West Virginia finished off the 2015 season with a 43-42 win over Arizona State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl over the weekend. The comeback victory gave the Mountaineers eight wins for the first time since joining the Big 12.
Below, we take a closer look back at West Virginia's season by kicking off our Big 12 team-by-team report cards.
Behind running back Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia featured one of the top rushing attacks in the league. The Mountaineers averaged 228 yards per game on the ground, second only to Baylor, with an average of 4.77 yards per carry. Smallwood, the Big 12's rushing champ, was one of the most consistently effective running backs in the country. He rushed for at least 72 yards in every game this season, while Rushel Shell chipped in 708 rushing yards in a wingman role. But as consistent as the Mountaineers were on the ground, they were equally inconsistent through the air. Skyler Howard completed just 54 percent of his passes, which ranked only ahead of K-State's Joe Hubener and Kansas' Ryan Willis in the Big 12. Howard also was second in the conference with 14 interceptions and was often plagued by drops from his young receiving corps. Underscored by the Cactus Bowl, the West Virginia offense was explosive at times. But all too often, it was also erratic.
Take out the four-game losing streak and coordinator Tony Gibson’s bunch was rather good this season. Even with the losing streak in which the Mountaineers allowed 44, 33, 62 and 40 points, West Virginia still finished third in the Big 12 in scoring defense. The Mountaineers also ranked second in fewest points allowed per drive (1.53) and fourth in fewest yards per play (5.32). The loss of All-American safety Karl Joseph was a major blow, but Nick Kwiatkoski was arguably the best linebacker in the league. This was easily the best defense West Virginia had fielded since joining the Big 12.
Special Teams: B-
Nick O’Toole was an All-Big 12 punter. Josh Lambert didn't have the same season place-kicking he did last year, though he still tied for the Big 12 lead with 21 made field goals. Freshmen Gary Jennings and Jovon Durante and sophomore Shelton Gibson stabilized the return game after a rough couple of years.
Holgorsen did a great job keeping the Mountaineers together after the four-game losing streak, when they could’ve fallen apart. Instead, West Virginia won four in a row to salvage the season. Still, it felt like there were a pair of wins left on the table. The Mountaineers fell in overtime at home to Oklahoma State in which Smallwood didn’t touch the ball in regulation. Then in the regular-season finale, the Mountaineers lost to Kansas State even though the Wildcats completed just nine passes, averaged 2.8 yards per rush, lost the turnover battle and played receiver Kody Cook at quarterback in the second half. Still, the Mountaineers played well in the Cactus Bowl and in terms of wins, had their best season yet since joining the Big 12.
With so much offensive production off last year’s team gone and considering the difficulty of the schedule, this was always going to be a challenging year for the Mountaineers. The fact they didn’t beat any of the top four teams in the conference was a disappointment. Then again, they survived losing four straight and losing their best player in Joseph to put together a respectable season. Still, the Mountaineer fan base is looking for West Virginia to take the next step and contend for the conference crown, making 2016 a critical season for the Holgorsen era in Morgantown.