WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

The Good and the Bad of the Cactus Bowl

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Amazing. I can think of two other games when Dana Holgorsen was comparably plugged in, which is to say outwardly expressing his happiness, frustration and even sadness like this.

  • Texas in 2012
  • Oklahoma State in 2013

There may have been others. Honestly, I typically can’t see him from the press box, and I’m usually watching other parts of the game. But there was something about his mannerism and displays that the eye could not resist. I suppose he really wanted this one.

Confession time: I knew I was flying from Phoenix to Dallas and shifting from football to basketball, but what I didn’t know was what would happen in the Cactus Bowl and then after. I booked my Sunday flight to Dallas as late as I could because … well, let’s be honest, OK? What if WVU got boat raced in the bowl? Or, what if WVU simply lost the game?

I didn’t want to be in the air if something happened, didn’t want to be somewhere over Las Cruces when texts or emails tipping me off that something was brewing were stonewalled by airplane mode. None of that happened, and in truth, those worries seemed misplaced the closer we got to the game, but we didn’t know that, especially when making travel plans.

So when you see Holgorsen running and trying to fly and collapsing and cheering and yelling, consider the backdrop that may or may not have existed, but understand he needed that win and wanted that win and got that win.

I know it’s cool to say the game didn’t matter, and in the broad view, it did not. But the games aren’t solely about the people who sit in the stands, watch on television or cover it from the press box and from abroad.

 

Those are guys who witnessed a vicious momentum swing only minutes earlier. Arizona State scored to take a 41-36 lead with 4:56 to go, and then Todd Graham did what may be a Todd Graham thing and went for the extra point instead of the two-point conversion. That error gave the Mountaineers belief they deserved to and would win the game, and then they embarked on the game-winning drive, which started out very nicely.

  • First-and-10 at the 25: Skyler Howard draw, the first of the game, gains 11 yards
  • First-and-10 at the 36: Maybe Howard’s worst throw of the game is behind Gary Jennings
  • Second-and-10 at the 36: Swing pass outside to Wendell Smallwood gains 4 yards
  • Third-and-4 at the 40: Outside receiver clears the left side of field, Howard throws to Jordan Thompson outside the left hash for 20 yards
  • First-and-10 at the 40: Similar play as on third down, this time to the right, and Howard throws to Daikiel Shorts for 13 yards

WVU has the ball at the Arizona State 27 with 3:48 remaining, and the offense looks to be on its way. Then everything changes.

Howard quite likely got away with intentional grounding. Whether he was outside the tackle box is at best arguable, but his throw out of bounds didn’t get past the line. It probably should have been second-and-24 at the 41.

But that was quickly dashed aside by what immediately followed. It was a surreal two-play sequence.

Begin with the first play, because, wow.

WVU’s pass protection was, all things considered, pretty good throughout the game. This was as bad as WVU’s pass protection looked, and it was an eight-man protection scheme. Arizona State’s pass-rush specialist Antonio Longino races around Yodny Cajuste and then Marcell Lazard when Lazard slides over to help. Smallwood goes low to take out a rusher, but he can’t remove that threat. That threat and the guy spinning out of Cody Clay’s block pull the fire alarm, and Howard has a chance to throw the ball to Smallwood, except that Longino is still motoring along and strikes.

I thought it was a touchdown for the Sun Devils. They sent six and had five guys near the ball, each faster than WVU’s offensive linemen and able to keep Smallwood from making a tackle. The ball actually hits defensive lineman Tashon Smallwood in the hands, but Clay ends up landing on it for the first and only fumble recovery of his career.

Remember on the opening kickoff of the second half when Shelton Gibson stripped a ball free on the return and Xavier Preston and Marvin Gross landed on it and didn’t recover it and Arizona State ended up scoring on the drive?

Oh, you don’t? Gee whiz.

So in quick succession, WVU maybe gets away with intentional grounding (on a night with iffy officiating) and survives a strip sack. You’d feel pretty good about your chances, except it’s third-and-22 on a do-or-die drive.

Now go to the 0:35 mark and press play. The Sun Devils have three defensive linemen and then three defenders to the right of the right defensive end. It’s a 3-4, but a middle linebacker sunk to the right, and Longino, who just made his play from the left side, scrambled to the right.

Wendell Smallwood is behind Howard in the pistol, which means WVU can run this to the right or the left. If Smallwood is to Howard’s left, it has to go right, and vice versa, because WVU’s not running a counter here. But you have to think Arizona State doesn’t think WVU is running, period. From center Tyler Orlosky to his right, WVU has five players to Arizona State’s five players, but there’s a lot of space, especially at the second level, before the cornerback drops back, indicating the defense expects a pass.

