With all the focus on K-State’s discipline, toughness, lack of penalties and league lead in forced turnovers against West Virginia’s skill, talent, speed and tempo, the most major of field position changes has been set on the back burner for this top 15 contest. The No. 4 Wildcats statistically have the best special teams in the Big 12, and experience at placekicker, punter, holder and snapper. Contrast that with West Virginia, which has struggled with punts, punt accuracy and place kicks coming off too low.
Kansas State (6-0, 3-0 Big 12), conversely, leads the league in punt return average at 29.7 yards per return, getting solid production from wideout Traimaine Thompson, who has an 89-yarder and a return for touchdown this year. Their net punt yardage is a solid 37.5, and it’s likely, with its protection ability, that KSU will kick away, or create additional hang time, when punting to Tavon Austin. It’s one of the stronger aspect of a very solid overall team, and it mirrors the all-substance, little-style approach of head coach Bill Snyder.
That carries over on to special teams via Kansas State’s associate head coach and special teams coordinator Sean Snyder. The son of Bill, Sean is a former All-American punter in his 18th year as an assistant with the program for which he played in 1991-92. Sean's son, Tate, is a sophomore linebacker for KSU, and makes the Wildcats the only NCAA program to have three generations either coaching or playing for a single school. Sean has been the KSU Director of Football Operations for the past 16 years, and continues to handle that capacity while still producing top units, which he has again done this year.
Kicker Anthony Cantele has made 32 of 32 extra points and seven of eight field goals (87.5 percent), including five of five from 20-29 yards. His longest this season is a 41-yarder, meaning Cantele hasn’t been pressed considerably from any type of long distance. He has the leg from within 50 yards, and connected on 17 of 23 tries last season and 48 of 49 PATs. KSU’s offensive prowess has allowed Cantele to get a series of easier attempts, and with K-State’s defense, don’t expect Snyder to try longer field goals and give WVU a short field.
Add in KSU’s 10 forced turnovers, which has, again, allowed for a shorter field, and WVU must protect the football to both avoid lost possessions and giving the Wildcats additional time to burn clock. Cantele, inside 40 yards, is virtually automatic, and his 100 percent conversion rate on PATs obviously leads the Big 12. His 6 of 7 field goal effort also ranks first, and his kicks get plenty of elevation quickly to clear the line.
Cantele, whose younger brother, Jack, is also a Wildcat placekicker, was a third-team All-Big 12 preseason pick by Phil Steele and ranks in the top 10 in school history in made field goals. The senior was an Big 12 Honorable Mention pick last year by the Associated Press and his 17 field goals last season tied for fifth in school history. Not surprisingly, Cantele is a former soccer player. He transferred from Missouri State.
The Wildcats are fourth in kickoff returns (25.6 yards) and kickoff coverage (39.0 yards). That is likely to be a push with No. 15 West Virginia (5-1, 2-1), which has major return weapons in Austin and Stedman Bailey. Among the issues for the Mountaineers, though, is that coverage players have not broken down adequately when approaching return men, and thus gave up from longer returns versus Texas. Texas Tech didn’t have many kickoff return opportunities, so it remains to be seen if WVU can play in space more adequately than it has thus far in Big 12 play.
One would assume Kansas State will squib or kick the ball away from Austin, which has proven a success since Texas was ripped on its first two kickoffs by the senior. When the Longhorns began to squib the kick, WVU lost the field position battle – partially because of quarterback Geno Smith’s two fumbles – the remainder of the game. KSU is just sixth in net punting at 37.5 yards, but with the hang time punter Ryan Doerr can put under the ball, Austin will likely be forced to fair catch the majority of any punts, as he has this season.
Doerr averages 40 yards per punt overall, with a long of 52, and has two touchbacks and six fair catches to go with eight punts dropped inside the 20. He has not had a kick blocked, and the Ray Guy Award candidate, a transfer from South Carolina, is in his fourth year of starting.
Keep an eye on the approach from the Kansas State coaching staff. Do the Wildcats sky kick? Squib the ball? Rely on coverage units to corral Austin? How far out, if a drive stalls, does Snyder trust Cantele, and how accurately can Doerr drop punts outside the numbers and inside the 20, as needed, with respect to also supplying enough hang time to limit Austin. This, perhaps as much as any offense-defense match-up, will help decide possibly the game and at least the momentum in key situations. West Virginia doesn’t figure to be able to outperform K-State in major areas here, even with Tyler Bitancurt gaining some confidence later in the game against Texas via a pair of field goals, so at least getting a solid performance is a must.