Is Howard still the “clear cut #1” quarterback?

One of the biggest questions among fans and the media after last week’s performance against Oklahoma is whether quarterback Skylar Howard has the capability to lead this Mountaineer team through the Big 12 season. While few are questioning his toughness or leadership, some question his accuracy, particularly on medium to long passes and his pocket awareness that led to at a portion of the sacks the Mountaineers have experienced this year. This is an argument that has been ongoing since Howard took over for Clint Trickett during last year’s Kansas State loss in which Howard nearly brought West Virginia back from a 26-6 deficit before losing 26-20.

Howard followed his relief appearance against K-State by going to Ames, IA and leading the Mountaineers to a 37-24 win over the Cyclones in his first start.  He was named the starting QB for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl against Texas A&M after Trickett retired in early December due to cumulative injuries. One of the strengths citied by head coach Dana Holgorsen in naming Howard the starter was his understanding the offense, his leadership qualities and his toughness. In the bowl game, Howard struggled with accuracy, completing just 20 of 45 passes for 346 yards and 3 touchdowns with announcers continually pointing out during the game that many of his passes ‘sailed’ over the heads of receivers.  Despite the performance and the fact that Holgorsen stated the job was open, Howard remained the “clear cut #1” quarterback throughout the spring.

After the Blue/Gold game and a spring in which accuracy issues continued, fans were told that Howard took receivers to Texas to practice timing and that work continued through the fall as Holgorsen continually praised his work ethic and his grasp of the offense,  Those traits allowed Howard to maintain his position as the “clear cut #1” despite being labeled the least athletic of the quarterbacks. The work appeared to be beneficial as Howard completed 16 of 25 passes (65%) for 359 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions or fumbles. He followed that up with impressive numbers against Liberty, 21-26 (81%) 263 yards and 3 touchdowns and against Maryland, 21 of 33 passes for 294 yards and 4 touchdowns although he did throw the first interception of his career.

After 3 games, Howard was the nation’s most efficient quarterback, completing 67% of his passes for 916 yards with 10 touchdowns and the sole interception. While all the numbers are impressive, the 10.7 yards per completion exemplifies not on the high completion percentage but the deep ball as well. In leading the Mountaineers to the fast start that propelled West Virginia into the top 25, Howard’s play had many Mountaineer fans excited about their opportunity in Norman where a victory over the 15th ranked Sooners would have vaulted West Virginia into the championship playoff conversation.

That talk ended by halftime as the Mountaineers trailed Oklahoma 24-7 and although there was some hope after Howard and the offense scored 17 third quarter points that was capped by Howard’s 50 yard touchdown run on a critical 4th and 2. As Mountaineer nation was ramping up for a program defining comeback and a shot at the Big 12 title, the bubble was just as quickly burst. After an illegal formation penalty negated a good return, the Sooners started with their worst field position on the day at the WVU 5 yard line. A defense that had forced two 3-and-outs, a fumble and stood up strong to force an Oklahoma field goal after a Howard fumble gave OU a first and goal at the 7 yard line was set to give the ball back to the offense and the opportunity to take their first lead.

The euphoria took a quick hit after a 71 yard touchdown and though it was somewhat restored after a Karl Joseph interception, it was gone after Howard suffered one of 7 sacks on the day in which he was stripped of the ball and OU put the nail in the coffin with a scoop and score to end all Mountaineer hopes of a comeback. In addition to that fumble, Howard had the fumble that set up OU inside the 10 earlier and he threw 3 interceptions as well, giving him 5 turnovers on the day.

After the game Mountaineer fans began questioning Howard’s ability to lead this team. Many believe that with his limited skill set that perhaps it is time for one of the other highly touted quarterbacks to get their chance in leading this team, while West Virginia is still somewhat in the Big 12 race. A loss at home to Oklahoma State with daunting games against Baylor and TCU on the road would be too much for the Mountaineers to overcome thus a victory in today’s game is crucial and there are those who believe that is more likely with someone other than Howard at QB. Coach Dana Holgorsen is not one of them, at least not at this point. While stating Howard did miss throws, Holgorsen pointed out that it takes a toll on any quarterback when they are under constant pressure as Howard has been.

While the pressure has come from missed assignments from both the line and blocking backs, Howard must take some fault as his pocket awareness and ability to pick up blitzes has been questionable as was the case on the sack in which he was ruled down just prior to completing a pass to Wendell Smallwood, who scampered in and around Sooner defenders for a gain of 45 yards. Smallwood was open sooner in the pocket as the outlet and had Howard recognized the blitz sooner and released the pass before being ruled down, who knows what would have happened but that was not his only option on the play. When the blitz came up the middle, Howard turned to the left and was immediately under pressure, causing him to scramble.

Had he stepped to his right and up, he had a wall of blockers and a lot of green, which has been the case several times throughout the year. For his ability to run the ball as was demonstrated on the 50 yard touchdown run, Howard has displayed poor pocket awareness at times. He has also made the wrong decision in the zone/read although those have been fewer and is difficult against defenders the caliber of Eric Striker, who possess the ability to freeze a quarterback and still run down a back from behind. Mountaineer fans who wish to see a change will point out that defenders the caliber of Striker are common in the big 12 and include NFL prospects like Jimmy Bean and Emmanuel Ogbah of Oklahoma State and Shawn Oakman of Baylor over the course of the next two weeks alone. What they must realize though is that even though the other Mountaineer quarterbacks may be more athletic than Howard, none know the offense as well as Howard which is the primary reason he is the starting quarterback for the Mountaineers.

Inside sources have indicated for months that Howard’s grasp on Holgorsen’s offense is far superior then the other players and that clearly evident in many of the checks Howard has made year to date. While the Mountaineers are a run dominant team, part of that is due to the ability of Howard to read a defense and change the call when warranted, something Howard did extremely well against the Sooners. Said Holgorsen after the game, “He did a good job in the run game. He put us in the right plays. There are some situations where I gear him in one direction. He has to go with it or go in a different direction, and he did a good job with that.”

It is for that reason and the fact that while the interceptions are on Howard, the decision to attack downfield against the Sooner defense are on Holgorsen that Howard should remain the starting quarterback.  According to Holgorsen, he ‘lost sight’ of the game plan utilized against Oklahoma in the 4th quarter and called plays that put the offense in unfamiliar territory as a result of impatience. In the first three games, while the Mountaineer offense took deeps shots at times during the first three games, much of the play calling was conservative in that the offense utilized short to intermediate passes that get the ball in the hands of playmakers and allow them to make plays.

Against Oklahoma, Holgorsen said he felt he got conservative and began attacking the defense more but got ‘reckless’ resulting in some of the turnovers. He continued to praise Howard’s running of the offense and expressed confidence that adjustments could be made that would alleviate the potential for such plays in the future and at no time, spoke of replacing Howard with another quarterback. Given the effectiveness of this offense under Howard, dating back to last year, continued use of the quick hitting routes and run plays guided by a quarterback who understands the offense is likely the most responsible choice, thus there is no reason to make a change at this time. By the time many read this though, homecoming will be complete and depending on the performance, this opinion could very well be worth no more than the paper it is written on.  That is another conversation.

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