Kansas and West Virginia square off in first Big 12 game of respective new eras

WVU Football

As conference foes typically do, West Virginia and Kansas have a history on the gridiron. While the majority of it has taken place since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12, the all-time series between the programs dates back to a 21-0 West Virginia home win over Kansas in 1941.

The newest edition of the matchup will kick off on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

The short list of games between the Mountaineers goes authoritatively to the Mountaineers. Of six games, WVU has won five of them — and most of the time, it hasn’t even been close. The one exception happened in 2013, which seems like ages ago for the Jayhawks, who are now on their third head coach since that win.

This year is different for both sidelines. Whether they’re #TrustingTheClimb or changing the KUlture, both teams are going through major facelifts. This Kansas roster might be the most talented they’ve had in years, and they’re led by established head coach Les Miles.

Not only that, but each game has gotten closer in the last four years, with the Jayhawks cutting their deficit by an average of 11 points.

Much like West Virginia, Kansas didn’t perform as they wanted in the first two weeks of the season, going 1-1 including a tough loss at home to Coastal Carolina. They would bounce back the next week to earn a historic road win over Boston College, in which they dominated the eagles en route to a 24-point victory.

With new leadership, a high talent level, momentum and home field advantage, can the Jayhawks get their second-ever win over the Mountaineers?

“They’ve got a lot of confidence,” said WVU head coach Neal Brown of his opponent. “I thought they played extremely well in the second half [against Boston College], winning that game going away, 48-24.”

Brown and his squad are coming off a big win themselves, and are looking to bring their progress to Lawrence, Kansas. Among other statistical areas, West Virginia struggled mightily on the ground — amassing just 64 yards rushing. They rebounded against NC State, notching 173 yards and 3 touchdowns in the run game — an improvement they hope to build on this week.

“I think our performance on Saturday was much closer to what we’re capable of,” Brown said. “We’ll continue to get better, but we’ve had really good success going back to 2015 coming off losses.”

He’s right about that. Looking back at his track record at Troy, Brown and his staff haven’t lost back-to-back games since late 2015, when the Trojans took a pair of losses to Georgia State and Georgia Southern. Since then, Brown has followed up every loss with a win.

This week is coming off a victory, however, and a big one at that. In order to come home with a “W,” the Mountaineers have to win these intriguing matchups:

A hungry defense

As stated by Kansas athletic director Jeff Long on their ESPN+ show “Miles to Go,” coaches across the country see Kansas football as a “graveyard job.” That moniker isn’t far off for players, as the program has struggled to get on the winning track for over a decade.

The Jayhawks’ defense is loaded with experience, which means they’ve been living with that connotation since the day they committed to Kansas. They are hungry and motivated, and according to KSNT sports reporter Sully Engels, they want to lose the stigma of Jayhawk football.

“This is the one core group for KU that really has been there, has done that, been through the ups and downs,” Engels said. “The first game of the season, they literally willed them to victory, and they’re not afraid to do that.”

Statistically, though, the Mountaineers have the chance to build on their offensive improvements. WVU’s running game, led by senior Kennedy McKoy, squares off against the second-worst rushing defense in the Big 12 — giving up an average of 182 rush yards per game.

Austin Kendall will get his third start as signal caller for West Virginia, coming off his 272-yard, 3-touchdown performance against NC State. Regardless of their run-stopping woes, the Jayhawks have been able to clamp down on the pass, allowing just 185.7 yards per game through the air.

Kendall has proven that he has a lot of weapons, including Sam James, who broke out last week with his 155-yard, 2-touchdown performance.

A dynamic offense

When it comes to the Jayhawk backfield, you can pick your poison: speed, power or the air.

Senior running back Khalil Herbert leads the Jayhawk backfield as one of the top rushers in the Big 12. A strong, physical runner, Herbert averages 9.9 yards per carry while racking up 357 yards and 2 touchdowns so far this year. The majority of the team’s carries go to the speedser and preseason All-Big 12 running back, sophomore Pooka Williams. After sitting out the first game due to a suspension, Williams overtook Herbert for touches in two games.

For the first time in years, the Jayhawks have a steady, week-in-week-out quarterback in Carter Stanley. The senior has established himself as the leader of the offense, bringing stability to a spot which has previously lacked it.

The Mountaineer secondary is among the most inexperienced groups on the roster, but they showed that they can step up against NC State. When senior Josh Norwood was sent off for targeting, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning had to turn to some freshman to fill the void — and they stepped up.

WVU is led in the trenches by the hometown boys, Darius and Dante Stills and Reese Donahue. That trio alone has combined for 7 sacks, along with another two coming from Reuben Jones and Taijh Alston (who went down for the season against Missouri).

How to watch:

This weekend’s game will kickoff at 4:30 E.T. on Big 12 Now on ESPN+. You can find more information on the service by clicking here.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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