In just his second year as the Kansas State head coach, Chris Klieman has his Wildcats 4-0 to begin Big 12 Conference play, including opening league play with a 38-35 win at Oklahoma. The win marked consecutive wins over Sooners since winning five straight from 1993-97.
“When you think Kansas State whether it's under coach Klieman or under coach (Bill) Snyder is, it’s a disciplined football team that plays extremely hard and they're difficult to prepare for in all three phases,” said West Virginia head coach Neal Brown.
The Wildcats have 14 sacks on the year, ranking fourth in the Big 12, and thirteen have come from the defensive line with defensive end Wyatt Hubert leading the unit with three sacks and defensive tackle Drew Wiley tallying 2.5. Defensive ends Kirmari Gainous and Massie Bronson registering two sacks on the season.
“If you look at them defensively, four-down front. I haven’t seen everybody but really, really good talent. I would go out to say one of the top two most talented teams at defensive end - really rush the passer – Hubert’s special. They’ve got a couple of other kids at the end spots that can really rush the passer.”
Joe Klanderman is in his first year as defensive coordinator at Kansas State after tutoring safeties last season and continues to coach safeties this season.
“Extremely well-coached, in my opinion,” said Brown. “They’ve got answers for everything you do. They’ve always played the run well. Play a lot of guys in the secondary, and they’ve had some COVID issues, and you can’t really tell. They rotate a bunch of guys in, and all of them have been productive. They’re difficult to move inside. I think that’s why people have a difficult time running on them - they’re difficult to move.”
Defensive backs Justin Gardner and Jahron McPherson come into the game with two interceptions apiece.
On the offensive side of the ball, true freshman quarterback Will Howard (6-4, 230-lb) was thrown into the fire in just the third game of the season after starting quarterback Skylar Thompson was sidelined during the Texas Tech game and remained on the sideline with his arm in a sling. The Wildcats were able to beat the Red Raiders 31-21. Thompson’s season ended after undergoing surgery as Howard took over the starting role and is now 2-0 on the season as a starter with wins over TCU and Kansas.
Howard is 33-56 for 557 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception and has chipped in 116 yards on 25 carries, including a touchdown on the ground.
“Will Howard has a real calm demeanor about him,” said Brown. “He’s a big kid - strong runner. He makes two or three really difficult passes each game he has played for explosive plays.”
Offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham’s ties to Klieman go back to their playing days together at Northern Iowa. Their coaching careers have intertwined, including recent success at North Dakota State before taking over at Kansas State.
“I think Messingham’s a really underrated play caller. I think he does a good job of getting his pieces into a position to score points,” said Brown. “If you look at them in a lot of offensive categories, the numbers don’t blow you away, but you look at scoring offense, it’s impressive, and at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”
Freshman running back Deuce Vaughn (5-5, 168-lb) averages 5.1 yards a carry, second in the conference in receiving yards per game (72.0), and averages 133.8 total yards per game.
“The Vaughn kid, he’s (Messingham) done a great job with him. He’s elusive - he’s an issue. We’re going to have to ID him wherever he is on the field.”
Tight end Briley Moore (6-4, 250-lb) leads the team in receptions (17) and receiving touchdowns (3).
“He’s a guy that does a nice job in the run game, but they found ways to get him the ball, and he’s a big kid, breaks tackles. He can run for his size,” said Brown.
Phillip Brooks leads the Big 12 Conference in punt return yards at 29.5 yard per return and two touchdowns.
“Special teams, that’s just going back, again, to when coach Snyder was there and coach Klieman taking over, it’s kind of in their culture,” said Brown. “They’ve had a lot of walk-ons, some of them that have earned scholarships and then, they just play extremely hard.
“They’ve blocked three punts this year. They do a great job with what I call their direct angle. The guys they put in that position to go block a punt, they take the fastest line between them and the punter, and they’ve been able to block three of them, and then their punt returner has done a great job, returned two for touchdowns versus Kansas. I think they’ve got four or five returns of 25-plus yards so far this year, so it's going to be a huge challenge, not only in protection but also in coverage for our punt unit. Last year, I think they returned four kickoff returns for touchdowns. So, their explosive in that regard as well. Just really sound and great effort on special teams.”
The all-time series between West Virginia and Kansas is knotted up 5-5, but the Mountaineers have won four-straight over the Wildcats. Kickoff is slated for noon on ESPN2.
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