West Virginia struggles defensively, falls to 0-2 with overtime loss to Kansas

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia talked throughout the week about putting behind its season-opening setback at Pitt so that it didn’t lead to a loss Saturday in the home opener against Kansas.

Whether that was the case or not is up for debate, but this much was clear: The Mountaineers’ defense had no answer for Kansas, and in turn, West Virginia is 0-2 for the first time since 1979.

Despite 11 points from the Mountaineers over the final 4:04 of regulation to force overtime, the Jayhawks won 55-42, sealing the outcome when Cobee Bryant intercepted a JT Daniels pass and raced 86 yards to the end zone, giving Kansas its first victory in Morgantown in the Big 12 opener for both teams.

“Not a whole lot to say,” fourth-year WVU head coach Neal Brown said after falling to 17-20 in his tenure. “On a day that should’ve been a celebration for West Virginia fans everywhere with Bob Huggins going into the Hall of Fame, I apologize to the fans. On defense, we couldn’t get off the field.”

The Jayhawks (2-0) capitalized on a big break on the opening sequence of the extra session. With the contest tied at 42, Jalon Daniels’ third-and-5 pass was caught by Torry Locklin for a 6-yard loss. However, veteran WVU defensive end Taijh Alston was flagged for roughing the passer, allowing KU to have first-and-goal at the 10 instead of fourth-and-11 at the 26.

“I didn’t have eyes on the roughing the passer,” Brown said. “I really can’t comment on that, because the replay got cut off.”

Three plays later, Jalon Daniels tossed his third touchdown, this one a 4-yard pass to Quentin Skinner that gave the Jayhawks a 49-42 lead.

KU’s defense sealed the victory with Bryant’s pick six, which came one play after a JT Daniels incompletion that was originally ruled a fumble which the Jayhawks had recovered.

On the interception, Bryant read an out pattern by Bryce Ford-Wheaton, and a play that had worked on several instances for the Mountaineers instead turned into disaster.

“They were in base cover 1. They played it a lot on third down,” JT Daniels said. “We hit Bryce on that earlier in that same exact position. The corner did a really good job. He jumped it. It’s one of two plays I wish I had back. It’s a crazy sport. You can play really well all game and then one or two plays can decide the game.”

Were it not for an 85-yard drive and tying two-point conversion late in regulation, the Jayhawks wouldn’t have needed overtime to leave victorious.

After Casey Legg made a 28-yard field goal with 4:04 to play, the Mountaineers forced a three-and-out and started on their 15 with 2:17 left.

Kaden Prather’s 10-yard catch on fourth-and-5 kept the drive alive, and Prather added a 25-yard reception later in the drive that put the Mountaineers at the KU 23. Ford-Wheaton’s 21-yard reception after he slipped and fell to the ground put WVU at the KU 2, and two plays later, CJ Donaldson plunged into the end zone from 1 yard.

Trailing 42-40, WVU needed a two-point conversion and got one when JT Daniels and Ford-Wheaton extended a play and improvised through eye contact, allowing the receiver to break free and bring in the tying grab.

“Originally it wasn’t there,” Ford-Wheaton said. “They dropped a defensive back, but when I looked back at JT, he still had the ball and was looking my way. I scrambled out, sat there and he threw a strike.” 

West Virginia started just how it desired, needing four plays to score, which came on JT Daniels’ 59-yard pass to Sam James, who got free behind the KU secondary, allowing the Mountaineers to lead 7-0.

The Mountaineers forced one of three Kansas punts on the Jayhawks’ opening possession, and then marched 60 yards in 12 plays, getting a 1-yard run from Donaldson to gain a 14-0 advantage.

From that point forward, Kansas’ offense had its way.

The Jayhawks scored touchdowns on their remaining three first-half possessions, the first of which came on the first play of the second quarter when Jalon Daniels threw a 10-yard pass to Mason Fairchild that cut their deficit in half.

WVU answered abruptly, getting a 67-yard TD pass from JT Daniels to Ford-Wheaton, who did all of his damage after the catch on a well-designed and well-blocked play that allowed him to race to the end zone unbothered, giving the Mountaineers a 21-7 lead.

Kansas answered back with a 75-yard drive capped by Devin Neal’s 6-yard touchdown run on a direct snap that left the Jayhawks facing a 21-14 deficit 8:26 before halftime.

“We didn’t slow them down,” Brown said. “Early in the game, we played really soft and it wasn’t necessarily what we called. We played with a lack of confidence in the secondary. They did a good job schematically, but that wasn’t good enough from our defense.”

Each team scored another first-half touchdown, with the Mountaineers regaining their 14-point lead when JT Daniels found Ford-Wheaton on a 5-yard pass, before Jalon Daniels’ 17-yard strike to Neal on third-and-5 with 29 seconds to play in the half.

That allowed KU to trail 28-21 at halftime, and the Jayhawks pulled even 3:28 into the second half on Daniel Hishaw’s 3-yard touchdown run.

An exchange of punts followed, but proved problematic for the Mountaineers when Reese Smith muffed the catch on his return, and Locklin’s recovery enabled the Jayhawks to start at the WVU 24 with 7 minutes left in the third.

“The dropped punt was a big play,” Brown said. “Common themes when you lose close games are turnovers. Even with this being a track meet, we’d have won the game if we don’t turn the ball over. We had a chance to grab control of the game and they take the lead.” 

Six plays later, Neal scored on a 2-yard run that gave KU a 35-28 advantage — its first lead of the game.

Legg’s 27-yard field goal on the ensuing series cut the WVU deficit to four, but came after the Mountaineers stalled in the red zone.

Leading 35-31, KU continued to play aggressive and Jalon Daniels found Luke Grimm for 30 yards on the Jayhawks’ first offensive play of the fourth quarter.

Three plays later, Hishaw raced untouched to the end zone on a 30-yard rain and KU was clinging to a 42-31 lead with 10:59 remaining.

Needing points on their ensuing possession, the Mountaineers methodically drove down the field and got to the 1-yard line when JT Daniels rushed for 8 yards on third-and-goal. Trailing by 11, WVU kept its offense on the field and was lined up to go for a touchdown, but a false start penalty on Treylan Davis pushed the Mountaineers back to the 6. They eventually settled for Legg’s 28-yard boot following a delay of game.

“Too much dumb [stuff] from us. You can’t have a false start on the 1-yard line,” JT Daniels said. “You can’t have personal fouls. You can’t go from third-and-3 to third-and-8. That’s losing football.”

JT Daniels completed his first 11 passes and finished 28-of-40 for 355 yards with three touchdowns.

Ford-Wheaton was his favorite target for the second time in as many games. He caught 11 passes for 152 yards and a pair of TDs.

Tony Mathis’ 59 rushing yards were a team-high for WVU, which averaged 3.8 yards on 38 rushing attempts.

Jalon Daniels hit on 18-of-29 passes for 218 yards with three touchdowns. West Virginia did not force a turnover and has yet to intercept a pass through two games. The Kansas signal-caller also led all players with 85 rushing yards, while Hishaw added 63 and Neal contributed 42.

WVU held a 501-419 advantage in total yards, but KU had the upper hand on the ground, 200-146.

Neither team recorded a sack.

“They make you play the field horizontally and vertically,” Brown said of KU. “They got to three backs a lot. They did a really good job keeping us off balance. They ran inside zone, outside zone, counter, belly scheme and they were good enough throwing where we couldn’t load up the box. We missed tackles, but we didn’t win up front like we’re capable of winning.”

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