By Ryan Decker, West Virginia Illustrated
PHOENIX, AZ – Arizona St. (6-7) only had to travel 11 miles from its home Sun Devil Stadium to Chase Field, the site of the 2016 Motel 6 Cactus Bowl. Meanwhile, it was a 2,080-mile trek from Milan Puskar Stadium to Chase Field for West Virginia (8-5).
Head coach Dana Holgorsen, quarterback Skyler Howard, and the rest of the Mountaineer offense, must’ve taken notes about flying during the plane ride, as WVU employed the air-raid offense, picking up a large majority of its yardage through the air.
Howard set the WVU record for most passing yards in a bowl game, and broke the Cactus Bowl record for the same stat in the Mountaineers 43-42 win to end the season on a high note.
“We were playing alright on all three sides, we just had to come together, and we did in the fourth quarter,” Holgorsen told ESPN reporter Kacey Smith. “I just wanted these seniors to go out on the right note. They re-committed themselves when we were 3-4 after a tough four-game Big 12 stretch, and finished better than any West Virginia University Big 12 team. I was proud of them. They’re a special group of seniors.”
West Virginia made trips inside the red zone in three of its first four drives of the game, but could only come away with nine points as Josh Lambert kicked three field goals.
Arizona St. had offensive struggles early on, as well, gaining just 42 yards in the opening quarter, compared to the Mountaineers who gained 236 yards.
Despite WVU heavily outgaining ASU for much of the first half, the Mountaineers couldn’t gain the necessary yardage on third down, unable to convert on each of their first seven third-down attempts.
The Sun Devils, though, were the first team to find the end zone, as Devin Lucien caught a pass along the left sideline, and reached the football over the goal line on an impressive second effort.
Arizona State’s touchdown drive was aided by a 16-yard punt return by Tim White that put ASU across midfield. The Sun Devils led 10-9 with 10 minutes remaining in the second quarter.
Two possessions later, WVU regained the lead with two big pass plays.
Howard completed a 21-yard pass over the middle of the field to Ka’Raun White. He then lofted a pass down the near sideline to Shelton Gibson, who slowed down just enough to catch the ball, and then turned on the afterburners to outrun two Sun Devil defenders.
Both catches gave both of the WVU wide outs 100 yards receiving for the game. White finished with four catches and 116 yards, while Gibson ended the game with four receptions for 143 yards and a score.
Lambert’s PAT gave West Virginia a six-point lead.
Arizona St. pieced together a lengthy drive, and threatened to once again get in the end zone. The WVU defense had other plans, though, stopping consecutive ASU runs from the one-yard line, and forcing the Sun Devils to Kick a field goal with 2:53 remaining in the opening half.
Howard once again marched the offense down field, taking eight plays to travel 75 yards. He completed a 16-yard pass to White, a 22-yard strike to a wide-open Daikiel Shorts, and a 17-yard pitch and catch to Jordan Thompson put WVU inside the red zone at the five-yard line.
Smallwood lost five yards on first down, but on second down Howard tossed a 10-yard pass to the back, right corner of the end zone that fell right into the hands of a diving Shorts for a touchdown.
ASU scored five points in the final 33 second of the half, blocking the PAT and returning it for a safety, and then turning good field position into a field goal.
WVU lead by just four points, 22-18, at halftime despite gaining 139 more yards on offense.
Howard threw for 334 of his total 532 yards in the first half.
“(The) offense finally decided to take care of its problems and find the end zone,” Holgorsen said at halftime. “We knew we were going to have to throw it. They’re really good against the run, and they’re going to pressure a bunch. I think Skyler is doing a good job of putting the ball in play.”
The ASU offense continued to put points on the board coming out of the break, quickly going 66 yards to score a touchdown and take a three-point lead.
The air-raid attack continued for WVU on its next drive as Howard connected with Gary Jennings for a 64-yard scoring play to re-gain the lead, 29-25.
ASU and WVU traded touchdowns once again, the Sun Devils scoring as result of multiple broken tackles from WVU defenders, and the Mountaineers finding the end zone with the second Howard-to-Shorts-touchdown combination of the game.
“(Howard) played his tail off,” Holgorsen said. “He means a lot to this football team. He had a great month of practice and he came out here and he played his tail off. I was really proud of him.”
WVU led 36-32 at the end of the third quarter.
Arizona State’s Zane Gonzalez converted on a 48-yard field goal early in the fourth to pull the Devils within one point.
The Sun Devil’s took the lead with just under five minutes remaining with the help of questionable officiating, and a lack of WVU tackling. Linebacker Jared Barber was called for a personal foul for hitting quarterback Manny Wilkins, who kept running after it appeared he had been tackled.
Three plays later, Mike Bercovici completed a pass to Gary Chambers, who eluded multiple Mountaineer defenders en route to pay dirt on a 58-yard scoring play that gave ASU a 42-36 lead with 4:56 remaining.
Howard and company wasn’t done, as the offense put together a 10-play drive that required two third-down conversions, including a 24-yard rush by Wendell Smallwood on 3rd and 22.
Two passes later, Howard set the Cactus Bowl record with his fifth touchdown pass, completing this one to David Sills.
Arizona State had one last chance after a dropped pass on third down set up the Sun Devils with 4th and 10 at midfield. Bercovici’s pass fell incomplete, tipped by Barber over the middle of the field.
With the win, West Virginia wins its first bowl game since the 2011 Orange Bowl.
It also marks the best finish WVU has had since joining the Big 12 Conference.