Insights and Analysis From West Virginia's One-Point Cactus Bowl Win Over Arizona State

PHOENIX - It wasn't easy, but West Virginia made just enough plays to top Arizona State 43-42 in the Cactus Bowl on Saturday. Here's a look at some news, notes and more from the match-up.

  • There were eight lead changes in the game, the most in the history of the Cactus Bowl. The previous record was three. The final score tied for the closest in bowl history.
  • Skyler Howard set a WVU school record for passing yards on a bowl, finishing with 532. That eclipsed the previous record of 429 yards set by Marc Bulger in the 1998 Insight Bowl, which was one of several previous names (Copper, etc.) of the Cactus Bowl.
  • Howard also set a Cactus Bowl record with five touchdown passes. ASU's Mike Bercovici threw four, which tied him for second. The nine passing TDs set the cactus Bowl record.
  • Howard's 532 yards also snapped the Cactus Bowl record formerly held by Washington State's Drew Beldsoe with 476 versus Utah in 1992.
  • Howard's 555 yards of total offense also set the bowl record and was the first for any player to reach more than 500 yards. Howard was named the game's MVP.
  • Howard's night started early, as West Virginia attacked ASU immediately on the first drive, throwing deep down the sideline for Ka'Raun White. White, who had a step on the defender after 10 yards, opened that considerably with each stride and hauled in a 53-yard catch that eventually led to Josh Lambert's chip shot field goal for a 3-0 lead. It was a huge play, coming after a pair of penalties had backed the Mountaineers up in their own end to start the game.
  • The Devils responded, getting a 45-yard kickoff return from Tim White before going three and out after a pair of poorly executed plays.
  • On the ensuing series, WVU got perhaps its most unlikely play of the season. Skyler Howard fired a solid, on target pass to Shelton Gibson. Gibson bobbled the ball, which then hit off an ASU defender and was nearly intercepted before landing in the arms of Daikiel Shorts for a first down. That, once again, set-up Lambert as the offense faltered in the red zone when Howard, on the scramble, missed an open White for a score. Lambert's 31-yard field goal pushed the lead to 6-0.
  • West Virginia had a great opportunity to tak advantage of a coverage error by ASU when the Devils covered two wideouts with one defensive back. But Howard, not seeing the shift, threw into a pile of bodies, and the resulting interception set-up Arizona State's first score to trim the lead in half at 6-3.
  • The Mountaineers held again defesively, and responded wth another lengthy drive, yet bogged down in the red zone. Lambert was once again accurate, this time from 27 yards, and WVU assumed a 9-3 advantage. The offense was effective between the 20-yardlines, but really hurt itself with the missed chances and miscues in the first 15 minutes. The field goal moved Lambert into a tie with Paul Woodside for third on the all-time school single-season list with 21 makes. The duo also share the school mark with 30 made field goals, which came in 1982 and 2014, respectively.
  • Arizona State finally got some offense going wwhen its special teaams and defense pinned West Virginia deep and the Mountaineers couldn't respond with a few first downs. That allowed ASU to start at the 40-yard line, and four plays later they had a score via a 19-yard catch and run by Devin Lucien for a 10-9 lead with 9:59 left in the opening half. The Devils had started targeting Ricky Rump by then, and would continue to attack the typical reserve who was playing in place of Daryl Worley. Worley was ineligible academically.
  • WVU struck back and retook the lead via a 59-yard striek from Howard to Gibson, which had blown by his coverage five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The play was the third longest from scrimmage for the Mountaineers this season, with the top three plays belonging to Gibson (70, 60, and 59-yard scores against Baylor, Iowa State and ASU).
  • Arizona State promptly struck back, going 80 yards in 10 plays over 3:00 for arguably their most impressive drive of the game. It stalled inside the five-yard line when WVU stonewalled a pair of running attempts. It looked as though Todd Graham would test West Virginia's defensive mettle again, but chose to kick take the field goal and a 16-13 game after WVU called a timeout to check the formation. 
  • The game then took several turns in a matter of minutes. First, West Virginia answered with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive for what should have been a 23-13 lead at the half. But after Shorts' catch for the score with 28 seconds left, the Sun Devils blockd the point after, with Tim White returning it for two points and a 22-15 score. It was the first time in school history WVU had allowed a PAT to be returned for two points, and the first time ASU had returned a blocked PAT for two.
  • It was also the first PAT miss for Lambert in 109 tries. 
  • West Virginia then compounded the problem when it failed to effectively execute a squib kick, and the ball was fielded at the 50-yard line. The Devils moved 34 yards in four plays, culminating the half with Zane Gonzalez's 35-yard field goal to bring the score within 22-18 at the half.
  • So what could have been a solid 10-point lead was down to less than half that, with Arizona State getting the ball to open the third quarter. It was a monumental swing over just 28 seconds, and it took away a ton of West Virginia's momentum at the break.
  • WVU held a 395-256 advantage in yardage and actually had fewer penalties (3) than ASU (4). The Mountaineers were just one of eight on third downs, though they did hold Arizona State to a two-of-nine effort. Howard completed 15 of 26 passes for 334 yards, two touchdowns and the interception. 
  • The 334 yards by Howard were a career-best for a single half.
  • The six field goals in the first half set a new Cactus Bowl record. Gonzales set the ASU school record for career points in the game. The four-point margin was the closest at the half since 2002.
  • Ka'Raun White had already set a career high at the break with his 116 yards.
  • The offense didn't slow in the third quarter, as both teams scored touchdowns on their initial possessions. First, Arizona State went 66 yards in eight plays to wrestle a 25-22 lead on a two-yard scoring toss to White. West Virginia answered quickly when Howard hit Jennings for a 64-yard score and a 29-25 WVU lead with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. 
  • The offenses simply kept rolling, with the Sun Devils putting up another touchdown less than six minutes later on a 33-yard TD pass on a catch-and-run. WVU missed at least two tackles on the play, and coordintor Tony Gibson simply shook his head after White raced the final 30 yards down the sideline to swap the lead again, this time at 32-29 with 4:35 left in the third quarter.
  • The action really ramped up, along with the noise level, when Gibson hauled in an over-the-shoulder 37-yard catch on the next series. His back foot was ruled to have clipped the grass just after he secured the catch, and prior to his other foot landing out of bounds, and the reception was upheld to a chorus of boos from the ASU faithful. WVU cashed in on the play with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Howard to Shorts to take a 36-32 lead with 3:01 left in the third quarter. But Shorts was whistled for a personal foul, which was applied on the kickoff.
  • That assessment allowed ASU good field position, and the Sun Devils got into solid field goal range only to watch Gonzales hook the kick wide. Howard, however, threw his second interception of the game on the next series, and the Mountaineers allowed ASU another chance as the game went to the fourth quarter.
  • The game then seesawed back and forth with multiple scores, the final one coming when Howard hit David Sills for a 15-yard touchdown with 2:19 left for the 43-42 lead.
  • Graham explained that he meant to go for two on his team's previous touchdown, but the play call didn't reach the field in time. He labeled it "mismanagement." Graham also said ASU planned to onside kick the ball once, but that time the personnel on the field was incorrect.
  • The game time of 4:09 was the longest in Cactus Bowl history. 
  • Despite the 85 combined points, the 65 combined rushes were the third-fewest in the game's history.

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