If a college football team had to start a rugged stretch of five games in five weeks, a span unmatched by any other team in the Big 12 Conference, a home tilt against Kansas would seem to be the best possible way to start it.
That’s what West Virginia is looking at as the Mountaineers welcome a struggling group of Jayhawks at noon Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium (Fox). Fans will be allowed for the first time this season with around 15,000 expected.
To say things aren’t exactly rolling with the Jayhawks would be an understatement. Kansas is 0-3, including a 15-point loss to Coastal Carolina. It’s 0-2 in the league with losses to Baylor and Oklahoma State by a combined 73 points. The team has announced that it will start its third quarterback in as many games on Saturday in junior Miles Kendrick.
And then there’s Jayhawks coach Les Miles, who announced Friday that he will not accompany the team to Morgantown after testing positive for COVID-19 last week. Tight ends coach Josuha Eargle will handle interim head coaching duties. Miles’ diagnosis created a week full of Zoom meetings between him and the KU coaching staff as well as players.
Meanwhile, with WVU (2-1, 1-1) rolling in off an emotional 27-21 double-overtime win over Baylor and a bye week, it would seem to be a perfect storm for a big Mountaineer win on Saturday, at least on paper.
But in 2020, things that should happen aren’t worth the theoretical paper they’re printed on, and West Virginia coach Neal Brown said there is still plenty to prepare for when playing the Jayhawks.
“Offensively, they’ll be multiple, spread the field out, tempo-oriented with a dual-threat quarterback that’s going to start the game,” Brown said. “A multiple three-down defense. They’re sound in what they do. They keep edges and just really do a nice job of being sound. They’ve got a lot of experience at linebacker and I think their safeties are really active and they did some nice things against us last year as well.”
The Jayhawks were able to do several effective things against the Mountaineers a season ago in Lawrence, Kansas, as WVU eked out a 29-24 victory, the first Big 12 Conference win in Brown’s WVU coaching career.
Wideout Andrew Parchment helped keep the Jayhawks in it, scoring a pair of touchdowns on five catches for 132 yards. The 6-foot-2, 186-pound senior finished with 65 catches for 831 yards and seven scores in 2019 and was a preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection this year.
As Kansas quarterbacks have come in and out, Parchment has been unable to get much going this season, accounting for only 11 receptions for 75 yards through three games. Yet despite Parchment’s early-season struggles and the fact that the Mountaineers have been solid defensively, ranking eighth nationally in total defense (268 yards per game) and against the pass (166 yards per game), the WVU staff said it will have to be fully aware of the Jayhawks’ outside threat.
“Don’t fall asleep, that’s exactly what you can’t do,” WVU co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Jahmile Addae said. “It’s pretty obvious that the kid has talent, has big-play ability, showed it in last year’s game and there’s times this year where he’s open and running free. Our guys aren’t going to take it lightly.”
Any conversation of Kansas football over the past couple of seasons has to start with junior running back Pooka Williams, who has run for 2,481 yards and 12 touchdowns and hauled in 63 receptions for 527 yards and four more scores in 25 career games. Williams was a first-team all-conference selection both at the end of last year and in this preseason.
So far this season, Williams has a pair of touchdown runs and 175 yards on 40 carries as the Jayhawks have implemented more of a tandem plan in their backfield. Sophomore Velton Gardner enters Saturday’s game as the team’s leading rusher, having gone for 182 yards and two touchdowns on 36 carries through three contests.
While Brown and the WVU staff were highly complimentary of Gardner, the general consensus is that Williams is still the main target of the Mountaineer defense.
“He can make mistakes and make it look good,” WVU co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Jordan Lesley said. “He can go way away from where the play is designed to go and he can go 80 yards, 60 yards, he can score a touchdown on you from anywhere on the field. He’s a different type of back.
“In my opinion — even the guys at Baylor were really good and different from Oklahoma State’s backs — but to me, Pooka, he’s the best one.
As for when the Mountaineers have the ball, the focus is largely on self-improvement, particularly in the passing game.
“Offensively the last two weeks, we’ve not thrown the football efficiently enough to win the games we are going to need to win down the stretch here,” Brown said. “Hopefully on Saturday we show some of those improvements and continue to show them throughout the year.”
As much as anything, at least to Brown and those involved with the program, Saturday will be about who they’re showing it to as much as it will be about what they’re showing. With fans back in the stadium for the first time, all involved are looking forward to somewhat of a return to normalcy in terms of game-day environment.
“We’ve missed them,” Brown said of the fans. “So it’ll be fun to have them back at Mountaineer Field with us. I expect it to be a great atmosphere.”