AMES, Iowa — In the span of four hours Saturday afternoon, Skyler Howard won a football game, conducted his first Fox postgame interview and proved he’s a viable candidate to be West Virginia’s quarterback in 2015.
“Skyler did a great job all week preparing,” said his coach Dana Holgorsen, who despite being impressed maintains he will turn back to Clint Trickett for the bowl game, presuming the senior is cleared from a third concussion.
Those bowl preparations should be more enjoyable after the Mountaineers handled Iowa State 37-24 to bury a three-game losing streak. One streak that remains intact: The Monday Morning Stock Report starting the workweek with an up/down/neutral review of West Virginia’s moving parts:
Howard couldn’t have cherry-picked a better matchup for his first Big 12 start. (Iowa State’s defense ranks down there in the conference cellar with Texas Tech.) Still, the sophomore quarterback performed his duties: Threw three touchdowns, never flirted with an interception and exploited running lanes for 69 yards on seven carries.
Howard showed mobility on his final TD by side-stepping the rush and zipping a 15-yarder to Daikiel Shorts. That mobility also led his lone glaring mistake, a fumble with 2:06 left that temporarily floated Iowa State’s hopes for a comeback.
“I felt good out there, everything except for the last fumble,” he said. “I definitely learned my lesson on that.”
Otherwise, Howard operated the offense crisply and efficiently. (So efficiently, that at times he was beckoning Holgorsen to go faster with the sideline signals.) His passes generally were fired on rhythm and on target, not a beat late as you’d expect from a backup getting acclimated to game speed.
“You could see it through recruiting—quick release, accurate, throws a good ball,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “He gets the ball out on time.”
His once-tender ankle now firm, Rushel Shell resumed his status as the man and made a run (or two) better than any produced pre-injury. The 54-yard touchdown on WVU’s opening series featured superb line blocking before Shell did his part by making strong safety Darrien Cotton whiff. It was Shell’s career-long run, surpassing his 38-yarder at Pitt in 2012 against Virginia Tech.
Beyond highlight runs, Shell reliably wound up on the line of scrimmage’s plus-side. The only lost-yardage carry came on a read-option where Howard should’ve kept the ball instead steering Shell into the defensive end. Among his 22 carries for 146 yards overall, Shell ran 11 times for 47 yards in the fourth quarter when WVU consumed clock and increased its lead from three to 13 points.
“I told JaJuan (Seider) throughout the course of the game we’ve got to roll with him,” Dawson said. “It was clear he had the hot hand.”
Dreamius Smith had slippery hands, fumbling his only carry, and Wendell Smallwood also played a supporting role: 33 yards on seven carries and two catches for 4 yards.
After showing his burst on a 29-yard score, Mario Alford flashed skill and concentration by catching a 4-yard touchdown agains Sam E. Richardson on a tightly covered slant. Alford added a 40-yarder, helping compensate for Kevin White’s quiet day (four receptions for 48 yards). The Biletnikoff finalist surpassed 100 catches for the season but was slowed by an ankle injury, and in some instances, Iowa State’s grabby cornerbacks.
“He was pretty limited,” Dawson said. “He pushed through, but I think everybody could there were some of those plays out there he usually makes.”
Ten days after being concussed, Jordan Thompson caught four passes for 65 yards, including a leaping 28-yarder on which he was belted by safety Kamari Cotton-Maya. That play set up a touchdown, as did Thompson’s 29-yard run on reverse.
Shorts (four catches for 50 yards) dropped a pass but also ended an eight-game scoring drought by working with Howard on an improvised 15-yarder.
Despite the absence of Quinton Spain (knee and ankle), WVU averaged a season-best 7.5 yards per carry and didn’t allow a sack. How clean was the performance? Zero offensive penalties in 79 snaps and only two TFLs allowed (one of those on a sideline catch Alford).
Tony Matteo subbed capably at left guard and made a key block to spring Shell’s touchdown. Grant Lingafelter and Russell Haughton-James also saw action as West Virginia finally carved out some snaps for the backups.
