MANHATTAN, Kan. — For Skyler Howard, gutsy but gimpy was not a winning combination.
Twice during the fourth period, the quarterback’s legs (or rather, leg) failed him on critical possession downs. A third-and-5 option keeper from the Kansas State 11 gained zilch and forced West Virginia into a consolation field goal. When Dana Holgorsen tried the same play again under more desperate circumstances—fourth-and-1 with 2:28 left—Howard again bounced outside and couldn’t make it back to the line.
The hurting commenced on Saturday’s opening series when two sacks left Howard with what Holgorsen feared to be a broken ankle. The good news? It wasn’t broken. The not-so-good news? Howard played the final 81 snaps running like he stubbed his toe on the bed post.
“You could tell on the sidelines he was in pain; you could see it in his eyes,” said receiver Jordan Thompson, who caught 127 yards worth of passes nonetheless. “Skyler’s one of the toughest quarterbacks I’ve ever played with. That boy’s tough. Regardless if he had a hurt ankle, he’s tough enough.”
Had second-stringer William Crest yet blossomed into a serviceable alternative, maybe Holgorsen would have mulled a switch. But realistic circumstances dictated that even an 80-percent Howard remained West Virginia’s only hope. (Ironic how a K-State receiver became the perfect stand-in as an emergency quarterback, while WVU’s backup quarterback looks more and more suited to play receiver.)
“I’ve never doubted Skyler,” said running back Wendell Smallwood. “He ran back out there with us even though he was hurt and kept playing. I respect that guy more than anything, and he’s definitely the leader of this offense.”
Smallwood gained 141 yards on a career-high 25 carries. Some contend he should have carried on the two runs Howard couldn’t convert. Chief among the second-guessers was Holgorsen himself, who acknowledged:
“I thought we had the edge on the fourth-down play but he just couldn’t get there. I should have took that into consideration.”
While Smallwood felt strong and craved more opportunities, he didn’t channel his inner Ezekiel Elliott. On the failed plays in question he claimed Howard bouncing outside was the best option, even on a bad wheel, because K-State’s defenders were crashing hard.
“I want the ball, but I thought it was the right read because there was two guys in my face,” Smallwood said. “I couldn’t be mad at that. Skyler did his job. If he’s healthy, he gets that first down.”
Running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider made an identical argument: “The read was there. Skyler just didn’t have that lift. He was hurting and he just didn’t have that second gear. It was the right call. A healthy Skyler would’ve made that play.”
Obviously, Howard wasn’t healthy, not after the first series. If fans could see it, you’d presume Kansas State’s defensive coaches had an inkling.
There’s no assertion here that Howard was too hurt to be in the game. Remember, he racked up 281 passing yards after the injury and was two dropped passes away from surpassing 300. The only beef is that his limitations were overlooked at such pivotal moments, a product of Holgorsen desperately seeking some play-call he could trust after a season of offensive erratics.
During Saturday’s final 13 minutes the Mountaineers needed only to reach field-goal range and had three cracks at a defense ranked 100th nationally. Those three series gained 7, 19 and 8 yards—which looks like a sure sign of an entire offense hurting.