West Virginia welcomes No. 19 Kansas State for final home game

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia wraps up the home portion of its schedule for 2022 by welcoming No. 19 Kansas State to Milan Puskar Stadium for a 2 p.m. meeting Saturday.

The 11th game of the season for both teams can be seen on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.

Both teams are well aware of what’s at stake. For the Mountaineers (4-6, 2-5) to avoid a third losing season in four years under head coach Neal Brown, they can ill-afford another loss. Meanwhile, the Wildcats (7-3, 5-2) control their destiny as it pertains to securing a spot in the Big 12 title game, which they can do by beating West Virginia and then Kansas next week.

“We talk about November and finishing,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “It’s never too late. It’s an important life lesson to finish what you start. Our teams did that at the end of the year at Troy, too, and for whatever reason we played well down the stretch. That’s the expectation here. We’re going to play well. We’re going to give our guys a plan. We’re going strain and execute and give ourselves a chance to win on Saturday versus a really good opponent.”

Five days after West Virginia parted ways with former Director of Athletics Shane Lyons, the Mountaineers return to their turf with an opportunity to ensure bowl eligibility is at stake next Saturday at Oklahoma State and for a winning season at home.

After Garrett Greene led West Virginia to a 23-20 victory against Oklahoma a week ago, Brown praised the effort and said the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week deserves the opportunity to play more.

As he showed with a 119-yard rushing effort against the Sooners, Green gives the Mountaineers an added dimension.

“He’s legit fast and he wasn’t coming out of high school,” Brown said. “He is one of the rare people who has gotten significantly faster in college.”

Brown, however, stopped short of naming Greene the starter against the Wildcats, and West Virginia figures likely to utilize both he and JT Daniels in some capacity behind center.

Daniels has started all 10 games, but struggled in three of his last four outings after relatively strong and consistent performances through the opening half of the season.

Kansas State has also dealt with uncertainty at quarterback, though head coach Chris Klieman said earlier this week Will Howard will be behind center in Morgantown.

Howard has played extensively in three games with top quarterback Adrian Martinez battling injuries, and last week Howard completed 19-of-27 passes for 196 yards and three touchdowns as the Wildcats dismantled Baylor, 31-3. 

Howard was also quarterback for KSU’s 48-0 victory against Oklahoma State on October 29, a game in which he hit on 21-of-37 passes for 296 yards and four touchdowns. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior has experience guiding the Wildcats in Morgantown before, but was intercepted three times in KSU’s 37-10 loss to West Virginia back in 2020.

“Howard looks to be one of the more improved players this year in our league,” Brown said. “He’s extremely efficient and he’s played in two road environments and really played well, and then beat Oklahoma State when they were top 10 in the country and kind of ran them out there. He’s playing very effective and their team really believes in him. You can tell that.”

Both teams rely on strong ground games. Kansas State’s is keyed by versatile tailback Deuce Vaughn, who’s an equally imposing threat in the pass game.

“Everything do offensively is centered around Deuce Vaughn,” Brown said. “He’s special.”

Vaughn has 1,081 rushing yards and five touchdowns with an average of 5.5 yards per carry. KSU has the Big 12’s second-leading rushing attack and averages just under 215 yards on the ground, though Martinez is a big factor in that with 615 yards in nine games.

For the Mountaineers, tailbacks Tony Mathis and Justin Johnson will be counted on to try and help West Virginia approach or surpass the 165 rushing yards it averages.

Brown believes both are capable of playing better than what they showed against OU when the duo managed only 76 yards on 30 carries and Johnson lost a fumble.

“We’ve been really good at breaking tackles and we didn’t break very many tackles at running back,” Brown said. “Tony was coming back off an injury and Justin was banged up, but we need better performances out of them. That room has been really productive and consistent all year.” 

KSU’s group of wideouts includes a talented trio in Malik Knowles, Phillip Brooks and Kade Warner. Knowles has a team-high 558 receiving yards, while Brooks follows with 419 and Warner shows a team-high five touchdown grabs.

Regardless of who’s at quarterback for WVU, it’s safe to assume he’ll rely on wideouts Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Sam James and Kaden Prather in a big way.

Ford-Wheaton’s 641 receiving yards and seven TDs lead all players in the contest, while James follows with 624 yards and better than 15 per reception. 

“He’s one of our most consistent practice players from an effort and production standpoint,” Brown said. “Consistency is a trait that’s one of the highest compliments you can give. He’s grown into a really good football player.”

Prather has been steady for much of the season and adds 487 yards on 50 receptions.

Defensively, it’ll be the final home game for lineman Dante Stills, who earlier this season became West Virginia’s all-time leader in tackles for loss. Stills leads the team in that category with nine this season in addition to a team-best 4.5 sacks.

West Virginia is coming off perhaps its best defensive showing this season and looks to build on the performance despite ranking 10th among 10 Big 12 teams by surrendering an average of 32.8 points. The Mountaineers allowed Oklahoma to convert only once in 13 tries on third and fourth downs.

“That was the difference in the game,” defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley said, “and they key to doing that is you have to win first down and get them behind the chains.“

On the flip side is a KSU defense allowing only 17.5 points to rank second-best in the Big 12.

Felix Anudike-Uzomah has been one of the more productive defensive lineman in all of college football and enters with team bests of 7.5 sacks and nine TFLs.

“He’s a man. He’s an issue,” Brown said. “He’s a really good story. A walk-on and played himself into a first-round draft pick. We’re going to have to account for him. He’s elite.”

Linebacker Austin Moore leads KSU with 69 tackles, while defensive backs Kobe Savage, Julius Brents and Cincere Mason each have multiple interceptions, as does linebacker Daniel Green.

Kansas State leads the Big 12 with 13 interceptions, while West Virginia is last with only three.

“Physicality is what sticks out,” Brown said of the Wildcats. “When you turn them on, they play physical. That’s across both line of scrimmages. They strike you on defense. They’re playing their best football of the year, too. They beat a really good Baylor team soundly on the road, so they’re going to come here on a high.”

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