MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia fell behind No. 19 Kansas State by two touchdowns early and spent the rest of Saturday’s contest unsuccessfully trying to play catch-up in what became a 48-31 loss in the final home game of the 2022 season.
The setback, which assured the Mountaineers of a third losing season in four years, came before a sparse crowd of 37,055 on a chilly afternoon at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Kansas State (8-3, 6-2) is within a victory against Kansas of securing a spot in the Big 12 title game.
“Tough day,” head coach Neal Brown said after falling to 21-25 at WVU. “Guys fought and competed really, really hard. Proud of the effort. No issues with that. They battled all the way through. Kansas State is a really physical team. They made more plays. They’re probably going to play in the Big 12 title game and they showed why they’re going to be there.”
On a day when quarterback Garrett Greene made his first career start and the Mountaineers honored players that were certainly or possibly their final home game in Morgantown before kickoff, West Virginia got off to a lackluster start.
On the fifth play from scrimmage, Deuce Vaughn rushed for a 15-yard touchdown to give the Wildcats a lead they’d never relinquish.
“I don’t think we handled those emotions as well as we could have,” Brown said, “and maybe that was a little bit behind the slow start.”
KSU doubled the advantage soon after when Greene was intercepted by Cincere Mason, who returned the pick 37 yards for a touchdown, giving the Wildcats a 14-0 lead 3:09 into play.
“I tried to put it into a window that wasn’t there,” Greene said.
However, he responded with a well-placed 26-yard touchdown pass to Sam James, allowing the Mountaineers (4-7, 2-6) to cut their deficit in half. Soon after, West Virginia matched K-State’s defensive touchdown when Malachi Ruffin intercepted Will Howard and brought it back 43 yards for a score. However, following a delay of game, Casey Legg missed the point-after attempt, leaving the Wildcats with a 14-13 lead at the 6:41 mark of the first quarter.
Legg had made all 85 of his extra points in college until the miss from the 8-yard line.
“Special teams hurt us today,” Brown said.
Any momentum garnered by West Virginia went away immediately as DJ Giddens broke off a 49-yard touchdown run that allowed K-State to respond just 1:29 later, giving the visitors a 21-13 lead.
Greene was then stopped at the line of scrimmage on a quarterback sneak attempt on fourth-and-1 from WVU’s 34, which enabled the Wildcats to take over with great field position.
Brown took issue with an official standing over the ball before the play, which prevented Greene from quickly snapping it and allowed the Wildcats to reset defensively. He said it was explained to him as a mechanics issue, but still seemed unsettled on the matter afterward.
“We didn’t sub. That ball was handed to the official,” Brown said. “I have to get clarification. If they let us snap the ball, we get that. That’s kind of what that was.”
Four plays later, Howard plunged into the end zone on a 1-yard sneak, which immediately followed his 26-yard pass to Malik Knowles and made it 28-13.
The Mountaineers did offer a strong response in the form of their longest pass play this season — Greene’s 71-yard touchdown throw to James.
“They manned us up in the first half so it was 1-on-1 and we just had to go win it,” James said.
However, Legg missed another point-after try, which left the Mountaineers in a nine-point hole late in the opening quarter.
After a 47-point first quarter, things slowed down somewhat in the second, though the Wildcats managed their fifth touchdown on the third play of the period when Howard found Ben Sinnott for 15 yards on third-and-14. That left KSU with a 35-19 lead 13:28 before halftime.
West Virginia answered with an 87-yard drive that was capped by Greene finding James for a 5-yard touchdown — the third scoring play between the duo over the first 23:05.
Trailing 35-25, the Mountaineers elected to go for two, but Greene was stopped near the line of scrimmage on a quarterback draw.
K-State then put together a 12 play drive that used up more than 5 minutes of the 6:55 that remained, before settling for Tyler Zentner’s 46-yard field goal.
Brendan Mott’s sack of Greene helped lead to a three-and-out on West Virginia’s ensuing sequence, and the Wildcats capitalized on their final drive of the first half by getting a 52-yard field goal from Zentner for a 41-25 halftime lead.
“A really weird game in the first half,” Brown said. “Some things you just don’t see. We hung around and had a chance to make it closer. Really disappointed with our drive right before half.”
West Virginia had five separate offensive penalties on its opening second-half series, but managed to overcome them on a 16 play series that used more than half of the third-quarter clock. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, it ended with Legg missing a 44-yard field goal well short after the snap appeared to be well low of its intended target.
“We had a drive that had a ton of penalties and then we got all the way down in field goal range and missed,” James said. “That was probably the nail in the coffin.”
One play prior to Legg’s miss, Mott sacked Greene for a loss of 12 yards.
“Garrett has to get that ball out of his hands,” Brown said.
Over the remainder of a scoreless third quarter, the teams exchanged punts, though the Wildcats got to start on West Virginia’s 44-yard line for their second series of the second half.
Although that possession ended with Howard throwing an incomplete pass on fourth-and-2 from the Mountaineers’ 19, K-State immediately got the ball back when Julius Brents intercepted Greene.
Three plays later, on third-and-13, Howard threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Knowles, who worked against Ruffin and did the bulk of his damage after the catch.
“We went into the game and keyed on Deuce Vaughn,” Brown said. “But we knew Knowles is a good player and would be a tough match for us.”
The Mountaineers responded with Greene’s 15-yard touchdown run with 9:30 remaining which capped the scoring as they were again unsuccessful on their second two-point conversion try.
Howard completed 19-of-27 passes for 294 yards, while the Wildcats rushed for 143 yards on 42 attempts.
Giddens led the ground game with 78 yards and Vaughn added 67 on 22 carries.
Knowles led all players with 111 receiving yards, which he accumulated on six receptions.
Greene hit on 15-of-27 passes for 204 yards with the three touchdowns and two interceptions.
“I can’t make those mistakes at critical times in order for us to beat a good team,” Greene said. “Those two picks really sealed the game. They scored 14 points off my two interceptions and I can’t do that and beat really good teams.”
Each of James’ three receptions was good for a touchdown and they amounted to 102 yards.
WVU rushed for 153 yards on 34 attempts, led by Jaylen Anderson’s 69 yards. Justin Johnson added 63 in defeat. Tony Mathis was limited to 4 yards on four rushes.
Mott had all three KSU sacks.
The Wildcats converted 9-of-14 third downs to the Mountaineers’ 2 of 10, while West Virginia had eight of the game’s 11 penalties.
“If you’d have told me we win the rushing battle, score 25 points in first and Deuce Vaughn is held to 67 yards rushing,” Brown said, “I’d have said I feel really good about our chances of winning the game.”
West Virginia played without wideout Kaden Prather and cornerback Charles Woods. Prather was out due to an injury, while Woods, who’s appeared in only four games this season and can maintain a year of eligibility without playing another one, appears on his way out of the program.
Woods posted a message to social media before kickoff that read: “Thank you WVU, commitment coming soon.”
“I’ve seen him twice in two weeks,” Brown said. “I try to protect these guys, but he’s shut it down.”