Cactus Bowl 2016: Game Grades, Analysis for West Virginia vs. Arizona State

Zach Shelton@@zachisagingerFeatured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2016

West Virginia QB Skyler Howard played the best game of his career in the Cactus Bowl win.
West Virginia QB Skyler Howard played the best game of his career in the Cactus Bowl win.Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Behind a career-best showing from Skyler Howard, the West Virginia Mountaineers held off the Arizona State Sun Devils 43-42 in the 2016 Cactus Bowl.

Howard, the junior quarterback, set a Cactus Bowl record with 532 passing yards, pacing the Mountaineer offense from the onset. The embattled starter also finished with five touchdowns, including the game-winner, putting a strong end to an uneven 2015 season.

On the other side of the ball, Sun Devils quarterback Mike Bercovici and wide receiver Tim White did their best to keep pace with Howard's onslaught. Bercovici added four scores of his own, while White had two touchdowns and returned a blocked kick for two points.

In a game that featured nine touchdowns, seven field goals, 13 punts and 11 third-down conversions, it was Howard's playmaking that made the difference.

West Virginia Mountaineers Game Grades
Positional Unit1st HalfFinal
Passing OffenseA-A
Rushing OffenseC-C+
Passing DefenseC-D
Rushing DefenseAA
Special TeamsCB-
CoachingAA
2016 Cactus Bowl vs. Arizona St.

Grade Analysis for the Mountaineers

Passing Offense

Howard didn't play the cleanest game, throwing two interceptions and far more that could have been picked off. But he did put his receivers in positions to make plays, and they delivered with a really impressive collective effort. 

The only way the Mountaineers were winning this one was with a big game from Howard and his receivers. They came through with a victory in one of the year's more entertaining bowl matchups.

Rushing Offense

The Mountaineers couldn't get much going on the ground early, which forced them to lean on Howard for most of the game. Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood ended up breaking off huge third-down gains in the second half, including a crucial conversion on 3rd-and-12 by the latter on the game-winning drive. 

You have to credit backs that can come up big even when they've been bottled up for most of the day.

Passing Defense

Neither secondary wants to watch the film from this game. The tackling and downfield coverage was awful, especially on the long touchdowns by White and wide receiver Gary Chambers.

At least safety KJ Dillon was able to get the deflection on the Sun Devils' final drive.

Rushing Defense

Can't ask for much more here. Aside from Demario Richard's 22-yard run, the Sun Devils got absolutely nothing on the ground. Dillon and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski did a great job for WVU, filling their gaps.

Special Teams

Kicker Josh Lambert connected on all three of his field goal attempts but had an extra point blocked and returned for two points. White also had two long kick returns, though neither ultimately led to points.

Coaching

West Virginia was the sharper team early but couldn't finish long early drives with touchdowns. That inability to score could have cost Dana Holgorsen's team. Instead, the Mountaineers answered every time the Sun Devils took the lead, and they never trailed by more than three points.

The defense still needs work, but Holgorsen's team played hard for him throughout the game. 

Arizona St. Sun Devils Game Grades
Positional Unit1st HalfFinal
Passing OffenseBA-
Rushing OffenseDD
Passing DefenseFD
Rushing DefenseAB-
Special TeamsAB
CoachingCC
2016 Cactus Bowl vs. West Virginia

Grade Analysis for the Sun Devils

Passing Offense

Bercovici had a pretty uneventful game in spite of throwing for more than 400 yards and four touchdowns. He very rarely extended plays, and he came out really slow. His accuracy was also lacking, though he did a good job taking care of the ball.

Had he and his receivers gotten off to a faster start, the final score probably would have come out in their favor.

Rushing Offense

We already mentioned the one good run by Richard. Other than that play, the Sun Devils averaged 2.6 yards per carry. That's just not going to get it done.

Passing Defense

The Sun Devil corners got repeatedly outworked on jump balls and let far too many receivers run free. A more accurate deep thrower would have humiliated this group, which Howard managed to do anyway.

Kareem Orr is the bright spot in this secondary. The true freshman finishes the Pac-12 season in sole possession of the conference lead with six interceptions. 

Rushing Defense

The run defense was solid for most of the game, but the third-down conversions by Shell and Smallwood were backbreakers. Allowing Smallwood to get a first down on a 3rd-and-12 draw is inexcusable, and it cost this team the game.

Special Teams

Kicker Zane Gonzalez missed one of his five field goals. White almost fumbled the opening kickoff in the second half, but he recovered to make some huge plays. His effort on the blocked extra point also was almost the difference in this one.

Coaching

Not a great game from head coach Todd Graham and his staff. Graham was shown arguing with special teams coach Shawn Slocum on the sideline, and the staff actually had to call a timeout before a kickoff. That mattered when West Virginia was running out the clock with under two minutes to play.

Graham also didn't order a two-point try after the Sun Devils went up 41-36. At worst, a touchdown still beats you. You have to go for the seven-point lead there.

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