MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It was a common theme in the days leading up to West Virginia’s home opener against Kansas — don’t take the Jayhawks lightly.
Don’t let them hang around. Don’t let them make it a game. Don’t, in the pop psychology take, let Pitt beat you twice.
Trouble is, none of that was the reason the Mountaineers left their home field with two losses now on their ledger. It wasn’t that WVU wasn’t paying attention. It was that it was outplayed at key junctures by a team that may have been picked last in the Big 12 at the start of the season, but sure doesn’t occupy that spot now.
This wasn’t a matter of West Virginia coming out unmotivated. You don’t pile up 501 yards of offense by disrespecting your opponent, or complete 70% of your passes by coasting through a week or preparation.
What happened was the shredding of a WVU defense that looked like it had never seen a running quarterback, couldn’t get into position to defend the simplest of passes, and again committed a huge special teams blunder that turned a rare WVU defensive stop into another Kansas touchdown. It looked like a loss to Baylor or Oklahoma, not one of the recent giveaways to Texas Tech. And the Jayhawks, playing crisply and with few errors, took advantage.
That’s not to say KU has morphed into world-beaters just yet. Its defense was just as woeful as West Virginia’s, allowing the Mountaineers to score touchdowns on their first four possessions. Only the clock, with 24 seconds remaining when the Mountaineers got the ball for the fifth time in the half, kept WVU off the board again.
WVU needed a near-miraculous comeback just to force overtime — this after Kansas took a 42-31 lead on an embarrassingly unchallenged 30-yard run by Daniel Hishaw. West Virginia tied the game with a Casey Legg field goal, a C.J. Donaldson TD and a JT Daniels to Bryce Ford-Wheaton two-point conversion that pumped all sorts of life into the fans remaining in the stadium, and that should have been enough to push the Mountaineers on to victory — that is, were they the team they appeared to be the week prior against Pitt.
Instead, Kansas showed its resilience, scoring a touchdown on its overtime possession, aided greatly by a third down roughing the passer call on veteran Taijh Alston. WVU had swarmed the play for a six-yard loss, but the resulting personal foul gave Kansas a first down, and it scored two plays later.
WVU still had a chance to tie, but KU was again superior in the clutch, avoiding critical mistakes and mental lapses, and picking off Daniels to end the game.
It’s difficult for West Virginia fans to accept this. Kansas has been bad enough for long enough that any close game, let alone a loss, is viewed as a disaster. KU hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009. It’s supposed to be a sacrificial lamb, in their view, and that’s why many fans are viewing this defeat as “unacceptable”.
What this ignores is a longer, more nuanced view. Many of those same fans couldn’t tell you that the Jayhawks won 12 games in 2007, or three bowl games over a four-year stretch in the mid 2000s, including an Orange Bowl. They weren’t always a punchline. And they might, just might, not be a punchline this year.
None of that is meant to absolve WVU of its play in this game, though. It proved again that a one-dimensional team, no matter where its weaknesses lie, is vulnerable. Its offense is good enough to win some games. Its defense and special teams, right now, are not.
There will be plenty of time to break down the individual plays, Kansas’ excellent tactics in the passing game and its confounding option series. West Virginia’s continued success on offense won’t be ignored, as it did enough right to win the game. (Thirty-one and 42 points in the first two games should be enough to get at least one win.) But in the end, there’s no denying the fact that Kansas was better on this night, and that a lack of attention or motivation had nothing to do with it.