West Virginia’s Big 12 title hopes are still slim.
The Mountaineers are only one game back of a spot in the return of the conference’s championship game next month in Arlington, Texas. But they will need a lot of different - and unlikely - scenarios to go their way.
Even if they do not reach that contest, though, their improvements in recent weeks have been impressive, especially on defense.
The offense did make some big plays in the 28-23 victory at Kansas State, which was WVU’s first-ever win in Manhattan. Redshirt junior quarterback Will Grier made a number of big plays, including a ridiculous 30-yard touchdown pass to end the first half.
He would eclipse 300 yards for a ninth straight week. Senior running back Justin Crawford put forth another 100-yard display. And the receivers put together some big numbers.
But they stumbled. There were four turnovers and a lot of three and outs. They failed to score after halftime for a second consecutive week.
"We’ve got to be better in terms of we either three and out or we score like in a minute," said WVU offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. "That’s how it is. It’s either the most explosive offense you’ll ever see or the worst offense you’ll ever see."
Yet the defense was there in nearly every situation, no matter what they were thrust into, whether it came off a big special teams play, a turnover or something else that could be detrimental to a lead.
WVU forced two turnovers from Kansas State redshirt freshman quarterback Skylar Thompson, who made his first career start. It also held him to 13-of-26 passing.
One big difference that’s taken place is the defense’s intensity. They look tougher, more physical and more poised than ever before.
"We’ve been in practice padded up every day, like everybody is getting tougher," said junior defensive end Ezekiel Rose. "Everybody is getting mentally tougher, just getting stronger every day."
There were so many questions about the defense early on the season. They would show their potential at times, but also give up big plays and suffer breakdowns on a number of occasions.
Could they bounce back? Could they look like a typical Tony Gibson defense we’ve been accustomed to seeing since he’s been with the program? Could they limit the mistakes? And could they step up in big games?
There were so many missed plays, but in recent weeks against Iowa State and Kansas State, it’s been different. They have bounced back, and they are looking like a typical Tony Gibson 3-3-5 defense. They are limiting mistakes. And they are stepping up in big games.
It did not matter that a number of players were sidelined - redshirt junior Dravon Askew-Henry shifted from free safety to bandit safety in place of redshirt junior Toyous Avery, redshirt freshman Dylan Tonkery started for senior Xavier Preston at SAM linebacker, Rose started for redshirt sophomore Adam Shuler at defensive end and true freshman Kenny Robinson started at free safety.
Rose recorded his first career interception, which coaches deemed as the turning point of the contest. His backup for the game was Shuler, who although was not listed No. 1 on the depth chart after missing last week’s game, placed a tremendous impact on the game as well.
Shuler finished with six tackles (two for loss) and a sack.
"It was really good to get Shuler back," Gibson said. "He affected the game early."
WVU’s offense turned the ball over four times, but Kansas State scored just three points off those takeaways.
Six of the Wildcats’ 16 drives also started in opponent’s territory. Yet they only scored a total of six points on the possessions that started inside WVU’s 50-yard line. One of those began at the three-yard line after an interception, but they lost a yard and settled for a 21-yard field goal.
Yes, there were still lapses. It was not a perfect outing, but if the defense continues these performances, WVU is likely only going to trend up.
"I was really pleased with our effort," Gibson said. "We still made some mistakes. I said it last week, I haven’t been prouder of a group of kids in 23 years of coaching."