’s conference opener at Milan Puskar Stadium, they haven’t forgotten

“I don’t know how we won the last two games,” Holgorsen joked this week.

In 2016, West Virginia rallied in the fourth quarter to pull ahead 17-16 and held on when Mitch McCrane missed a 43-yard field goal.

Last year in Manhattan, Kan., the Mountaineers were shutout during the second half yet survived 28-23.

Despite throwing four touchdowns in that win, Will Grier also tossed two interceptions and was flummoxed by his offense enduring a string of three-and-outs. The Heisman Trophy contender shook his head this week after reviewing the footage.

“It was bad — we watched the tape,” Grier said. “There’s a lot of ways we could have improved in that game. They played a lot harder than us.”

Grier hasn’t strained much this season, completing 76 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns against only one interception. He’s averaging 380 yards per game passing.

The Mountaineers are coming off an unexpected off week when Hurricane Florence canceled their game at N.C. State. That created some additional prep time for Kansas State (2-1), which handled UTSA 41-17 on Saturday.

The Wildcats were starved for some positivity after edging FCS member South Dakota 27-24 in the season opener and losing to Mississippi State 31-10.

With Skylar Thompson taking over as the quarterback last week, the sophomore threw for a career-best 213 yards. It marked only the ninth time in 29 games that the Wildcats compiled more passing yards than rushing.

“I think that it was really good for our team. It gave a lot of confidence to our wide receiving corps and gave a lot of confidence to our quarterbacks,” said All-Big 12 offensive tackle Dalton Risner. “You guys know how Kansas State football is — we like to run the ball, everyone knows that. Teams like to bring their safeties down and play the run on us. One thing we maybe might not have had as much confidence in is our ability to throw that ball one-on-one with our wide receivers and beat the DBs on the other team, and that’s what we did last Saturday.”

Thompson’s first career start came last season against one of West Virginia’s worst defenses, yet WVU stopped several K-State drives in plus-territory. This year’s defense features more athleticism and has looked solid in beating Tennessee 40-14 and Youngstown State 52-17.

“A lot of the stuff that Youngstown was doing, run game-wise, is a lot like what Kansas State does with a mobile quarterback that can run a little bit,” said West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “So, there’s a lot of carryover for our guys right now.

“They’re going to run the ball first and try to take shots. They’ll get you one-on-one outside with double moves and different things like that. A lot of that stuff is what we’ve been preparing for. It’s totally different from the rest of the Big 12.”

Twitter @GAllanTaylor

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