The free-wheeling, high-scoring nature of the Big 12 Conference lends to quarterbacks posting some unreal statistics. Don’t be surprised when West Virginia’s Skyler Howard is among the league’s best at season’s end.
We’ve seen the potential of Mountaineer head coach Dana Holgorsen’s brand of uptempo football in recent years. At its best, West Virginia football can outscore Bob Huggins’ basketball counterparts — just look at the 2012 Orange Bowl when the Mountaineers scored 70 points, just 2 fewer than the basketball team’s average a season ago.
With Skyler Howard as its proverbial point guard, Mountaineer football is primed once more to fast-break up and down the Big 12.
Howard scratched the surface of his lofty potential at the end of 2014, taking over as quarterback in the final two-and-a-half games. His introduction came against Kansas State, a game in which the Wildcats’ typically stout defense held West Virginia to just three points through the first half.
He threw a pair of touchdown passes as the Mountaineers nearly rallied from a two-touchdown, halftime deficit.
“If you want to talk about something positive, [Howard’s play is] something that was incredibly positive,” Holgorsen told reporters after the game, via the Associated Press. “He went in there and didn’t bat an eye.”
Over that three-game stretch, Howard didn’t bat an eye — and he didn’t throw an interception, either. That’s an especially noteworthy statistics, given West Virginia’s -15 turnover margin ranked No. 123 nationally.
The few teams that were worse in that category — Vanderbilt, Michigan, Washington State, Eastern Michigan and Georgia State — were all shut out of the postseason.
Improved ball control is one obvious boon Howard brought to the West Virginia offense. The other is his dual-capable playmaking.
Holgorsen’s never had a dual-threat behind center in his career, whether as offensive coordinator at Houston and Oklahoma State, or head coach at West Virginia.
Geno Smith rushed occasionally in his two years quarterbacking Holgorsen’s offense, but Smith wasn’t a true two-way threat. Howard went for 118 yards in those three appearances.
That’s a whole new dynamic the Mountaineers haven’t unleashed since the days of Pat White. All White did as one of college football’s premiere playmakers was lead West Virginia to wins in the Sugar and Fiesta Bowls.
Howard has a way to go to match White’s statistical output — in the two seasons White didn’t reach at least 1,219 yards rushing, he broke 900 — but he brings that same element to the offense.
And, like White’s time guiding the Mountaineers, West Virginia can throw a three-headed rushing look at opposing defense. WVU returns 2014 ball-carrying leaders Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood.
The variety in the run game gives Howard some leeway in finding his groove as a passer. While he limited turnovers last season, he also struggled with inaccuracy.
His three-touchdown effort in the Liberty Bowl loss to Texas A&M was marred by 44.4 percent completion rating. He struggled similar in his first start, completed just 52.5 percent of his attempts against Iowa State.
Developing better time and reining in some of his throws are two points of emphasis Howard told the Associated Press he placed for this past offseason.
“I think moving to the next level kind of made me a little bit antsy,” Howard said. “I’m getting under control. That is one thing I am focusing on right now. I want to stay calm in the pocket and focus on my reads. It’s getting better every day.
If he becomes a more consistent passer, watch out for West Virginia. The Mountaineers will fast-break their way into the Big 12 hunt, and Skyler Howard won’t be overlooked much longer.