West Virginia Mountaineers: 2016 Cactus Bowl Champions

PHOENIX — If late-night football was your thing, the Cactus Bowl summoned you toward the desert for a final bowl fix of the season. West Virginia flew cross-country, Arizona State drove crosstown and Chase Field operators opened the giant moonroof for this one … a 43-42 Mountaineers victory that was worth the lost sleep.

Skyler Howard threw for 532 yards and rallied West Virginia to the go-ahead touchdown with 2:19 remaining.

The Mountaineers (8-5) opened as slight underdogs, then transitioned to three-point favorites in a game that projects as the consummate tossup. Not surprisingly, the partisan Sun Devil crowd made this a Pac-12 home game. (Yes, there was the obligatory “In Todd We Trust” sign, though we trust no one thought ASU would finish as a 6-7 team this season.)

A recap of the in-game updates and analysis:

FIELD GOAL: Josh Lambert 21-yard kick (12:02) WVU leads 3-0
Shelton Gibson was dinged for 15 on a personal foul and Adam Pankey jumped for 5 more, but none of that mattered after Skyler Holgorsen dropped a 53-yard bomb to Ka’Raun White (proving the ASU secondary can be burned by East Coast receivers too). WVU nearly had first-and-goal after Daikiel Shorts was interfered with on an end zone fade route, but refs waved off the flag, setting Dana Holgorsen on fire. Then, on third-and-9, Wendell Smallwood gained 6 and WVU kicked. (Drive: 9 plays, 78 yards in 2:58)

— Arizona State goes three-and-out, all incompletions by Mike Bercovici.

FIELD GOAL: Lambert 31-yard kick (8:57) WVU leads 6-0
White caught another one for 26, Rushel Shell reeled off a 14-yarder and Shorts caught a twice-tipped pass that was jarred loose from Gibson and nearly picked by ASU linebacker Salamo Fiso. West Virginia was humming with first-and-goal at the 9 when Shell was dropped for a 5-yard loss. After Howard overthrew Shell in the end zone, he missed a wide-open White crossing the middle, though in fairness to Howard he was flushed by the blitz. WVU has 142 yards to Arizona State’s 1 but hasn’t cashed in a TD. (Drive: 8 plays, 56 yards in 2:25)

— Nothing doing on the Sun Devils’ second series. Another three-and-out.

— WVU started at the 27 and faced third-and-3 when Fiso made his second interception attempt stand up. He picked Howard’s pass intended for Gibson at the 40 and returned it to the 22.

FIELD GOAL: Zane Gonzales 37-yard kick (5:06) WVU leads 6-3
The Sun Devils committed an illegal motion penalty, but the backed-up West Virginia defense made a nice stand and forced a field goal. Not much room for Arizona State to do anything so far. (Drive: 4 plays, 2 yards in 1:30)

FIELD GOAL: Lambert 27-yard kick (3:13) WVU leads 9-3
Between the 20s, West Virginia is killing it. A 31-yard strike from Howard to Gibson and a 17-yard run by Elijah Wellman have WVU over the 200-yard mark in the first quarter. The red zone has become a desert wasteland, however. This drive ended on a third-and-3 incomplete fade route to the 5-11 Gibson. (Drive: 6 plays, 55 yards in 1:53)

— Devin Lucien tip-toed the sideline for a 19-yard catch against Rick Rumph, before ASU’s drive petered out at the West Virginia 48. Bad, bad quarter of offensive football for the Sun Devils.

— Jordan Thompson caught a 32-yarder before West Virginia’s Nick O’Toole punted into the end zone from the ASU 46.

— Bercovici hit Lucien for 29 and ASU was on the move temporarily. But Nick Kwiatkoski flattened the ASU quarterback on a third-down incompletion.

—Pinned inside its 10, WVU retreated further after a Cody Clay holding penalty. In a strange twist, Smallwood ran for 19 yards on three carries but the Mountaineers failed to gain a first down. O’Toole followed with a 38-yard punt that Tim White returned 16 yards.

TOUCHDOWN: Lucien 19-yard pass from Bercovici (9:59) Arizona State leads 10-9
Taking advantage of a short field, Lucien took advantage of Rumph for two catches that covered 40 yards. On the touchdown, he took a quick out and weaved across the goal line after Rumph slipped trying to make a shoestring tackle. (Drive: 4 plays, 40 yards in 1:06)

— Howard had Sills on a deep cross only to overthrow him by inches. The three-and-out culminated in Howard overshooting Gibson deep, though the receiver curiously stopped his route amid complaints he was grabbed by the cornerback. Assistants Ja’Juan Seider and Lonnie Galloway chewed him out for pulling up.

— After, a 16-yard pass to Foster was mostly wiped out by a holding flag on receiver Tim White, Arizona State punted.

