By Jay FisherThe Cactus Bowl was the last bowl game of the season before the National Championship Game. It was also one of the most exciting bowl games, with WVU prevailing in a 43-42 shootout.
The strategies of each team weren’t hard to predict: their standard defensive philosophies fit well against the opposing offense. Arizona State saw film of a potent WVU rushing attack, but Sklyer Howard with a host of ill-advised or off-target passes; and several of the on-target passes were dropped. The ASU defense had been strong against the run, and poor against the pass all year, so they focused on controlling the run, and dared WVU to beat them by passing the ball.
WVU saw a so-so ASU ground game, but a passing game that varied from very good to very average. They would want to shut down the Sun Devil rushing game, and hope the “bad” version of the passing game showed up to the bowl game.
What happened? Well, the strategies worked – except that both teams brought their “A” passing game.
The Sun Devils feast-or-famine defense did manage to sort of contain the WVU running game. Taking away the two sacks, WVU gained 156 yards on 31 carries. They try to create havoc at the line of scrimmage, and end up making many zero or negative yardage plays. That was the case in the Cactus Bowl. But the downside is that they give up a lot of big plays. WVU was stuffed on several runs, but they also averaged 5 yards a carry. Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Skyler Howard, and even Elijah Wellman had carries of over 10 yards.
But the big news on offense was Skyler Howard’s passing success. Did he make some poor decisions? Yes. Did he misfire occasionally? Yes. Did his receivers sometimes end up on a different page? Yes. But these mistakes happened less often than earlier this year. When the dust settled, he had set a new bowl record and personal best with 532 yards passing, and 5 TDs. Shelton Gibson and Ka’Raun White both had over 100 yards receiving, Dakiel Shorts had 97 yards and 2 TDs receving, and freshman David Sills caught the game winner. The only senior receiver, Jordan Thompson, had a solid game, with 4 catches for 80 yards.
Arizona State also had a big passing day, with 418 yards, with receiver Devin Lucien and all-purpose star Tim White leading the way (White set a bowl record for all-purpose yards). In the end, it was good but not good enough.
WVU got a much needed win, and ends the season on a high note. Their 8 wins is the most since joining the Big 12, and they return most of the offense next year, although the must rebuild much of the defense.
That rebuild job became a little more difficult when Darryl Worley announced he was turning pro. He was suspended for the Cactus Bowl because he was late turning in some schoolwork. WVU did not give details, but it appears he had an incomplete at the time of grade certification for bowls, and thus was ineligible, even though the work was turned in and he is now OK on grades.
I’m not sure he is polished enough for the NFL yet, but he does have good measurable for a cornerback. He is tall by CB standards, and has good speed. The NFL tends to believe they can coach up any technical deficiencies, and he has the potential to be a Day 2 draftee (Rounds 2-3)
The Big 12 conference schedule got off to an ugly, yet successful start. The Mountaineers had trouble forcing turnovers (both teams had 15), they shot just 15% for three point shots, and had some questionable decision making. However, they played just well enough to escape Kansas State with a win, 87-83 in double overtime. If this is any indication, the Big 12 will indeed be a grind.
The optimist can look at this and say that WVU won even though they didn’t play their best game. Also, they got a road win in the conference, which is always difficult.
The pessimist will say that WVU struggled with an average team, and one that will finish in the lower half of the Big 12. Only time will tell which view is closer to being correct.
Notes: The women’s basketball team is off to a 1-1 conference start. They played Top 5 Texas tough, but the Longhorns were just too talented, and beat WVU 65-54. They bounced back with a big win at Kansas, 65-45…WVU has two big men’s basketball games coming up at home. First is Oklahoma State, this Saturday at 1:00. It will be televised by ESPNU…Then on Tuesday January 12, Kansas comes to Morgantown. It is very possible they will be ranked #1 when they visit. That will be at 7:00, and will be televised by ESPN2.