They first came as rumblings of discontent in response to West Virginia's attempts to have Skyler Howard run the ball against Texas Tech. Even though the keepers made sense, as Howard usually made the right read as to when to give the ball to a Mountaineer running back or when to keep it himself, a restless crowd voiced its displeasure -- perhaps because they weren't resulting in 15- or 20-yard gains. Whether it was the play call, or the result, though, the fans clearly weren't happy.
One aspect those on the attack didn't understand (or chose to ignore) was the fact that those playes were all part of a game plan designed to keep Texas Tech's shaky running defense in evern more disarray. By having to account for the quarterback, even if he wasn't ripping off big runs, Tech was less likely to overcommit to the runs of Wendell Smallwood or Rushel Shell. It's impossible to totally quantify that benefit, but head coach Dana Holgorsen thought it had a big effect on the outcome. He credited Howard's decision making, and getting WVU into the right play calls, with some of the success in the running game.
What really stood out, though, was that even when the keepers were sucessful, they still met with some derision. Howard ripped off an eight-yard gain on one such play, giving WVU a second and two in point blank scoring range, but still there were negative responses. It's hard to wonder what those people were thinking - isn't an eight-yard pickup on first down enough?
Howard, to his credit, didn't respond in kind. He didn't react on the field, and he didn't fire back in the postgame media session. He used that crowd response as motivation, as fuel for success. Think about how many athletes today would respond differently.
“There were a lot of boos out there, and reaction to missed passes, but that’s all right," he said plainly, but with decisiveness. "I thank the people for those boos because it’s going to push me to be as great as I can be. More importantly, I appreciate the people that were cheering me, especially my family and friends. I don’t mind [the boos]. It is what it is.”
This isn't to say that Howard's response makes everything right with his play. He's still struggling with accuracy, and has missed several open receivers in every Big 12 game. He's going to have to get better if West Virginia is to string together wins the rest of this year, not to mention complete for a top level finish in the league in 2016. But his response gives hope, at least on one level, that he's approaching the challenge the right way. He's not getting tied up in reactions of fans -- or the media for that matter. If the boos are bothering him deep down, he's not showing it. He's saying the right things, and putting his focus where it belongs. He's trying to improve any way he can, and in the meantime get WVU wins.
In today's fishbowl society, that's something of a rarity. Athletes of all levels fire back at critics, stooping to unconscionable lows of meanness. I've seen it play out on all levels -- even as far down as middle school. Talking trash and one-upping someone else's putdowns are today's currency. It's incredibly refreshing to see someone stay away from that sort of response, and in the process demonstrate real leadership. Where Howard winds up in on-field and statistical ratings in the annals of WVU quarterbacks remains to be seen. But he's already put himself at the top of the list in terms of class and decorum. While that might not count for as much in getting wins as a string of well-thrown balls, it certainly carries weight with his teammates -- and those of us lucky enough to hear the way in which he delivered his message.