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Future bright for West Virginia football

| Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, 9:18 p.m.
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West Virginia receiver Daikiel Shorts flips out of the endzone after catching a 17-yard touchdown reception past Arizona State defensive back Solomon Means during the fourth quarter of the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl at Chase Field on Jan. 2, 2016 in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — Dana Holgorsen believes West Virginia's first eight-victory Big 12 season is just the beginning.

“We should be even better next year,” Holgorsen said. “We've got everybody coming back on offense.”

That offense was almost unstoppable in a 43-42 victory over virtual home team Arizona State, whose campus is about 12 miles east of Chase Field.

Quarterback Skyler Howard and his unit, which has only two senior starters, set a handful of Cactus Bowl records in a game that did not end until 2:34 a.m. Sunday in Morgantown.

The Mountaineers' first bowl victory since a 70-33 rout of Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl had some of the same elements.

Howard passed for 532 yards, breaking Drew Bledsoe's Cactus Bowl record, and he also had a record-five touchdown passes, one more than the record held by six players, including former Mountaineer Marc Bulger.

“It's really a great feeling, knowing you are a part of that,” said sophomore wide receiver Shelton Gibson, who had four receptions for 143 yards and a touchdown.

Howard also set a record with 555 yards of total offense.

“It's about time it fell together,” Howard said.

“Our goal throughout the season was to get better each week on offense, keep improving each week. It finally started clicking.

“I think we had a complete game on offense, despite some misfits at receiver. But we got that squared away.”

With the Sun Devils under coach Todd Graham committed to a heavy blitzing scheme, the Mountaineers entered the game understanding they would have plenty of chances to create one-on-one matchups downfield. It played out just that way.

“It's the kind you dream about,” said Howard, who completed 28 of 51 passes with two interceptions.

“We knew if we could hold up up front that we would have some shots downfield. I was just giving those guys a shot, and they came down with it. We watched a lot of film. We had more than a month to prepare for this. We knew what we were going to get. We just took advantage of it.”

Howard had touchdown passes of 59 yards to Gibson and 64 yards to Gary Jennings, and he also completed a 54-yarder to Ka'Raun White, a 37-yarder to Gibson and a 32-yarder to Jordan Thompson.

Howard's 15-yard touchdown pass to David Sills with 2:19 remaining was the winner.

“When they blitz 100 percent of the time, that gets pretty nerve-wracking back there,” Holgorsen said. “I give him credit for hanging in there.

“That's tough. You get hit when you know they are going to bring six, seven guys.

“Skyler earned this. You talk about a humble kid who has taken some criticism. It's not fair. I mean, the kid battles … continues to fight, continues to work. That's what he's done. Things are coming together because he's getting better and the people around him are getting better.”

Junior running back Wendell Smallwood had a game-high 72 yards rushing, and junior Rushel Shell also returns.

Nine of the 10 Mountaineers with a reception Saturday will be back.

“We are only losing two main people in our offense,” said Gibson, a sophomore. “We're going to work hard. We're going to be better.”

The Mountaineers won eight games for the first time since joining the Big 12.

“We wanted to finish this one better than any West Virginia University Big 12 team had, and we did,” Gibson said.

“That's something positive, something we can build on.”

Jack Magruder is a freelance writer.

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