West Virginia football is in Ames, Iowa for a Big 12 Conference clash with ninth-ranked Iowa State after a longer-than-expected break from the gridiron. Action gets underway at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.
The Mountaineers (5-3, 4-3 Big 12) have yet to win a road game this season, and will have a massive test when they face the Cyclones (7-2, 7-1 Big 12), who have yet to lose at home against a Big 12 opponent this season. They did, however, take a painful loss in Ames against Louisiana — a 31-14 loss which, in hindsight, likely killed any chance of the Cyclones making the College Football Playoff.
Although their national title hopes remain slim at best, Iowa State is currently the favorite to win the Big 12 regular season title (they have already clinched a share of it), but they’ll punch their ticket to Arlington for the Big 12 Championship Game with a win over West Virginia.
The Mountaineers are still in the hunt for an invitation to Arlington, but they are a massive longshot. They’ll need to win this game on the road then beat Oklahoma at home a week later — and hope for a lot of help in between.
“It’s a huge challenge this week, and our guys have been looking forward to the opportunity,” said WVU coach Neal Brown. “It’s been a while.”
The all-time series between the two programs only dates back to 2012, when WVU entered the Big 12 — but it has remained fairly even. West Virginia owns a 5-3 advantage over ISU, including a 3-1 record in Ames.
Here are the biggest storylines for this game:
Brock and Breece
Iowa State has been getting their wins behind one of the best one-two punches in the conference: quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall.
Hall has been stellar in his sophomore season, leading the conference with 1260 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. That amounts to 140 yards every contest — beating the next-best runner (WVU’s Leddie Brown) by 27.9 yards every week.
“The thing that really sticks out about him is just running after contact,” Brown said. “He’s tough to tackle.”
His job is made much easier alongside the high-powered Cyclone passing attack, led by Purdy. The junior isn’t exactly wowing on the stats sheet — he averages the fifth-highest yardage total in the conference, and is tied for the second-most interceptions with six — but he’s been one of the more efficient passers with a 139.3 efficiency rating.
The Cyclone offense stands out, though, because of its pass-catchers. Receiver Xavier Hutchinson is the leader with 523 yards and four touchdowns, but three of their top five receivers are actually tight ends. Charlie Kolar (a name WVU fans should recognize after his strong play a year ago) was a key in ISU’s win over Texas last week, racking up 131 receiving yards.
Can WVU’s offense step up?
West Virginia’s offense has made massive strides from where it was a season ago, and there’s no better indicator of that than their tailback Brown. He’s averaging over 100 yards per game, and will be back to full strength after sustaining a minor injury against Texas in November, and battling through it against TCU.
His performance matched up against that of Hall’s could be a determining factor in this contest.
The biggest question mark on that side of the ball for WVU has been its pass game. The Mountaineers have been efficient through the air — Jarret Doege has thrown for 2,219 yards, 13 touchdowns and a Big 12-best three interceptions — but his connections with wide receivers has been inconsistent week-to-week.
Winston Wright is the Mountaineers’ leading receiver with 494 yards off 42 catches — but four different receivers have been their top pass-catcher in different games throughout the season. This unsteadiness is not lost on that position group, and they hope to change that in their final two games of the season.
West Virginia’s defense is still on top
There’s been a lot of talk about the WVU defense, and it’s all justified. The Mountaineers are currently on top of the Big 12 — a post they’ve manned for the entire season — by allowing just 274 yards per game and 14 touchdowns on the season (both marks are the best in the conference).
The turnover battle could be a tipping point in Ames, as WVU loves picking off opposing quarterbacks. They lead the Big 12 with 10 interceptions this year, with Tykee Smith and Alonzo Addae leading the way with two each.
Of course, the WVU front seven has been formidable all season as well. Linebacker Tony Fields II is averaging 9.9 tackles per game (the most among players who have played at least seven games), while Smith and Addae are not far behind with 6.9 each.
Where to watch
The action kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN in Ames.
Don’t miss this week’s episode of The Neal Brown Show, which airs at 9 a.m. ET on Nexstar stations in West Virginia and is followed by Mountaineer GameDay, which is hosted by Nick Farrell and Amanda Mazey, featuring Anjelica Trinone live in Ames.