LAWRENCE, Kan. — Head coach Neal Brown believes a number of factors have contributed to a strong uptick in West Virginia’s ground game over the last few weeks, and several of those factors were evident in a 29-24 win over the Jayhawks.
The Mountaineers blocked better, running backs ran with more confidence and quarterback Austin Kendall made better decisions in run-pass options — even sprinkling in a left-handed hand-off he learned from Heisman winner Kyler Murray at Oklahoma.
But starting left tackle Colton McKivitz said all these improvements stem from one intangible.
“Really, it’s a mindset,” McKivitz said. “I don’t think we’ve changed any fundamentals or run schemes or anything like that. I just think it’s guys playing harder, and I think that’s been the biggest key for the past two weeks — guys have been coming off the ball and they’re getting mad, they’re getting angry.”
On the offensive line, West Virginia’s coaching staff stuck with the lineup that paved the way to success against NC State: redshirt freshmen Briason Mays and James Gmiter and sophomore John Hughes each started for the second week in a row.
This time around, that unit helped the Mountaineers log 192 rushing yards against the Jayhawks — a new season high.
“You just can’t say enough about how resilient these kids are. They’re fighting,” said co-offensive coordinator Matt Moore. “It starts with Colton McKivitz. He’s the leader of this group. He’s a fighter. He comes out and works everyday. Blue collar, hard hat mentality. I can’t say enough good things about these kids, how hard they work and how much they’ve bought in. Just really proud of them, really proud of the way they played.”
McKivitz said his fellow linemen haven’t forgotten how poorly the unit played in West Virginia’s first two games. The contrast between then and now is stark: WVU rushed for just 64 yards in its first two contests, but has now logged 365 rushing yards in its two most recent outings.
“Those first two weeks, we were the talk of the team, the guys not doing our jobs, so they’re taking it to heart, and those young guys are playing physical and they have some aggression with them,” McKivitz said.
Coach Brown thinks the running backs have improved, too. Senior Kennedy McKoy led the Mountaineers in rushing with 73 yards, but as displayed last week, the reinsertion of another back into the lineup continues to benefit this team.
Sophomore Leddie Brown racked up 70 rushing yards — including a 30-yard dash that served as the longest running play of the game — in just his second game back from an injury.
“I don’t think it’s any coincidence — we’ve run the ball well in both games he’s played; we’ve run the ball well,” Neal Brown said.
Also back in the mix this week was senior running back Martell Pettaway. After going without a carry in the win over NC State, Pettaway rushed for two second half scores to help the Mountaineers clinch a victory in their Big 12 opener.
“The two touchdown runs were big time plays, and that’s what kind of player he can be,” Neal Brown said.
The WVU defense held Kansas’ standout running back tandem of Pooka Williams and Khalil Herbert to just 103 yards rushing. Both players entered the contest averaging well over 100 yards rushing apiece per game.
The Mountaineers have now bested the Jayhawks in each of their last six meetings, improving to 8-1 all-time in the series.