MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Tailgating under the stars for the first time in 2016, the West Virginia Mountaineers (6-1, 3-1) come in at No. 20 in this week’s CFP rankings against perpetually unranked Kansas (1-7, 0-5) at Milan Puskar Stadium.
Let’s check the storylines in this week’s edition of Four-Down Territory:
1. Hangover from Stillwater?
Coach Dana Holgorsen’s review of the Oklahoma State loss revealed “there wasn’t anything that was really broke,” so he feels the Mountaineers are in good shape to finish the second half of the season in strong fashion.
Whereas winning remains the bottom line Saturday, winning comfortably would allow for much-needed player development. Backup quarterback Chris Chugunov hasn’t played since the opener, and cornerbacks coach Blue Adams would like to get snaps for Mike Daniels and Jordan Adams. Holgorsen also wants to develop freshman receiver Marcus Simms — whom he calls the fastest guy on the team — into a deep threat opposite Shelton Gibson.
Injuries are partly a product of mathematics; limit snaps for starters and limit the possibility of losing somebody. With West Virginia in the midst of an eight-week conference grind, a blowout would reduce physical and mental fatigue.
2. Shelton Gibson diminished
Since reeling off consecutive 100-yard performances against Youngstown State, BYU and Kansas State, Gibson’s production has dipped dramatically. The junior deep threat has averaged just 25 yards per game against Texas Tech, TCU and Oklahoma State.
In some instances, defenses rolled safety help to Gibson’s side, whereas Oklahoma State’s corners gave cushion and dropped seven into coverage. The result for Gibson has been only seven catches on 14 targets over a three-game stretch, though he caught a 22-yard touchdown vs. TCU and a scored on 19-yarder in Stillwater.
Kansas has allowed 44 plays of 20 yards or more — 12 that exceeded 40 yards — and ranks 92nd nationally in pass-efficiency defense, meaning Gibson could have his chances.
3. Injuries that might matter
Rushel Shell missed the second half at Oklahoma State with a sprained ankle and might be an emergency-only option, though West Virginia has Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy to fuel the running game. Fullback Elijah Wellman could be in line for his first carries since Texas Tech.
Kansas could be without junior center Joe Gibson for the second week. The 16-game starter was a late scratch at Oklahoma with a neck injury, forcing guard Mesa Ribordy to slide over with little notice.
Big 12 sacks co-leader Dorance Armstrong has stood out at defensive end for Kansas despite playing through an ACL tear all season.
“It was the very first practice of fall camp when I watched him go down,” said KU coach David Beatty. “I’m losing my breath going, ‘Oh, my goodness, is this really happening?’ We thought for a little while that he had torn his ACL, and he did have a slight tear in it, but he’s so strong.
“The work that he did kept him healthy or kept him from having an injury that would have put him out for the year. He rehabbed, man.”
4. Will Kansas compete?
They’re coming off a 53-point beatdown that officially squashed any hopes of bowl-eligibility. Their road performances have ranged from puny to. So where’s the motivation for the Jayhawks?
Talk of playing spoiler doesn’t really hold water for a moribund program that owns a 1-46 record post-September the past five seasons. (That lone win, by the way, came against West Virginia on Nov. 16, 2013.)
At least one player carries some extra lift: Senior safety Fish Smithson expects a sizeable contingent of family to make the trip from his hometown of Baltimore.
“Right now,” he said, “my ticket list is at 32.”