Though his first time bowling didn’t end in a Mountaineer victory, Skyler Howard is back at the alley with his bowling shoes on and his heart set on knocking down every pin this time.
The fact of the matter is that the first real look Mountaineer fans got at the Forth Worth native was in last season’s bowl game (the Liberty Bowl). Keep in mind that the Liberty Bowl was only Howard’s second career start in a West Virginia uniform.
So, pressure of the post-season? He’s seen it before.
That game in Memphis, Tennessee was also the first time fans got to see Howard’s demeanor. That’s when he became more than just another jersey on the field and more than just a second string quarterback; he became the heart of West Virginia’s offense.
From the moment he threw up the “Money Manziel” sign with both hands after getting slammed to the ground by a Texas A&M defender, Dana Holgorsen decided that Howard’s display of physical and mental toughness in a whirlwind situation was enough to earn him the starting nod for the entire 2015 season.
It certainly hasn’t been a walk in the park. Howard’s success rate this season has been a roller coaster from the beginning with Georgia Southern to the end against Kansas St.
With Howard under center through 12 regular season games in 2015, WVU finished with a 7-5 (4-5 in Big 12) record. The junior completed 54.8 percent of his passes while throwing 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Six wins made WVU bowl eligible, and with that, Howard faces a second opportunity to help the Mountaineers win a post-season ring. This time, against a tough 6-6 Arizona St. football team in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl.
“They have players. They have some ball players, and they’re really aggressive on defense,” said Howard. “They have some big, physical guys up front. They will move around and they will also heat you up. It’s nothing that we haven’t already seen, so we’re going to work on the looks we’re given, and we’re going to take what they give us.”
But, like he said before, it’s nothing he hasn’t already seen.
Not only does Howard recognize how aggressive the Sun Devils’ defense is, he compares them to another brutal opponent the Mountaineers faced earlier this season, the Big 12 Champion Oklahoma Sooners.
“They do some stuff that kind of looks like Oklahoma,” said Howard. “They bring some guys off of the edge, and they really heat you up. It’s really nothing that we haven’t seen before, so I think we’ll be prepared. We will be.”
The majority of Howard’s confidence stems from the trust he’s developed with his receiving core. Though they’ve suffered through a few mishaps and timing issues over the course of the season, Howard describes the QB-WR relationship as a continuous work in progress that improves on the daily.
“It’s been good,” he said. “It’s always a work in progress. You can always continue to get better at that. We’re just doing what we do. Throwing everyday, repetition. I think repetition is the key to success. If you just keep doing it and doing it, it will come easy on game day.”
Shelton Gibson, who ranks second on the West Virginia offense in total catches and first in total receiving yards, has already prepared himself for the talent he’ll be facing against at the corner position.
“It’s very exciting,” he said. “Watching film on the corners, I know that they switch. Both corners are pretty good, but I know that No. 8 (Lloyd Carrington) is very good… They’re fast. They’re a very fast team. We’re going to have to come with speed, and our legs are going to have to be fresh to run with them.”
Although the passing game will play an important role in a Mountaineer victory, the run game has become West Virginia’s go-to option. With the success of Wendell Smallwood and his quick feet, you can expect to see the No. 4 with the ball in his hands more often than not.
“I think their (Arizona St.) defense is very lively. They blitz a lot. We are going to have to be on our A game just like every other game,” said Smallwood. “I have to focus on the game plan. I have to stay in the film room and figure out what those guys are doing. That way when I see it on the field, I know what’s going on, and I will be able to make plays.”
As the Mountaineers head for Phoenix (nearly 2,100 miles from Morgantown), Howard says the team’s excitement continues to build every day with January 2 quickly approaches.
“We’re excited. Our energy is high,” said Howard. “We’re going out there to work every day, and we’re getting some good work in. It’s not only good for the bowl game, but it’s good for those younger guys to get some experience in practice that maybe they didn’t get during the season. We’re just getting better as a whole team.”
West Virginia will face Arizona St. in the 2016 Motel 6 Cactus Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona on January 2. Kickoff is set for 10:15 p.m. ET.
Quotes in this article courtesy of WVU Athletic Department