The Russell Athletic Bowl was supposed to be the climax to a terrific football season for West Virginia. Dana Holgorsen was fresh off a contract extension and fighting for an 11-win year. Tony Gibson was rewarded for his outstanding coaching defensively with an extension as well. Neither coached a good game against the Miami Hurricanes, and the players mimicked that porous coaching with terrible execution on the field.
The strength of the Mountaineers – Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 stack – started the game strong, but disappeared in the 2nd quarter. Hurricane quarterback Brad Kaaya looked like a high school quarterback in the 1st quarter against them, starting the game with five 3-and-outs. After that, you would’ve thought 2001-Ken Dorsey was running the show. The play that broke it open for the ‘Canes came against West Virginia’s best defender – Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Rasul Douglas. It was a simple 6-yard stop route to true-freshman standout Ahmmon Richards. Douglas was playing off the line of scrimmage, giving Richards a free release. Kaaya delivered a strike and it was off to the races; Douglas couldn’t even get a sniff of Richards. Other than running through a single-arm tackle after hitting full speed, Richards made his trip to the endzone look easy. This would only be the beginning for Douglas’ long night, as he seemed more interested in his future than finishing the Mountaineers season with a win. Don’t get me wrong, I was Douglas’ biggest fan this year. My first column for the site was about how great he was. He just didn’t perform against Miami, plain and simple. Remember his name, though. After the Reese’s Senior Bowl, he’s going to carve out a nice niche on an NFL roster for many years to come.
This brings me to my next point; the offensive line, in particular, senior center Tyler Orlosky. Like most of the Mountaineers’ unit up front, Orlosky got pushed around against the Hurricanes. And when they weren’t pushing him around, they were just blowing right past him. It’s like the Mountaineers filled their cleats with cement. Orlosky did most of his pushing and pulling on head coach Dana Holgorsen though, while trying to restrain him from tearing the referee’s head off.
The officials, hailing from the SEC, weren’t any good, anybody who watched the game would agree. But is that the reason West Virginia lost? Absolutely not! They were out-played and out-coached. On the first possession of the second half, Toyous Avery intercepted a Kaaya pass but was called for pass interference. Avery had his hand on the receivers collar, but the receiver had hands all up in Avery’s back. A no-call would’ve been the right call. Instead, Miami completed the drive after the penalty and went up 28-7, all but killing the Mountaineers’ spirit.
Many people that watched will also tell you “how terrible Skyler Howard is.” Well, he might’ve made some terrible plays, but he also kept the ‘Eers alive. Following the 2nd half’s opening touchdown by the ‘Canes, Howard drove the team right down the field and capped it off with a touchdown of his own, running it in from four yards out. A few plays prior to the touchdown, he connected with Daikiel Shorts for a 26-yard strike to put them in scoring position. So I’ll ask this question: Is Skyler Howard the best quarterback? No. Was he the best quarterback for this team, this year? Yes. His leadership and toughness are unmatched, and his understanding of Holgorsen’s offense makes him an extension of the coach on the field. His best physical asset is his legs, though, not necessarily a compliment for a quarterback. The Mountaineers have four capable running backs in Justin Crawford, Rushel Shell, Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway, but it was Howard who led the team in rushing yards and attempts. This is where Dana Holgorsen deserves blame.
Howard reached double-digit rush attempts six times this season, but only once did he rush more than 12 times in a single game. Obviously some of those were scrambles, but Holgorsen needs to put his players in a better position to succeed. On one particular play, a wide receiver screen, the ball was lined up all the way on the left hash. The play was designed to attack the open side of the field, but Howard had to throw the ball 28 yards for it to reach his target. That’s a long throw in the NFL where the hashes are closer, let alone in college where they nearly sit on the sideline. Later in the game, they ran the same play, and it should’ve been intercepted and returned for a touchdown. It’s like Holgorsen signed his extension and just traveled to Orlando for the scenery and warm weather.
The final score was 31-14 in favor of the Hurricanes, but it could’ve been much worse. The defense surrendered the 31 points, but the offense didn’t provide much help. They averaged only 2.4 yards per rush, half of their season average. The Miami defense deserves major credit for the way they handled the Mountaineers all night, though. Hats off to Mark Richt and his staff on a big win against a really, really good team.