“I told them all along that when you’re ready you’re going to get in there,” said offensive line coach Ron Crook. “I felt like this week was the time to do it, and they responded well.”
The decision to rest Spain was much discussed, considering he had started the previous 36 games.
“We talked about it on Thursday and decided it just wasn’t in his best interest to go out and play (Saturday),” Crook said. “He’s been playing hurt all year long, and I told him ‘We’re finally in a spot where I don’t have to ask you to do that.'”
Tony Gibson forewarned Shaq Riddick and Brandon Golson that Iowa State might be “their type of game,” and the defensive ends responded with a sack each. It was Golson’s first since Oct. 18 against Baylor and Riddick’s first since the Oklahoma State game Oct. 25. Riddick’s was particularly crucial because it forced the Cyclones to settle for a field goal early in the thrd quarter when a touchdown would have recaptured the lead. Golson’s sack of Sam Richardson jarred the ball, the first forced fumble of the season for a player who was No. 2 nationally in 2013 with five.
Kyle Rose, not typically a tackling beast from his nose guard spot, match this career-best with six tackles and also forced two hurries—one that forced a third-down incompletion.
The good: Wes Tonkery made a career-high 12 tackles, including a second-quarter sack that pinned Iowa State deep. Nick Kwiatkoski registered 11 stops, giving him a team-high 96 this season, and broke up two passes.
The not-so-good: Shaq Petteway’s first career start ended with a targeting ejection in the third quarter after he made six tackles.
Edward Muldrow, who lost his starting job to Petteway, played well in relief with three tackles and two pass breakups.
It was an adequate showing for the unit, which helped limit Iowa State to 3.4 yards per carry while responding well in coverage once Gibson began leaning on eight-man drops.
Why was Gibson resorting to so much zone? Because Iowa State burned WVU’s man coverage early. D’Vario Montgomery slipped a Terrell Chestnut tackle on a 39-yard catch-and-run and Tad Ecby outplayed Daryl Worley on a 29-yard touchdown, leading to a 21-7 lead.
Big gainers were rare after the switch, with the exception of Allen Lazard’s 29-yard circus catch that deflected off Chestnut’s hands and shin. But Chestnut’s fortunes turned in the fourth quarter, when he baited Sam Richardson into an end zone interception, the first of the corner’s career.
Along with eight tackles, Karl Joseph deflected two passes and made his first interception of the season. K.J. Dillon finished with a career-high 11 stops as WVU’s defense faced a season-high 90 plays.
Days after being named a Lou Groza finalist, Josh Lambert set an NCAA single-season record with his 15th field goal from 40 yards or longer. He was 3-of-3 kicking with the breeze and came up short from 49 in the opposite direction.
Nick O’Toole pinned two more punts inside the 20 without a touchback, improving his season ratio to 23-2, and the punt returns were drama-free for a change.
There were pimples on an otherwise OK day: West Virginia was victimized on a fake 43-yard field goal when holder Austin Fischer ran for 5 yards. (WVU should have been alert considering that in the previous seven games Cyclones kicker Cole Netten had missed his only two attempts from 40-plus.)
Lastly, the punt- and kick-return units were flagged for holding a combined three times.
Winning a Big 12 road game with a backup quarterback, and winning it by a two-score margin, is worth cheering. Even if it came at the expense of an opponent who’s winless in the league. Howard’s ability to execute says good things about the practice preparation he received and the coaches trusting to turn him loose.
On the defensive side, Gibson’s in-game adjustment away from his blitz-happy ways turned around a potentially brutal day.
Beating Iowa State didn’t generate national hoopla, but it amounted to something meaningful for the Mountaineers.
“It was about proving to ourselves that we were able to finish this year the appropriate way,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve talked about winning and finishing for 11 months since (losing to) Iowa State last year. So we wanted to prove to ourselves the last 11 months wasn’t a waste of time.”