By Tony Viola
MORGANTOWN - Don't let Kansas State's record fool you. Today's game could easily dictate how the rest of the season goes for the West Virginia Mountaineers.
The Wildcats are 2-4, began the year with a loss to FCS opponent North Dakota State, and are winless in Big 12 play. Surprising since Kansas State averages 30 points per game and allows only 26.
Two of those wins, though, have been at Bill Snyder Family Stadium in Manhattan where the Mountaineers will to travel to for the first time in the program's history on Saturday.
Plus, Kansas State is 15-6 following a bye week since 1991, and will be coming off its second of the year when West Virginia rolls into town.
"I have been to Kansas State several times, and they have built that up from nothing to what you see there today," Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen said. "It is a heck of a place to play a college football game. There is going to be 53,000 people there - they are loud and they are rowdy. Their student section is great, which is right behind our bench. It is a challenging place to go play. All venues in the Big 12 are challenging places to go play. It will be a tremendous challenge for our football team."
Perhaps one of the bigger tests of the day won't come on the playing field, but rather on the sidelines where Holgorsen will have to out-coach Kansas State's veteran leader Bill Snyder.
"It starts with Bill Snyder and the job he has done as a head coach and the program he has built over his 22 years he has been there," Holgorsen said. "I know he was gone for a few years, but he got it right back on track with their record and what it has been over the last couple of years. He is a tremendous football coach that has done a lot of things for our profession. He does a lot of things for his kids, like building character, being a disciplined football team on all three sides of the ball and getting kids to play with tremendous effort."
A lot of the Wildcats effort comes from a defense led by junior defensive end Ryan Mueller, who leads them with 8.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks.
In Kansas State's last game, a 35-25 loss to then No. 15-ranked Baylor, Mueller totaled seven tackles, two sacks, a force fumble, a fumble recovery and broke up a pass.
Linebacker Blake Slaughter has also been solid for the Wildcats as his 52 tackles lead the team.
"Defensively, they lost a bunch of seniors last year," Holgorsen noted. "They were pretty good last year defensively, I thought. When you look at them on film they look the same just with different people. They are not giving up a ton of points. They get off the field on third down relatively well and have only given up 150 yards a game rushing.
"The scheme is the same as it was. They are just a well-coached and disciplined football team that has a bunch of effort, holds their gaps and blocks and makes plays. It really does not matter who they are. If it was the same people as last year it would look the same as you see on film (this year). The speed of it is not as good, but I do see them getting better each and every week. I would expect nothing else from a Kansas State coached football team."
It seems the Wildcats' quarterback situation is also getting better every week.
Like most Big 12 schools this year, Kansas State has two QBs at their disposal, each bringing different skill sets to the offense.
Daniel Sams, a 6-2 sophomore, has seen time in each of the Wildcats' first six games, including significant action against Oklahoma State and Baylor, and is the team's most mobile quarterback.
He displayed those skills against the Bears when he rushed for 199 yards and three touchdowns.
For the season, Sams is the Wildcats' leading rusher with 522 yards and seven scores.
"Offensively, they are searching for an identity at this point in time, like a lot of teams, including ourselves," Holgorsen said. "You lose a quarterback of the caliber of what they had last year, and it will take some time before you find some sort of a rhythm. They have been searching with the two kids they have been playing. It looks to me like they have been settling in on Daniel Sams a little bit. They are two different type guys; they do different type schemes with the two of them. We will have to prepare for both. Daniel Sams presents problems from an athletic point of view, as he is their leading rusher. We will have to keep him in check. He is really fast, very athletic and will hurt you with his feet. The last game against Baylor, he controlled the game and clock. He did a phenomenal job of keeping them in the football game."
Kansas State's other option at quarterback is 6-1 junior Jake Waters, who is a more traditional pocket passer.
West Virginia hasn't won a game since Sept. 28, but can right the ship in Manhattan and get back to .500 with a victory.
If the Mountaineers do come out with a win, they can really pick up momentum in the second half of the season where the team looks to be favored in every game with the exception of Texas.
On the flip side, though, if West Virginia does drop its third straight contest, doubt will begin to creep into the minds of the players and confidence will become an issue.
The odds, however, are in the Mountaineers' favor. They just need to capitalize.