MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–After a difficult month of October, The West Virginia University football team is back on the winning side of things. The Mountaineers will travel to Lawrence, Kansas to take on the Jayhawks on Saturday.
While Kansas hasn’t won a game this season, head coach Dana Holgorsen knows its important for WVU to stay focused.
“Obviously, we continue to move forward, and the winning track has been good for our team,” he said. “It has been good for our confidence. With that said, the human instinct is to kind of relax a little bit, so we have to be on guard for that.”
If the Mountaineers can knock off Kansas, they will become bowl eligible.
“Trying to get to win six is also important,” Holgorsen said. “Five plus one is six, for those of you who don’t know that. It’s important to get to six. That happens to be the magic number when talking about bowl eligibility. It’s everybody’s goal to get to bowl eligibility.”
The biggest thing lying on Holgorsen’s mind is the outcome two years ago when the Jayhawks defeated the Mountaineers 31-19, which ended Kansas’ 27-game conference losing streak.
“We will probably mention what happened two years ago at Kansas,” he said. “I think we are a completely different team. They have a different team. We are a different team. We have 20 seniors that have been here for four years in the Big 12. We weren’t successful in Lawrence, Kansas two years ago. It’s something that we will talk about a little bit, and it’s my job to make sure that they understand the situation that they are in. For those who didn’t make that trip, I am going to explain to them what it is going to be like, and a lot of the guys down in the locker room will explain to them what it is going to be like.”
Kansas is in a state of rebuilding and Holgorsen believes their head coach David Beaty is a good coach.
“He is going to get it going there, and it is going to take a little bit of time,” Holgorsen said. “He’s a great recruiter, and he is going to bring talent to Kansas in order to get better. I can already see that being the case. They are playing a lot of young and inexperienced guys. That makes it kind of tough to win in the Big 12.”
The Jayhawks gave TCU a scare last week, and Holgorsen knows they will come out with the same effort on Saturday.
“The one thing that you can see, when you turn on all three phases of their game, is that their kids play their tails off,” he said. “The effort that they play with is very, very apparent. You can see that in their video. They play hard, and it doesn’t matter if it is first quarter, third quarter or fourth quarter. They play their tail off. Their schemes are good.”
Holgorsen believes the Jayhawks run a similar offense.
“Their (Kansas offensive coordinator) OC Rob Likens is from Cal, and they run a similar style offensive scheme like us. Coach (David) Beaty came from Texas A&M,” Holgorsen said. “Obviously, they run a very similar offense. They look very similar to us. They are about 50/50 run-pass game. They are going to get into multiple sets.”
Kansas starts a 6-foot-4, 211-pound freshman quarterback, Ryan Willis. He has thrown a touchdown pass in six straight games. Against Texas Tech, Willis threw for a career-high 330 yards and completed 35-of-50 passes.
“They have a freshman quarterback that is continuously getting better,” Holgorsen said. “He is doing a good job at throwing the football, and they have some good backs that run hard. It’s not going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination. These guys are getting better, and they play with great effort.”
Holgorsen thinks Kansas plays hard on defense and that they have a great defensive coordinator in Clint Bowen.
“Their scheme is good. Their players are technically sound,” Holgorsen said. “They play with great effort. They are not ever out of position. They have played well in spurts, defensively. When you see some of these numbers in the stats and the situations that they have been put in, you look at it and you don’t think it’s going to look good, but it has looked good for 10 straight games.”
Junior safety Fish Smithson is one of those sound defensive players the Jayhawks put on the field.
“He is a good player,” Holgorsen said. “He’s a new guy. He’s a junior college guy, and he came in from California. He stands out. He is leading the Big 12 in tackles. I think you would probably rather have your linebacker leading the team in tackles, but he is a good player. He shows up. He has a couple of interceptions, and he looks athletic when the ball is in the air. He turns your head. It’s hard to do that as a first year player, so I give him credit for being able to adjust really quickly and make the plays that he has made.”
The Jayhawks don’t lack talent, but instead, they lack scholarship players. Holgorsen knows first hand that it isn’t an excuse, but it does provide a challenge.
“We were in the 60’s several years ago here as well,” he said. “You cannot use it as an excuse. You have to put guys in position to get out there and play. Your front line guys can be fine; it’s the depth chart that catches you. That’s where it catches you.
“When guys get hurt over the course of a game or season, you are plugging guys in that are not good enough to play or not ready to play for whatever reason. That’s where it catches you. Over the past three or four years, our special team’s guys that are consisting of backups are now able to play at a much higher level. I know what he is going through. He is going to do a good job. He is a recruiting machine, so he is going to go out there and recruit hard. Over the course of three or four years, you have to sign the maximum number of people that you can sign, and they have to qualify. You also need retention.”
Holgorsen believes it’s important to keep the deep ball presence with the run game to keep the defense spread out.
“You have to have it, but because we have a deep ball presence and can run the ball, it is the intermediate stuff that they are (the opposing defense) giving you,” he said. “The 10 passes that we completed and the 12 passes that we attempted, only one of them was really a shot. Texas Tech played us just like Texas played us. If you go back and look at TCU, we were taking shots left and right, because we had those shots.