TOUCHDOWN: Gibson 59-yard pass from Howard (6:02) WVU leads 16-10
White eclipsed the 100-yard mark on a 21-yard catch before Gibson made his third-longest gain of the season to put West Virginia ahead. Howard now up to 271 yards passing. (Drive: 3 plays, 80 yards in 0:39)

FIELD GOAL: Gonzales 19-yard kick (2:53) WVU leads 16-13
Not often does a defense celebrate an 80-yard drive, but this was one such occasion because ASU had first-and-goal at the 5 and failed on two cracks from the 1. The big third-down stop came from K.J. Dillon and Christian Brown on running back Demario Richard, and after flirting with a fourth-down gamble, Todd Graham robbed us of some late-night bowl drama by sending on the kicker. (10 plays, 80 yards in 3:00)

TOUCHDOWN: Shorts 10-yard pass from Howard (0:28) WVU leads 22-13
Howard now up to 334 yards passing IN THE FIRST HALF after winging a few more through the Arizona State secondary. White had a 16-yarder, Shorts caught one for 22 on the deep out and Thompson gained 17 over the middle, which led to the vaunted fade route … AND IT WORKED. (Drive: 8 plays, 75 yards in 2:25) But about that PAT …

PAT RETURN: Tim White 98-yard kick (0:28) WVU leads 22-15
Arizona State spilled through to bat down Lambert’s extra-point try and White provided the scoop-and-score. (No drive)

FIELD GOAL: Gonzales 35-yard kick (0:01) WVU leads 22-18
Nick O’Toole appeared to mis-hit a squib kick—the kind WVU could’ve used 27 days ago—and gifted Arizona State the ball at midfield. Bercovici threaded three short passes to move the Sun Devils into chip-shot range. (4 plays, 34 yards in 0:26)   


HALFTIME STATS: Howard has 334 yards and two TDs on 15-of-26 passing, and West Virginia has two 100-yard receivers: White with four for 116 and Gibson with three for 106. The Mountaineers have 61 yards rushing on 18 attempts. (Smallwood held to 20 yards on eight carries.)

MORE HALFTIME STATS: Bercovici threw for 205 yards on 15-of-25 passing. Lucien has seven catches for 116.


TOUCHDOWN: Tim White 2-yard pass from Bercovici (11:34) Arizona State leads 25-22
Gotta give it to Bercovici—he zipped the TD pass just a nanosecond before getting popped on a scramble. Earlier in the drive, his play-fake psyched out the WVU combo of Rumph and Dillon, who abandoned Tim White on what became a 40-yard gain. (8 plays, 66 yards in 3:17)

TOUCHDOWN: Gary Jennings 64-yard pass from Howard (10:02) WVU leads 29-25
Soooooo, about that “Air Raid” … Howard hit the freshman on a deep post and Jennings carried a defensive back the final 10 yards into the end zone. Big answer for WVU. Probably won’t be the last time an answer is required. By the way, Howard now has 395 yards passing—bettering the career-high of 359 he compiled against Georgia Southern. (5 plays, 5 yards in 1:32)

— Arizona State’s three-and-out ended a string of six possessions with points.

— West Virginia also punted. After three measly plays. Game turning into a yawner.

TOUCHDOWN: Tim White 33-yard pass from Bercovici (4:35) Arizona State leads 32-29
Bercovici has heated up and it’s looking like it’ll take 50 points to win this one. White’s scoring catch featured more YAC than Tony Gibson can stand after the receiver ran through a Dillon tackle and scooted along the sideline. Earlier in the drive Lucien absorbed a crushing tackle by Dravon Askew-Henry on a 19-yard catch. It was a Hit Tribute for Karl Joseph. (6 plays, 66 yards in 2:26)

TOUCHDOWN: Shorts 17-yard pass from Howard (3:01) WVU leads 36-32
Nevermind the fade route that Shorts caught for the score—which was an acrobatic grab, by the way. Of more consequence was the 37-yarder Gibson caught on the previous play, a catch he appeared to make out-of-bounds according to everybody except the replay official. The wild, wild night continues. (4 plays, 75 yards in 1:34)

— Tim White’s 59-yard kick return (which followed Shorts being penalized 15 for a post-touchdown spike) set up ASU at the Mountaineers 28. But alas, the trusty Gonzales missed wide right from 40 yards.

— When Howard overthrew Ka’Raun White on the deep post, Arizona State made its second interception of the night. Kareem Orr chewed up 25 yards on the runback before Wendell Smallwood’s tackle at the WVU 35.

FIELD GOAL: Gonzales 48-yard kick (14:09) WVU leads 36-35
Bercovici missed Lucien on a third-and-5 out-route and West Virginia mitigated the damage from Howard’s turnover. (4 plays, 5 yards in 1:09)

— Wendell Smallwood ran around the right edge for 16, his best run of the night. (He has 11 carries for 41 yards and stands 4 shy of Texas Tech’s DeAndre Washington for the Big 12 rushing crown.) On a less personal note, WVU had to punt after Howard’s third-down pass for Gibson was broken up by Kweishi Brown. ASU will have the ball and a chance to retake the lead.

— Sun Devils punted.

— West Virginia punted, but only after Howard overthrew David Sills on what could’ve been a 70-yarder.

TOUCHDOWN: Gary Chambers 58-yard pass from Bercovici (4:56) Arizona State leads 42-36
The drive started ominously with backup QB Manny Wilkins bouncing up from a no-gain carry and taking off downfield, where linebacker Jared Barber popped him and drew a 15-yard penalty. On a third-and-10 play, against one of the best third-down defenses in the nation, Bercovici flipped a pass out to Chambers, who juked Askew-Henry on the sideline and went the distance. (4 plays, 73 yards in 1:23)

TOUCHDOWN: David Sills 15-yard pass from Howard (2:19) WVU leads 43-42
Just your average come-from-behind drive on which WVU converted a third-and-22 by handing off to Smallwood for 24. (This game is officially nuts.) With WVU struggling to protect Howard, the long-yardage run actually made sense. (10 plays, 75 yards in 2:37)

— Arizona State’s shot at a comeback ended on a fourth-and-10 incompletion from the 50. Ballgame.