Skyler Howard throws for 532 yards, rallies W. Virginia over Arizona State in Cactus Bowl
PHOENIX — Skyler Howard heard the boos from the home fans. He heard the talk about his inconsistencies. He heard how he wasn’t cut out to be a Big 12 quarterback.
On the biggest stage of West Virginia’s season, Howard did all the talking with his arm.
Howard threw for a Cactus Bowl-record 532 yards and hit David Sills on a 15-yard pass for his fifth touchdown with 2:19 left, lifting West Virginia to a wild 43-42 win over Arizona State early Sunday.
"It’s about time it fell together," said Howard, who completed 28 of 51 passes. "We finally started clicking on offense."
The Cactus Bowl made up for its late start with an assault on the record books.
The teams combined for 1,196 yards of offense and the 950 yards passing was the most in the Cactus Bowl’s 27-year history as the game crept well past midnight.
West Virginia (8-5) is typically a run-oriented team but went to the air against the Sun Devils.
Howard shredded Arizona State’s shoddy defensive backfield, breaking the Cactus Bowl record of 476 yards set by Washington State’s Drew Bledsoe against Utah in 1992. He also blew past the school bowl record of 429 yards passing by Marc Bulger against Missouri in Tucson in 1998.
"He is gritty, he doesn’t ever give up, he continues to go. It doesn’t matter what people think and people say," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He just keeps going to work every day and keeps getting better and better. I am really proud of this kid."
Tim White and Mike Bercovici did their best to keep Arizona State (6-7) in it.
White broke the school record for all-purpose yards with 289, scoring two touchdowns and a blocked PAT return.
Bercovici threw for 418 yards and hit Gary Chambers on a 58-yard pass for his fourth touchdown of the game to put Arizona State ahead with about 5 minutes left.
A coaching decision on the point after ended up costing Arizona State.
Instead of going for the 2-point conversion, like their chart says, the Sun Devils inexplicably kicked an extra point and went up 42-36.
West Virginia went ahead by one on Howard’s pass to Sills and the extra point, and Arizona State turned the ball over on downs its last possession.
"We were supposed to go for 2 and we didn’t," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. "Mismanagement there and that is my responsibility."
West Virginia was 14th nationally in rushing offense, thanks in large part to Wendell Smallwood. The Mountaineers clearly saw something they liked in Arizona State’s porous pass defense, though, particularly cornerback Kweishi Brown.
West Virginia went at Brown early and picked on the rest of Arizona State’s secondary throughout the first quarter, gaining 191 yards on eight receptions. Trouble was, the Mountaineers couldn’t capitalize, settling for three field goals.
The Mountaineers kept going at Brown, though, and Shelton Gibson blew past him for a 59-yard touchdown in the second quarter. The Sun Devils took Brown out for a few plays, but West Virginia went right at him when he returned, scoring on a 10-yard pass from Howard to Daikiel Shorts.
Howard, who’s career high was 359 yards, had 334 on 15-of-26 passing by halftime.
"They kept throwing over the top and scoring touchdowns," Graham said. "We blew a couple coverages and then ran by."
Arizona State’s high octane offense needed a tuneup early before finally finding a gear that worked in the second quarter, scoring on a tackle-breaking 19-yard reception by Devin Lucien. But then it failed on three tries from inside West Virginia’s 5-yard line and settled for another field goal later.
A strange turn of events kept the Sun Devils within 22-18 at halftime.
Arizona State blocked the extra point after Shorts’ TD and White returned it 98 yards for the first 2-point conversion return in school history. West Virginia squibbed the ensuing kickoff and Arizona State recovered, taking advantage of the short field to set up Zane Gonzalez’s 35-yard field goal with a second left.
The third quarter turned into a series of offensive counterpunches.
The Sun Devils moved quickly for a 2-yard TD pass from Bercovici to White. White scored again late in the third quarter by breaking three tackles and tight-roping his way down the sideline on a 33-yard reception.
The Mountaineers went back at Brown, scoring on a 64-yard pass from Howard to Gary Jennings, though it appeared Brown was expecting help from the safeties. Brown was alone when Gibson later caught a 37-yard completion and Shorts scored on a 17-yard pass the next play to put the West Virginia up 36-32 heading into the fourth quarter.
"We saw what we had over there and just took advantage of it," Howard said.
Chambers got the go-ahead score with just under 5 minutes left when West Virginia safety Dravon Askew-Henry slipped, but the failure to go for 2 came back to haunt the Sun Devils.
Howard quickly led the Mountaineers down the field for the winning touchdown, and West Virginia’s defense held to cap a sometimes-difficult season with a win.