“If they take away numbers in the run game and don’t play people way off, we are going to take shot after shot after shot. We have guys that can be successful when it comes to that. If they are playing everybody back and taking away the run, then you have to do a good job with the intermediate passing game. I thought we did a good job of that last week. You can say we only threw for 120 yards, while that is 12 yards an attempt. Over 90 percent of those throws were intermediate passes. That’s what we have to continue to do. It is all about seeing what their plan is and what they are giving you. You have to be in the right play in order to be successful.”
While WVU’s run game has been flourishing, it is no secret that redshirt sophomore Shelton Gibson has been quiet on the field.
“I would say that is the biggest reason, but Shelton would be the first to tell you that he has to work hard and be in the right place at the right time,” Holgorsen said. “He has to get open underneath. I will say this, Shelton, if he is not being productive in the pass game, then he is going to find something else to do. You saw him on one of those kickoffs; he came down and knocked the heck out of one of those returners. If he can’t do that in the pass game, then he will try to do it in the return game and in the coverage units as well. I think Shelton is very valuable to us, and we will find something for him to do.”
Wendell Smallwood is having a great season. The junior running back is 11th in the nation in rushing yards per carry.
Smallwood rushed for 165 yards last week against Texas. During the Mountaineers’ win, he went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Despite his success, Smallwood is yet to find the end zone this season.
“I thought it was me not showing him where the end zone was, but I showed him that about 10 days ago,” Holgorsen joked. “We went out during practice, and I explained to him what that line was where the turf changes color. He can’t blame it on me. I don’t know. We give it to him a bunch, and we open up holes that are as big as this screen. He gets from point A to point B, which is about as fast as anybody I have ever seen. The rest of it is up to him.”
Holgorsen doesn’t believe Smallwood’s end zone woes have anything to do with his wide receivers missing blocks.
“I think the receivers are doing a good job at blocking downfield, especially this past week,” he said. “Now, that is not going to be the case all the time. It never will be. I think our receivers did a good job downfield this past week. Maybe it has to do with Texas having really good athletes, closing the gaps and making tackles.”
Injuries have plagued the Mountaineers in recent weeks, and Holgorsen is still uncertain about redshirt freshman Yodny Cajuste’s status against the Jayhawks.
“No, he has not shut down yet,” Holgorsen said. “I would tell you if he was. He has not shut down yet. He will probably see a little practice time this week for the first time. He did not practice last week. He will probably see some practice time this week, and then we will see how that works.”
Holgorsen thinks his team is mentally in a good spot right now. He believes they weren’t down when times were difficult.
“Our team is still the same,” he said. “I think we’ve played hard all year. I think we’ve practiced well all year. Even leading into those games after that four-game stretch, our guys still practiced hard and played hard. I had no doubt that they would go out and continue to do that, so not a whole lot. It’s a little easier to refocus your guys from eliminating doubt or capitalizing on confidence after a win than it is after a few loses. I think this team is motivated, and it means a lot to them. It starts with those 20 seniors. To whatever the situation is, they will attack it head on and do their best.”
Redshirt sophomore Elijah Wellman has been an important part of WVU’s offense.
“He’s a West Virginia kid. To him, it means a lot to be a Mountaineer,” Holgorsen said. “He grew up wearing the blue and gold. He has that kind of mentality. He’s blue collar. He’s a hard worker. He’s tough, and he will do what you have to do in order to make it work. He’s becoming very valuable to what we’re doing offensively. He wasn’t able to do this a year ago as a redshirt freshman.
“He’s improved to the point where a couple of things have happened. One, he’s the main guy in the backfield. The lead blocker. The fullback. (Redshirt senior tight end) Cody Clay has been that guy for three years. Now, Cody can be a tight end and give us an extra gap up front. Cody’s improved his game. You don’t see it because he’s just like one of the offensive linemen. He’s allowed Cody to do good things up at the line of scrimmage. Elijah is the lead blocker, and he’s getting after people pretty well. There is an element with sneaking him into the flat and throwing it to him. We’ve talked about that. He’s good at that, and now, we’re starting to hand it to him. He’s becoming very valuable with what we’re doing. That’s why he was player of the week last week.”
While Wellman has stepped up his game, junior cornerback Daryl Worley has gotten better in recent weeks on the defensive side.
“If you look up some of those guys he went up against, three of the guys he went up against are all up for the Biletnikoff Award right now,” Holgorsen said. “Those guys are really good. I don’t care who you are at corner, you go up against those guys, and you’re going to get beat at times. He did. He was battling through an injury, and he came back. A good corner has to have a short memory, because they’re going to get beat. Daryl has bounced back and played really well the last two weeks.”
Another player that has been playing well has been junior defensive lineman Noble Nwachukwu.
“Noble is doing well,” Holgorsen said. “Again, (defensive coordinator Tony Gibson) Gibby is doing a good job at scheming things up. We can’t rush three all the time, so he’s doing a good job at scheming some things up, getting some of these backers and safeties out there as well. That should be a key moving forward for the remainder of the year.”
The Mountaineers and the Jayhawks will meet on Saturday at noon (ET). It will be the fifth meeting between the two teams.
The first time WVU and Kansas battled was in 1941 when the Mountaineers defeated the Jayhawks 21-0. WVU leads the all-time series 3-1.