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Final Thoughts On The 2016 Cactus Bowl: What I Think About West Virginia Football

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The West Virginia football team heads into the offseason riding the high of winning their bowl game. After a thrilling 43-42 come from behind win, which saw QB Skyler Howard set the bowl and school passing yard mark, I have some thoughts as we head into the football offseason.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Well if you were unable to stay up to watch this game because it didn't end until almost 3 am, you missed the a rousing barn-burner of a game. West Virginia saw what should have been a 10 point lead [23-13 after the extra point] turn into a Pete Carrol-esque 22-18 halftime lead because Arizona State blocked the extra point, returned it for a 2-point conversion then kicked a field goal going into halftime.

1. I think Wendell Smallwood is really good

Thanks in large part to converting a critical 3rd-and-22 on the game-winning drive, Wendell went over the 1500 yard mark for the year. This makes his 2015 campaign the 4th best in school history behind only Steve Slaton, Avon Cobourne and "Famous" Amos Zereoue. Smallwood's 72 yards matched his season low but he added the biggest gain when the team needed it the most. In a 3rd-and-desperate situation, teams are typically expecting to pick up a decent chunk of yardage but often know they are going for it fourth down. Going for it on 4th was absolutely required, given that WVU was down by 6 and there was almost no guarantee they would get the ball back. Wendell takes a handoff and makes a cut to gain 24 yards on 3rd-and-22. Outstanding. I hope to see you for your senior year Wendell so you may defend your Big 12 Rushing Title!

2. I think I am really happy for Skyler Howard

I held a Facebook game thread between myself and several college friends as we all rose and fell with the ebb and flow of the game. After the first quarter, I noted that Skyler was on fire and really looked a lot better than he had in previous games. He was showing touch on his deep throws and instead of just stepping into the throws and throwing it as high and as hard as he could, there was arc, there was touch and there was a real sense of timing with his wide receivers. Skyler broke Marc Bulger's school record for passing yards in a bowl game. Ironically, Bulger's game was a previous iteration of the Cactus Bowl. You might remember it as the Insight.com Bowl, which became the Insight Bowl in later years, before becoming the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl two years ago and the Cactus Bowl this year. Apparently WVU really likes passing in this bowl game.

Skyler heard boos from fans this year, some deserved for his poor play and some not so deserved, but to see Skyler persevere and deliver in a game that the team really needed was so exciting and so great to see.

3. I think I am so happy for the seniors

"It wasn’t that I needed it. These seniors needed it," he said. "They needed to go out on a positive note. They drove us this season when Karl Joseph went down. They didn’t stop when he went down.

I’m not worried about myself. I’m worried about them, so I’m glad we got that done."

-Quarterback Skyler Howard when asked "if he needed a game like this"

The entire talk coming into the season was would the offense, with all of these new pieces be able to produce points while the defense did their part? The stats say the team averaged over 30 points a game but often when the defense got a stop, the offense could not sustain a drive. Inevitably, the defense would falter and the offense was unable to produce points. This game, however, the offense picked up the defense, going score-for-score with Arizona State and asking the defense to get one stop at the end of the game. The defense did and WVU won. The senior led defense all year was able to keep WVU in games all year. The seniors on both sides are able to say they've been a part of the first 8 win Big 12 team in WVU history.

4. I think the offense in 2016 can be special

Next year will be the first time since the start of Big 12 play that WVU will return a majority of its offense after a bowl game. In 2011, Geno Smith threw for 4300 yards in his first year under Dana Holgorsen. For a large portion of the season, fans were subjected to a sputtering offense as everyone tried to learn a new system and figure out what worked and what didn't. Once WVU captured their final Big East crown and spent days practicing for the Orange Bowl, the offense produced a record 70 points against Clemson. 2013 saw the Mountaineers with a new starting quarterback and new receivers, which resulted in the worst season for WVU in 10-plus years. 2014 saw the return of a starting quarterback and receivers and the team reached bowl eligibility. This year saw the team once again produce a new starting quarterback and receivers. I think its no coincidence that the team played one of its best offensive games when it had so many extra practices to devote to development. 2016 with the same quarterback and receivers and offensive line could be very special.

5. I think ending the season with a win is huge

I know certain portions of the fan base want the coach gone. I know certain portions have this mantra of "settling for mediocrity". No matter what, WVU still remains one of three Big 12 teams to win their bowl game. WVU can enter the offseason with momentum of a bowl win and tell recruits that the team is on the upswing. There is now steady progress over the last three years from 4 wins to 7 wins to 8 wins. With a more favorable 2016 schedule and a returning offense, this win means a lot in terms of how 2015 is viewed and how 2016 will turn out.

6. I think Jovon Durante better take notice

Jovon entered 2015 with the highest of expectations. He was one of the highest rated recruits in 2014 and when he finally stepped foot on campus, those expectations only rose higher. Beat writers wrote glowing things about the fleet-footed wide receiver from Florida, who was seen as the next heir apparent at WRU (Wide Receiver U). Jovon then hauled in a touchdown on his first collegiate catch. He looked poised to break the school freshman receiving record. As it often happens, adversity set in and Jovon experienced the lows of football. He dropped catchable passes, including two sure-fire touchdowns on a nationally televised game. He was benched in favor of other players who were showing improvement. As the bowl game approached, it was announced Jovon would not play because he did not pass his fall semester classes. Jovon is an extremely talented player and if he gets his head on straight, he has the ability to be one of the best receivers to play at WVU, but he needs to take notice. Dana Holgorsen and his offensive system have proven over the last 15-20 years that it will produce receivers if you put in the work. WVU has a glut of receivers, many who are young and will be playing along side Durante and if he doesn't get his act together, we will be talking about Shelton Gibson, David Sills, Ka'Raun White, and Gary Jennings as the next great WVU wide receiver instead of Durante.

7. I think I want to thank Worley for his time at WVU

Late last night, Daryl Worley announced his decision to enter the NFL draft. Daryl penned a letter to everyone and let them know he was entering the draft. Worley certainly has NFL size and speed. He also was one of the best corners in the Big 12 this year, leading the league in interceptions and passes defended. While it is disappointing that Daryl will not return for his senior season to help lead the charge of a new defense, I understand why he would make this jump now. He may not have had a shutdown season but Daryl was still an extremely gifted defender who has tons of ability. I suspect he will end up a 3rd-4th round pick. This means he's going to sign a contract for approximately 3 million dollars with a $500,000 signing bonus. There is no guarantee that he will improve his stock more next year and I suspect watching Karl Joseph get hurt helped make his decision. Worley is healthy and it makes sense to take your chances if you are going to get drafted. Worley had some rough times in his three years at West Virginia but I hope that Daryl will join in the tradition of WVU players taking photos with other WVU players at NFL games and shouting "Almost Heaven West Virginia" when he plays on Sunday Night Football.