The line wins early, sealing off the crowd on the left before right guard Kyle Bosch and Cajuste do well to get to the second level. The rest is Smallwood, who does a fantastic job reading those two, cutting back and then just running fast.

This play is a lot harder if Longino is on the left.

This is my favorite text from TFGD:

2:21:
I was legitimately getting in my car to drive to Arizona when he handed that off.

Never mind the touchdown pass to David Sills or the late pass breakup by Jeremy Tyler or another odd move by Graham that follows. This is the play that saved the day and perhaps more. WVU wins the bowl and its eighth game of the season, both for the first time since joining the Big 12. How did we get here? Let’s find out by taking a look at a particularly macho edition of the Good and the Bad of WVU v. Arizona State.

Good: The prize fighter
Howard in 13 regular-season starts: 214-for-392 (54.6 percent), 2,898 yards, 7.4 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns, 12 interceptions

Howard in two bowl starts: 48-for-96 (50 percent), 878 yards, 9.1 yards per attempt, eight touchdowns, two interceptions

Howard is not a boring person. I can’t say a lot about him because I don’t know him. His teammates say he’s actually pretty funny, but my interactions with him always feel like he doesn’t want to be there. He knows he has to do it, and he does it, but he’s programmed, and it’s not in his nature to give you what you want solely because you want it and especially if he doesn’t want to do it. He’d rather be throwing fades to receivers or watching film. He’s a quarterback, is what I’m saying. They’re so conditioned to read and react and to stick to a plan that it can be hard for them to go off script. Clint Trickett was really the only QB I’ve covered who fell into the category of “Exception.”

But at the Cactus Bowl media day Thursday, Howard was pretty fun to talk to. He goofed on himself for being a broken record as he gave answers, but he also said WVU was going to take aim at the Sun Devils secondary and shared some stories and anecdotes with people he did and did not know.

And then he killed it in the bowl game.

So maybe bowls are Howard’s Things? I mean, remember this bold-as-hell move from the Liberty Bowl?

 

That’s a jab at Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel.

Welp, did you catch this in the Cactus Bowl? That’s an upside down trident, which is Arizona State’s sign.

 

Start Chris Chuganov for 12 games and bring Howard out of the bullpen for the College Football Playoff.

Good: Howard
That guy took a beating during the game. He was only sacked twice — once when he was leaving the pocket, once on the aforementioned strip — and did a good job getting out of trouble, but he was hit a lot. The offensive line did a nice job protecting him so he could let routes develop and throw the deep balls, but he also made quick decisions and threw fast. (Aside: This is as good as it gets. Howard and Jordan Thompson spot the blitz, they’re on the same page and the throw is on the money.) I think it’s fair to assume there wasn’t a lot of audibling, because Arizona State was very much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get defense, and Howard stuck with the game plan without changing too many plays. Exception: Smallwood’s big run. It was Howard’s call, and he went from pass to run.

Bad: That said …
… he was not without blemishes. I think you can forgive the completion percentage when he goes for that many yards and is taking that many chances down the field. And what we know about Howard is he’s going to float between 45 and 55 percent on most days. Increase the difficulty by adding vertical plays (with receivers who are not yet gifted in that area) and you understand all numbers will not be gaudy. But, man, did he have some chances. I mean, chances to blow this game open. Chances to throw for, like, 700 yards. Missed David Sills twice. Missed a touchdown pass to Ka’Raun White. Here a chance, there a chance.

And the interceptions were … they were unfortunate. Again, throw it 51 times and you’re naturally increasing the risk of turnovers. That’s 51 pass rushes from the blitzingest team in the land and 51 throws when something odd or bad can happen. Howard was picked off twice, and neither was comforting.

Let’s start with the second one:

I never talked to Howard about this, but I’d imagine the dropping linebacker (No. 2) spooked Howard and caused him to put some more air under this. If you see it late and have to calibrate on the fly, this can happen. I don’t know, Howard was better than this in that game, and he was 8-for-10 for 142 yards and two touchdowns in the quarter before that. Blip. But this came after a WVU touchdown and an Arizona State three-and-out, and the Mountaineers had the momentum.

Yet while that one was disappointing, the first one, early on and before WVU proved a particular prowess, was more concerning:

The Mountaineers did something clever in the game. They huddled and then sprinted to their spots and snapped the ball quickly. It kept Arizona State on the back foot, and it caused certain chaos here. Go to the bottom of the screen and watch the safety lose his mind. Howard sees it. He sees the outside linebacker stalk the line of scrimmage and the safety replace him in coverage, and you have to think he changes to/reaffirms his commitment to a pass. But then the safety bails and no one replaces him, so, yay, the pass is on and this is easy.

