WVU football: Weis, Kansas invest in running game
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia's run defense is in for a treat Saturday.
Coming to Mountaineer Field is a team that ranks among the nation's worst passing the ball and scoring points.
The Mountaineers are just as bad stopping the pass and keeping points off the scoreboard.
Kansas (1-10, 0-8 Big 12) accepted some time ago it can't pass the ball and has run it on almost 80 percent of the snaps for more than 75 percent of the total yardage the past four games.
The one thing WVU's defense does well is stop the run and it figures to know what's coming in the 2:30 p.m. ROOT Sports game at Mountaineer Field - except that there's no way to know what's coming.
"You never know what you're going to get from them," West Virginia Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "They kind of have a flavor of the week."
The Jayhawks, who have rushed for 1,122 yards the last four games, have succeeded by varying their attack from one week to the next.
Once Kansas Coach Charlie Weis realized the inefficiencies of his passing game and made a change at quarterback, he moved away from calling an equal split of plays and invested in the running game.
Ranked No. 19 nationally with 216.84 rushing yards per game, the Jayhawks identified running backs James Sims and Tony Pierson as their best offensive players and found ways to feature them.
"That forced me to spend more time with the offensive staff trying to figure out ways to stay one step ahead of the defenses so we're not dialing up the same runs every week," Weis said. "When the defensive coordinators study you on tape, they aren't getting a look at the same look week to week."
Sims, who was suspended the first three games, has 956 yards and eight touchdowns and averages 25 carries a game. His 119.5 yards per game would lead the Big 12 Conference and rank No. 14 nationally if he had enough carries. Pierson has 730 yards and 6.64 per carry. Taylor Cox averages eight carries a game and 5.24 yards per carry.
All three run have been used in single back sets and with a fullback. They can each run plays outside and delays and draws through the middle.
Sims and Cox run plays off tackle and between the tackles. Pierson handles a lot of sweeps and runs outside.
Sims and Pierson are frequently paired together with the quarterback in the backfield, but each can be alone and not solely in traditional sets. Each has taken snaps in a Wildcat formation, but so have receivers Cale Pick and Christian Matthews.
When Weis changed quarterbacks and started Michael Cummings in place of Dayne Crist, he added the option and the zone read to the repertoire. The Jayhawks do that out of the shotgun with Pierson or Sims and sometimes with Matthews replaced Cummings.
Kansas doesn't do all of that every game, but changes what the offense features from game to game. The coaches study the opposing defense and figure out what ideas will work in certain situations and against certain alignments and personnel packages.
"We felt it was important in our first year to get something we're good at that we can hang our hat on that one thing on a weekly basis," Weis said.
"We go into every game with a plan and it starts with, 'OK, who are we going to be successful running the ball with? What do we have at our disposal against who we're going against? What are we going to do here?' We start every Monday trying to figure out how we're going to run the ball."
It won't be easy against the Mountaineers (6-5, 3-5), who are No. 120 out of 120 teams in pass defense and No. 117 in scoring defense, but No. 40 in rush defense.
They have only allowed one opponent 100 yards in a game this season and that was last week against Iowa State's scrambling quarterback, Sam Richardson.
The Cyclones ran for 234 yards, by far the most against WVU this season. Kansas' worst output the previous four games was 234 yards against Texas and that was followed by 246, 390 and 252 yards the past three games.
Cummings won't scramble much or break the containment schemes of the defense because Kansas doesn't throw nearly as much. The offense is ranked No. 113 in passing and No. 112 in scoring. It has one game with more than 213 yards passing and just as many with multiple touchdown passes.
Kansas will nevertheless test WVU and the challenge for the Mountaineers is not merely stopping the run, but anticipating what tactic they'll have to tackle.
"We'll do like we do each and every week and look at what they do in specific situations and look at what they like to do against specific defenses," Holgorsen said. "We'll try to figure all that out, but when it gets right down to it, it's still just football.
"We're going to practice what their tendencies are. We're going to line up and try to get our guys to where they have proper gaps and can beat some blocks and can try and make some tackles. And when they put the ball in the air, it's our job to cover people and get the ball to the ground. It's still football. We're not talking about anything else other than that."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.