This isn’t your prototypical overzealous focus on a prime position, but a legit question for both programs in establishing game plans on either side of the ball. For West Virginia, it means the difference between additional mobility against lesser experience, the addition of a fresher, more rested player against one who has proven himself against top quality competition. WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen has not yet announced a starter, with incumbent Clint Trickett recovering from a concussion and back-up Skyler Howard ready after showcasing himself well in the second half of the 26-20 loss to then-No. 12 Kansas State.
Howard, a sophomore, completed 15 of 25 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. Trickett, seemingly fatigued down the stretch for the second consecutive season, threw a pair of picks with zero scores before leaving after his second interception on the first drive of the third quarter.
For Iowa State (2-8, 0-7), looking for its first Big 12 win with two games remaining (TCU, Dec. 6), the set-up is a repeat of last week when it faced Texas Tech back-up Patrick Mahones, playing for the injured Davis Webb for the third straight contest. Mahones, a freshman, threw for 328 yards and four touchdowns, including a 44-yarder to Kenny Williams that capped a 74 yard, fourth quarter drive which lifted Tech to a 34-31 win. The score sent Iowa State to its fourth consecutive loss despite winning the turnover battle and amassing 569 yards of offense, including 304 yards passing. The Cyclones, which will not reach a bowl for the second straight season, have lost all seven Big 12 games they have played since upsetting WVU 52-44 in overtime last year.
“It’s the second week in a row that we’ve had that unknown about quarterbacks and who, exactly, from a personnel standpoint you’re going to be playing against,” said head coach Paul Rhoades, a beloved Iowa native who is under fire from fans after a combined record of 5-17 over the last two seasons. Iowa State has not had a winning record since 2009.
“You have to look at the body of work with both quarterbacks and what has happened from a play calling scheme standpoint,” Rhoades noted. “Certainly the other players are out there and they are all very good players for West Virginia. I happened to see (Trickett’s injury) on television when it occurred and I saw a quarterback come off the bench and absolutely play with a great amount of confidence, who delivered the ball with accuracy and really played up to the opportunity. I don’t have doubt that if he’s the one who gets the call that’s what he’ll do.
“I’ve always hated quarterbacks who are active and can scramble and can ad-lib on a play, because you can’t defend that on paper. The designed quarterback run, even with the offense having a numbers advantage, you can at least try to scheme that. But plays like the scramble and throw or the scramble and run, you’re at the mercy of somebody hopefully making a play. The longer a play goes, it favors the offense when you have a quarterback who can operate like that.”
Howard showcased that running ability, converting a key third and six on his first series with a 16-yard run. That set-up a seven yard scoring strike to Kevin White on a crisp pass over the middle for the Mountaineers’ first touchdown. Howard, who coordinator Shannon Dawson calls a gamer, led another scoring drive two WVU possessions later, the key play a 53-yard slant pass to Mario Alford to trim a once 20-3 KSU edge to 23-17. Holgorsen is unlikely to name a starter, typically preferring to keep such information under wraps to maintain any edge, potential or actual.
“I think they will be similar (on offense regardless of quarterback),” Rhoades said. “Obviously they are very comfortable with their offensive package. It’s a very explosive package and they are going to do the things they do with whoever is under center.”
WVU’s passing offense ranks 11th in the NCAA at 317.3 points per game, and 41st in points per contest at 32.8. Iowa State’s defense is allowing 37.4 points per game, 117th in the NCAA and has allowed 30-plus in all but one game, that a 20-17 win at rival Iowa in week three.