I have no idea why what happened actually happened. Howard saw everything and then opted against a high-probability look at a 68-yard touchdown and threw left to the more crowded boundary side of the field, where a linebacker is dropping into coverage. I suppose Salamo Fiso (Side Good: Him.) could have tricked Howard, but he and the other nine players on the left half of the field shouldn’t have been part of this play.

Funny, but WVU doesn’t win without Howard having a huge day, but WVU almost didn’t win because of a handful of errors. Rightful MVP, though, and a ton of momentum for the winter and the spring.

Good: The future
Losing Daryl Worley hurts, and that much was clear during the game. Losing Smallwood hurts, and I need not tell you that. WVU doesn’t have a lot of options at cornerback, yet there are possibilities on offense. Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing and was a very good receiver, but if you believe this offense will never be 60-40 again, that loss doesn’t sting as much. Instead, you kind of like what the passing game accomplished.

We can only assume on Jan. 8, but WVU could have its top five outside receivers and its slot receiver/best all-around receiver back next season. Gary Jennings, I was told, had great practices toward the end of the regular season and then leading up to the bowl, and then he made a big play once there. Ka’Raun White showed signs during the second half of the season, was healthy for the bowl prep and then made plays from start to finish. David Sills is going to have an interesting offseason, because he’s going to get a shot at quarterback, but he can play receiver and could be pretty good if he devotes his time and attention there. The biggest question mark, in a few aspects, is Jovon Durante, whose absence necessitated the type of performances from the remaining receivers the Mountaineers nevertheless received.

No one was challenged more before the game than Gibson, and Holgorsen made it very clear in the days leading up to kickoff that the Kansas State game was the sophomore’s worst of the season. He wasn’t a lot better early on, missing blocks and giving up on routes, which Lonnie Galloway (and JaJuan Seider?) apparently did not like.

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Bad: Officiating
I’ll just leave it at that. Less is more. But picking up the pass interference flag, calling the bogus personal foul on Jared Barber and throwing a late flag on Arizona State’s final play and then picking it up were among the highlights. Not a good day for that Big Ten crew. I talked to some WVU folks after the game, and they weren’t bothered by it. At worst, it was pretty even, they reasoned. “But what’d you think of the replays?” I asked. They shrugged. “That’s not them. That’s upstairs.”

That’s true. The replay operation is unto itself, and it was in a weird mood Saturday.

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Each play survived review. The Gibson play (on the right sideline) was actually confirmed as a catch in bounds.

Bad: Cornerbacks
When you see 950 yards and nine touchdowns through the air, for sure there’s going to be some substandard cornerback play. Both sides had it. Arizona State knew Worley was out and picked on Ricky Rumph, and it was so bad that the Mountaineers broke tradition and went from left and right corners to pairing Terrell Chestnut with Devin Lucien wherever he went. But Arizona State had no counter, no way to hide Kweishi Brown. The Mountaineers knew about him — they recruited him for a while because of a connection they had with his California junior college — and went after him. Brown is listed at 6-foot and 210 pounds. I’m of the opinion he’s bigger than that, and he just looked stiff and slow whenever he was defending a pass — which was often. Three of WVU’s touchdown passes and five of the seven 25-yard pass plays were on him, and he was on both sides of the field.

Good: Gibson
Let’s check in on WVU’s best big-play receiver and Brown. Oh, man, that overhead replay should come in a brown paper bag.

Good: Daikiel Shorts
Gibson’s the best big-play receiver. Shorts is just the best receiver. I want to give Howard credit for these reads and the throws. On the first, he sees the inside receiver is covered by two defenders and correctly assumes the safety will cover and the defender atop White will blitz. White then runs a route that puts a fade to Shorts in no danger, and Shorts does what he does and makes a catch in the end zone. Poor Kweishi. On the second, it’s 1-on-1 with Shorts against a safety, and WVU trusts Shorts will catch it if it’s close, and Howard does his part. Don’t sleep on this throw, either. But the catch — yeesh. He had nine touchdown catches this season, and all 13 in his career came in the end zone. He hasn’t run across the goal line once. I’d say that’s his specialty, but he makes a lot of tough catches, wherever they may be.

Good: Cheeky play
Question: Why couldn’t Howard run this next season? I feel like it belongs in Morgantown since Pat White was doing it first. Such a clever design and consistently successful results, because the quarterback and the receiver put the defense in conflict.

Bad: Sun Devils run game
I thought their passing game was all right. Mike Berkovici had his issues against the 3-3-5 and was sometimes inaccurate, but he made some big throws, too. Lucien was great. Tim White was hard to cover. When utilized, D.J. Foster was able. Maybe they got caught up between identities a bit, or maybe they tried to run it too often? There was almost nothing there on the ground.

