The West Virginia Mountaineers are off to a blazing 6-0 (3-0 Big 12) start. A mixture of balanced offense and tenacious defense has gotten the Mountaineers off to their best start since 2006. That was when a couple guys named Pat White and Steve Slaton were running the offense under Rich Rodriguez. That team went on to finish 11-2 and won the Gator Bowl.
A lot has changed in 10 years. Two new coaches and an entirely different culture later, WVU finds themselves back into the national spotlight. It took some struggles to get to this point, especially under coach Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen started out with receiving a group that included Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey. From 2011-2012, those players and that offense put up some of the best numbers in school history. That included a 70-33 Orange Bowl win as underdogs against Clemson.
But since that time, West Virginia has been a Cleveland Browns-esque QB carousel. 2013 was especially brutal for the 4-8 Mountaineers when they went through three starting quarterbacks. Ford Childress, Paul Millard, and Clint Trickett all started that year for Holgorsen’s offense. 2014 seemed to be when the carousel stopped turning when Clint Trickett finally learned the offensive system and solidified himself as the permanent starter. The beginning of that year was solid, especially with Kevin White and Mario Alford there to help Trickett put up big numbers and be extremely competitive, even with the likes of, at the time, #1 Alabama, #4 Oklahoma, and #7 TCU. Then on senior night against Kansas State, Trickett went down with a concussion and proceeded to retire from football, citing the amount of concussions he had suffered through his playing time.
That’s how we get to where we are today. The then backup of the squad, Skyler Howard, was put into that game against Kansas State and played very well. Howard went 15/23, 198 yards, and 2 touchdowns which nearly gave WVU a come from behind win. The next week against Iowa State, Howard again played well and gave WVU a comfortable win. In the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Howard completed less than 50% of his passes but still had 346 yards and 3 touchdowns which helped the Mountaineers score 37 in the loss.
Then came 2015. West Virginia went off to a solid 3-0 start which had people in Morgantown feeling pretty decent about the team, including a 45-6 whipping of border state rival Maryland. After that, the Mountaineers were tasked with playing four top 25 teams consecutively, three of which were road games. The first game against Oklahoma, Skyler Howard turned the ball over five times which helped negate a furious third quarter comeback where the game was at one point 24-27. That’s when the turnovers started piling in. Howard had 15 interceptions in 2015, and that’s what caused fans to start becoming frustrated. Some throws, read option decisions, and overall decision making started becoming scrutinized by fans more and more. I was one of those fans. I found myself becoming more frustrated with every game, even in wins. I didn’t believe Howard had the ability or the “it” factor. I didn’t think he was smart enough to be anymore than a backup anywhere else on a FBS program. Even in his standout game against Arizona State (6-7) in the Cactus Bowl, he threw 2 interceptions against what was seen as an inept defense. It was hard to blame anyone for doubting him. I would always say we would never be able to win any big game with Howard at the helm. When it came to 2015, he proved me right.
Going into this season, I admittedly had low hopes for WVU, especially on the offensive side of the ball. I didn’t think the team and the QB were going to improve enough for there to be any noticeable difference, especially once the team went into Big 12 play.
Look where we are now.
West Virginia is currently 6-0 and is starting rile up some talking heads. At #10 in the AP, and #9 in the Coaches poll, WVU has really flipped a switch this season. Whether the team can keep up this pace against the meat of the Big 12 remains to be seen, but they have been impressive. While the defense has been remarkable so far by only giving up 13.5ppg against P5 opponents and has gotten most of the buzz (rightfully so), I can’t help but to be amazed at the improvement on the offensive side. Last season the offense was riddled with mistakes. there was potential but they always beat themselves when it seemed to get itself going. That was especially true for Howard. Let me be clear with this. I still get frustrated with Howard’s decision making at times *thinks back to interception against BYU thrown into quadruple coverage*. But Howard has been significantly better this year compared to last. His mistakes have been minimized for the most part and has been very accurate throwing the ball. So far through 2016 he’s thrown 12 TDs to 4INTs with 1821 yards while completing 66.5% of his passes. He’s even done a better job in the running game, particularly read options. Last season it seemed as if Howard was almost guessing on his reads. This season is a whole new story and you can tell by just watching. Against Texas Tech late in the 2nd quarter, Howard read the defense beautifully on a read option and scampered into the endzone nearly untouched.
Howard’s improvement truly shows the difference a year makes. So far in 2016, he has proven my prior assumptions about him wrong. I applaud the hell out of his effort, hard work, and determination. He is truly emulating what a Mountaineer truly is in his senior season. Tough, gritty, and does whatever it takes to win. I don’t expect perfection out of Howard. I expect improvement. And he has certainly, at least so far, has answered the bell.
I really hope Mountaineer Nation can finally rally behind him. I know we all want to. We all know winning is what matters, and if that keeps happening, Skyler will get the respect that he is due. Not too long ago, I was one of the people who was adamantly opposed to him keeping the starting job and couldn’t wait for the next season. He has almost completely turned me around.
Win the Big 12 title, Skyler Howard. Prove everyone else wrong, too.