Needing only a win over league doormat Kansas with the reward of bowl eligibility on the line, one could think that this week’s regular-season finale should be fairly cut and dried for West Virginia.
But Saturday night’s contest in Lawrence, Kansas, will likely be anything but.
The Mountaineers (5-6 overall, 3-5 Big 12) will conclude an up-and-down schedule needing a win to extend the season into likely late December but will have plenty stacked against them when the game kicks off at 7 p.m. The contest will air on FS1.
They face a Jayhawk team that has seemed to turn a corner in recent weeks, winning at Texas two weeks ago and rallying from 14 points down in the fourth quarter before falling a field goal short at TCU last week in a 31-28 defeat.
At 2-9 overall and 1-7 in the Big 12, it’s also a Kansas team that has already shown a willingness to utilize offensive trickery, one that has nothing to lose and one that is playing with confidence. Add to that the fact that the Mountaineers have won just one road game since 2019 (1-8 over that span) and victory on Saturday is anything but certain.
“I think they’re capable of doing a lot of things,” WVU coach Neal Brown said of the Jayhawks. “They’ve used tricks, they’re going to be aggressive and go for it on fourth down ... that’s something they just believe in, I don’t think it’s necessarily because it’s the last game of the regular season.
“So we’ll be ready for any kind of gimmicks, any kind of trickery because we’ll have to be.”
Last Saturday, it involved Kansas utilizing quarterbacks Jalon Daniels and Jason Bean on the field together, something the Mountaineers also did on a single play in a 31-23 win over Texas as starter Jarret Doege handed off to backup Garrett Greene, who then completed a pass.
“We just did it to have a little fun, really,” Brown said. “I think that’s something we can continue to use.”
Devil-may-care philosophies aside, injury woes on both sides will further muddy the waters entering Saturday.
West Virginia utilized a dime package throughout last Saturday’s game against Texas, in part to slow down the Longhorns’ big-play offense but also because of WVU’s thinness at linebacker, with Exree Loe gone for the year and Lance Dixon being ruled out a week ago. Brown didn’t make any rulings on the status of players during his news conference on Tuesday, saying only that he was “hopeful” that Dixon, wideout Bryce Ford-Wheaton and defensive back Charles Woods would all contribute on Saturday.
On the other side, Kansas running back Devin Neal went down with an injury against the Horned Frogs and he was called “questionable to doubtful” during a Monday news conference from coach Lance Leipold.
Running back is a position that has been thin nearly all year for Kansas. Projected starter Velton Gardner entered the transfer portal in September, and backup Torry Locklin suffered a season-ending injury against Kansas State on Nov. 6. Daniel Hishaw Jr., another assumed contributor, was lost for the year during preseason camp.
Neal has rushed for 707 yards and eight touchdowns this season, but if he is out, duties will fall to Amauri Pesek-Hickson and redshirt freshman Malik Johnson, who has not had a carry in his career.
Regardless of who lines up at running back, Daniels has cemented himself as the team’s starter and catalyst at quarterback in recent weeks and promises to be a threat on Saturday. In the last two games, the sophomore has thrown for a combined 457 yards, five touchdowns and one interception while adding 82 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries.
“He’s been electric the last two weeks,” Brown said of Daniels. “He made play after play versus Texas and TCU. You can tell he’s confident and he’s changed the demeanor of the football team. The special teams and defensive guys are playing with more energy because what he’s doing. He’s a dual-threat guy and he’s been extremely accurate the last two weeks.
“You can look at his passing numbers, he’s not just a runner, he’s a guy who can throw it. He’s put it in some tight windows, made some plays under duress and he’s playing at a high level right now.”
Kwamie Lassiter, a super senior with 141 career receptions to his credit, leads the team in receptions (52) and yards (608).
Defensively, the Jayhawks have been victimized over the course of the season and enter Saturday ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring defense (42.9 points per game), total defense (490.8 yards per game), rushing defense (248.8 yards per game), opponent third-down percentage (56.7%), opponent red-zone percentage (92.5% scoring rate), sacks (13) and tackles-for-loss (37).
Yet Brown identified defensive end Kyron Johnson (6.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss), linebacker Gavin Potter (68 tackles) and safety Kenny Logan (team-high 99 tackles, one interception, six pass breakups) as threats at all three levels of the defense.
With the injuries on both sides that plagued last week’s win over Texas, Brown preached the importance on focusing on the issues within, and that worked in a relatively clean, turnover-free performance that sustained the Mountaineers’ postseason hopes. On Tuesday, Brown said this week’s task is no different.
“Our goal is we’ve got to stack some games,” Brown said. “We need to play consistent football, more so than a one-game period. We need to do it back-to-back; we need to do it on the road and we’ve got to have a great week of preparation to go and get that job done.”