West Virginia football coach Dana Holgorsen’s frustration levels reached critical mass last season following a 24-23 loss to Kansas State.
The Mountaineers had won four in a row, outgained K-State by 143 yards and held a 23-17 lead in the fourth quarter. For the first time since joining the Big 12 in 2012, they appeared on their way to beating the Wildcats. Instead, they watched things slip away as Morgan Burns led K-State to a come-from-behind victory by returning four kickoffs for 209 yards and a touchdown.
Holgorsen, 0-4 against K-State coach Bill Snyder, was bewildered.
“What they do special teams-wise, I have never been a part of a game where that really was the difference,” Holgorsen said at the time. “That is what Kansas State does. That is how they win games.”
Fast forward 10 months, and Holgorsen still seems bothered by the defeat.
“What’s been the difference in the games in the last couple of years against their guys have been special teams,” Holgorsen said at his weekly news conference Monday. “We make 90 percent of our practice time here in the next couple of days and just focus on special teams ... Kansas State and (special teams coordinator) Sean Snyder, is as good as anyone in the country at it. They got us last year, and they got us two years ago.
“If you think we may obsess over it a little bit, then you’re probably right. We have to get better in those units.”
Holgorsen is pulling out all the stops to improve on special teams this week. In West Virginia’s first three games, the only players to take the field for punts and field goals were backups.
That could change against K-State.
“If it takes putting starters on the there then we will,” Holgorsen said. “If they need rest, then they’ll rest on offense or defense.”
Holgorsen sounds nothing like a coach for one of the Big 12’s final two undefeated teams. West Virginia arguably compiled the best nonconference resume of any team in the league, beating Missouri and BYU on its way to a 3-0 start. The Mountaineers have done enough to make some wonder if they are the Big 12’s best hope at a playoff berth.
They are still flying under the radar nationally, sitting just outside the national polls. But Snyder views them as legitimate Big 12 contenders.
“I see it that way,” Snyder said. “I have always seen them as a good program. We have had good fortune against them, playing them in close games. They have a lot of talented, talented guys.”
Their most talented players are on offense. Quarterback Skyler Howard has completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 974 yards and six touchdowns in a spread attack that ranks 12th nationally, averaging 533 yards and 33 points.
He will be a challenge for K-State’s defense, and Holgorsen hopes he can put West Virginia in a position to win. But he also fears that won’t anything without solid play on special teams.
“Our goal is to not get beat on special teams,” Holgorsen said, “and that’s a huge goal this week.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett
Kansas State at West Virginia
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W. Va.
Other story lines
Unusual defense: West Virginia employs a defensive formation K-State won’t see again this season. The Mountaineers prefer to play with three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. K-State quarterback Jesse Ertz compares it to Navy’s offense. “They run some different stuff,” Ertz said. “We need to watch some extra film and be sure we are ready for it.”
Running struggles: K-State has struggled to run the ball in its past two victories against West Virginia, as the Mountaineers clamped down on the Wildcats’ running attack and dared them to win witht he pass. Will this game be more of the same? Or can K-State run on West Virginia’s leaky run defense this time around?
Sellout crowd: West Virginia announced Thursday that Milan Puskar Stadium will be sold out for the K-State game. Stadium capacity is 60,000. The school is encouraging fans to “stripe out” the stadium by wearing yellow and blue in certain sections.