These are two pretty good examples, and the offensive line, the one that gave up a ton of sacks this season, does little to help. Noble Nwachukwu blows up the first play early, and the right guard flat misses Barber, who seals the deal. On the second, Nwachukwu and nose guard Kyle Rose occupy the linemen and Barber joins the party again, but watch the left guard. Feigns interest in Shaq Petteway, who swoops in and wallops people to make the play. The Mountaineers are an aggressive and physical defense, and sneaky plays like that pump them up. (Aside: I was on the field after the game, and they were announcing the offensive MVP. Howard, of course. Then they announced the defensive MVP, which I was not aware was a thing. I quickly quizzed myself, and Petteway’s name was the first to come to mind. WVU’s going to miss him a lot.)

Bad: Special teams!
It wasn’t terrible, actually. The squib at the end of the half wasn’t a bad idea; the execution stunk. The pooch at the end of the game was, let’s say, interesting, but the execution was again worse than the idea. Justin Arndt had a chance to make a tackle at the 30 and missed. But Jennings had a healthy punt return and K.J. Dillon had some fun fair catch fakes. Josh Lambert made his field goals. Nick O’Toole had no bad punts. But watch Bosch and Lazard here. Two flat tires at the same time. Shouldn’t happen, but I suspect that doesn’t happen often, either. It was a six-point swing — cost WVU a point, gave Arizona State two and facilitated a field goal after the squib at the end of the half — and left fingerprints all over the rest of the game. (Aside: Really weird end of the first half for Arizona State. The final offensive play started with 12 seconds left, and Berkovici checked down to Kalen Ballage for the second straight down, this time for a 5-yard gain. Didn’t try the end zone, and with Arizona State’s kicker, what’s 5 yards? Graham called a timeout with six seconds to go, presumably to take a shot, but then decided to kick it. This is picky, but either call the timeout with six seconds left and take a shot, which is risky but feasible from 17 yards out, or call it with four seconds or less to go so the field goal ends the half. The Sun Devils kicked the field goal and then had to kick to WVU, which should not happen. Again, picky, but as you’ll see, these things matter.)

Good: Play of the game?
This play lingered longer and with more purpose, though. Nick Kwiatkoski, standing up next to Christian Brown, disrupts this right away and cripples the blocking. He’s in so fast that the H-back behind the tight end wants to help. There’s nothing in the middle, so the running back has to bounce it to the left, but Kwiatkoski’s activity opens the door for Dillon.

Arizona State, which ate wall on three straight snaps, decides to go for it. Tony Gibson, who knows Graham, calls a timeout. The Sun Devils kick a field goal. (Side Good: Gibson called one other timeout. It was after Lucien again beat Rumph in the second quarter, when Lucien sat at 7-116-1 for the game. Gibson put Chestnut on Lucien during the pause in play, and Lucien caught two passes for 28 yards the rest of the way. On the first, Chestnut was one of the three in Cover 3, and Lucien, on the left, found a spot and Berkovici made a throw. On the second, Lucien, on the right, ran a hitch, and Chestnut was furious he let it happen.)

Anyhow, remember when the Sun Devils kicked a field goal early in the fourth quarter and then called a timeout on the kickoff? As we know, the idea was an onside kick. WVU thought Arizona State had 12 men on the field — and maybe Arizona State did, too. Nope. Just the wrong personnel. But Graham called a timeout, which in the moment seemed innocuous but in hindsight seems incredulous.

How hard could it have been to call off the onside kick on the field? Just whistle and wave your arms like an incomplete pass and let the nation’s best kickoff guy boot it through the end zone. Or take a delay of game, back it up 5 yards and let the nation’s best kickoff guy boot it through the end zone. But Graham called a timeout, which, fine, except that in first quarter Arizona State defended a field goal with 10 men on the field. Yanked a guy off the field, meaning the coaches probably thought there were 12 players on the field, and didn’t call a timeout.

That timeout on the kickoff was enormous, though, because Graham then compounded matters by inexcusably not going for the two-point conversion ahead 41-36. The Howard-to-Sills touchdown and the extra point put WVU ahead 43-42. The defense allowed a first down and then stopped four straight passes, including Tyler’s key breakup deep down the field. WVU took over at midfield with 1:26 to go. The Sun Devils had, you guessed it, two timeouts. Howard kept the ball and gained 5 yards and Graham, who was yelling on the sideline, waited 17 seconds to call a timeout. Howard kept again on second down and moved the chains … and that was it. One more knee and the game was over.

And the season is over for us, too. Thanks again to all the people who make this possible. Thanks for all the comments, all the clicks, all the tweets, all the shares and all the ways you spread the word. This has really taken off this year, and I’m glad so many of you like it. It’s a long, long season, and though you might think exercises like this drive me crazy … nah, never mind. They do. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.