MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — On their eastbound JetBlue charter flight Saturday evening, many West Virginia players watched the end of Oklahoma State-Kansas State on seat-back TVs, catching a glimpse of the upcoming opponent.
Skyler Howard, though, was poring over his own plays from the previous few hours, watching and rewatching and apparently re-rewatching the 44-24 loss to Oklahoma. After committing five turnovers and failing to capitalize on some downfield opportunities, the junior quarterback proceeded directly to correction mode.
“He’s a very determined young man. He watched the game three times on the way home,” said Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen. “And then he watched the game three times on Sunday.”
Howard admitted to losing count of the viewings, just like he probably lost count of Saturday’s sacks (seven) and miscues (“countless”) that contributed to the season’s first loss.
While Howard’s three interceptions were the most for any West Virginia quarterback since 2010—when then-sophomore Geno Smith tossed three picks during a 37-20 loss to Syracuse—Holgorsen cited positives “you cannot put in a stat line.” Chief among them was Howard’s running-game checks that led to Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell combining for 190 yards on 42 carries.
“There’s a lot of things that need to exist when you’re the starting quarterback,” the coach said. “He did a good job in the run game. He put us in the right plays. There are some situations where I gear him in one direction. He has to go with it or go in a different direction, and he did a good job with that.”
A fourth-down option keeper that badly fooled the Oklahoma defense became a 50-yard touchdown and closed the deficit to 27-24 late in the third quarter. West Virginia’s next four possessions, however, ended in a punt, a fumble and back-to-back interceptions.
After three mostly spot-on performances against nonconference opponents, Howard completed only 17-of-32 passes for 173 yards. Holgorsen spotted some mechanical flaws
“He has to continue to settle in the pocket and trust his offensive line. He has to put his eyes where I want him to put his eyes, and he has to throw accurate balls.
“We are missing throws,” Holgorsen added, “but it takes a toll on you when you are under pressure like that. … If it was easy, there would be a whole lot of people playing quarterback. It is not easy, especially with the likes of the front last week.”
A sack-fumble forced by defensive tackle Matt Dimon coming free up the middle highlighted the need for better ball security in the pocket. But it was hard to fault Howard on the game-clinching blindside hit by Eric Striker, which led to a scoop-and-score.
Asked to gauge Saturday’s pass protection, Howard took a next-question approach and said, “We’ll address that at practice.”
Avoiding specifics of what worked and didn’t work against the Sooners, he repeatedly referenced “moving on” from the loss. After five or six video rewinds, he’d seen enough.
Back at his apartment, Howard even took the symbolic gesture of wiping clean a white board that for weeks had contained “a bunch of Oklahoma stuff.” In its place he started anew, writing “little key words that could spark me and get me going,” an exercise in self-affirmation to help him exorcise the Sooners.
At home, Howard even took the symbolic gesture of wiping clean a white board that for weeks contained “a bunch of Oklahoma stuff.” In its place he wrote “little key words that could spark me,” an exercise in self-affirmation to help him exorcise the Sooners.
“We’ve got the juices flowing and we’re back on track,” he said. “We’re still preparing like we want to win a championship. I don’t know when the last time a Big 12 champion was undefeated.”
For the record, that hasn’t happened since Texas in 2009, and during the interim, the league even allowed a two-loss champion. So let’s not talk mathematical elimination, not with countless variables remaining in the round-robin and unbeaten No. 21 Oklahoma State (5-0, 2-0) on deck this week.
“I think we’re going to learn a lot about our team by how we prepare this week and we do bounce back,” Howard said. “We’re going to learn what kind of character we have. I’m excited to see it because I’m all-go. I’m all Oklahoma State right now.”