Now that we've had a few days to recover and properly process West Virginia’s thrilling, awesomely strange 43-42 victory against Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl – I forgot that staying up until 3 a.m. isn’t quite as easy as it was in college – I’ve got some leftover thoughts from the game as the Mountaineers head into the offseason.
1. Skyler Howard showed what he can do…but is it sustainable?
Howard has been a tried-and-true topic of conversation, and a whole lot of criticism, throughout the season. He plays the most high-profile position for a team that’s less a collection of college students and more the largest source of civic pride for an entire state. Such a reality isn’t that surprising, even if some of the critiques of his play are a bit overstated.
With a chance to leave a lasting impression for the next eight or so months, Howard did that and more, throwing for a Cactus Bowl-record 532 yards and five touchdowns in the win. Granted, there were also two regrettable interceptions and the performance came against one of the worst pass defenses in major college football, but the junior looked poised, confident and extremely effective, things he was sorely missing for extended stretches this season. He connected on deep routes for big plays, his intermediate game was strong and though he only completed 54.9 percent of his passes, that mark would have been higher had it not been for some drops.
Showings like this one in bowls can be deceptive, at least if they’re taken at face value. Skyler Howard is not going to be as good as he was against the Sun Devils because, frankly, almost no quarterback in college football history has ever been that statistically prolific over the course of a full season. But if he can come close to being the player he was in the Cactus Bowl, he can gain back a good deal of the faith many lost in him as he struggled this season.
2. The win was an intriguing peek at next season
Howard was far from the only returning player who impressed against Arizona State. Wendell Smallwood – who has yet to make his NFL draft decision official (he’d be wise to come back) – was his usual self, averaging 5.5 yards per carry on 13 rushes, but there were a slew of other freshmen, sophomores and juniors who turned in strong performances. Shelton Gibson returned to being the deep threat he was for much of the early part of the season, going for 143 yards and 35.8 yards per catch. Ka’Raun White looked like his older brother at times (not just because of the dreadlocks) as he hauled in four catches for 116 yards. And that’s just to name a few.
Five of the Mountaineers’ six leading receivers in the game will be back next season. As will its two leading rushers (presumably). As will four of its five offensive linemen, the players who gave their quarterback a clean-enough pocket to throw for close to 550 yards. As will the aforementioned quarterback. West Virginia will be losing a solid chunk of its excellent defense to graduation next season, placing that much more of an onus on the offense. That’s a notion that would have appeared frightening to most any fan as recently as a few weeks ago – and it may still be that way for some – but the bowl win and the way it transpired provides some level of hope in the offensive pillars returning next season.
3. That eighth win means something
One of the major talking points heading into the Kansas State game was the possibility of picking up an eighth win and what it would mean. Coaches and players will usually tell the media we’re the ones who fixate on those kind of things, but it didn’t take much of a deep look to see what an eighth win meant to this group, from Dana Holgorsen on down to the long snapper.
That eighth win didn’t come against Kansas State, but about one month later, it arrived. Does it mean less because it happened in a bowl game, a glorified add-on to the schedule? I don’t think so. When people look back at each West Virginia season, they’ll just look the records without conducting a comprehensive investigation into how each win came. They’ll see the numbers and see that this was the first team to win eight games since the move to the Big 12. That’s important for a group of seniors who were effectively guinea pigs in an experiment that threw an eastern school in to a conference based largely out of Texas. The spirited celebration that ensued after Arizona State’s failed fourth down to end the game showcased as much. And it’s extremely important for a coach who has to show that he has the program headed in some kind of positive direction, even if he’s been granted another season to try to continue that work.
A one-point win in a game that ended at 2:30 in the morning back in Morgantown maybe shouldn’t mean much. If anything, the difference between seven and eight wins may be a little arbitrary. But not to this team.