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Fork Report: West Virginia out guns Sun Devils in Cactus Bowl

West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard (3) looks to pass as Arizona State defensive lineman JoJo Wicker (1) pursues during the second half of the Cactus Bowl NCAA college football game, Saturday, Jan. 2, 2016, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

In a season in which so much was expected, this was not expected: Arizona State’s first losing season since 2011.

The Sun Devils came up short in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, losing 43-42 to West Virginia in front of a Saturday night crowd of 39,321 at Chase Field.

Mike Bercovici passed for 418 yards and four touchdowns but was out-performed by his Mountaineer counterpart, Skyler Howard, who set a bowl record with 532 passing yards and five touchdowns.

Howard was named the game’s MVP.

Trailing by six with less than five minutes to play, Howard led West Virginia (8-5) on a 10-play, 75-yard drive capped by what proved to be the game-winning score, a 15-yard touchdown throw to David Sills.

It was an impressive answer following Bercovici’s 58-yard passing touchdown to Gary Chambers to put ASU (6-7) up 42-36.

The Sun Devils closed the season with back-to-back defeats and losses in five of their last seven games; in all five losses, ASU held a fourth-quarter lead.

THE GOOD

Credit the Sun Devils defense for keeping West Virginia out of the end zone on each of the Mountaineers three first-quarter trips in the red zone; instead settling for field goals of 21, 31 and 27 yards by Josh Lambert.  Linebackers Salamo Fiso and Antonio Longino both excelled in the opening period; Fiso had an interception, Longino two tackles for a loss.

On the Sun Devils fourth possession, D.J. Foster caught a seven-yard pass on first down to extend both his school and Pac-12 record of at least one reception to 53 consecutive games, the longest active streak in FBS.  He finished with five catches for 40 yards.  Foster, a senior, ended his ASU career having caught at least one pass in every game he played.

Quite the finish to this, Lucien’s one and only season at ASU.  Picking up where the regular season ended, Lucien caught seven first-half passes for 116 yards and a touchdown, a 19-yard play for the Sun Devils first score of the game to give ASU its first lead, 10-9, at the 9:59 mark of the second quarter.  On the play, Lucien went over 1,000 receiving yards.

While he did not have a first-half catch, White accounted for 202 yards via special teams.  He had a 98-yard PAT return, 84 kick return yards and 20 punt return yards.  By the way, the PAT—blocked by Ismael Murphy-Richardson—for a score (two points) was the first one in school history as well as the first-ever in the 27-year history of the Cactus Bowl.

Following halftime, White became an offensive weapon with four catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns, all in the third quarter.  First he caught a two-yard pass for a score to give the Sun Devils a 25-22 lead at the 11:34 mark; and then two drives later, he was on the receiving end of a 33-yard pass he took into the end zone for a 32-29 lead at the 4:35 mark.

THE BAD

Targeted early and often, cornerback Kweishi Brown twice allowed long pass plays on the Mountaineers’ first two possessions of the game.  There was a 53-yard completion on 2nd-and-22 and then a 26-yard catch and run; both plays went to Ka’Raun White and both against Brown, who was also whistled for pass interference on a ball thrown in the end zone; though that flag was later picked up.  Through two drives, West Virginia had 142 total yards.

Prone to the big play all season long, the Sun Devils defense in the first half allowed their 22nd and 23rd passing plays of 40-plus yards, the most of any team in the country.  After the first-quarter 53-yard catch by White, Shelton Gibson caught a pass for 59 yards and a touchdown, beating Brown to give the Mountaineers a 16-10 lead at the 6:02 mark.  ASU allowed six other passing plays of 20 or more yards, helping account for Howard’s 334 passing yards.

Whatever halftime adjustments that were discussed among the Sun Devils secondary failed to materialize in the third quarter.  On the Mountaineers first possession, Howard threw a 64-yard deep ball to Gary Jennings for a touchdown and re-take the lead (the game’s fourth lead change), 29-25, at the 10:02 mark.  It was the 24th passing play of 40-plus yards allowed by ASU this season and once again, it was Brown who was beaten on the coverage.

Aside from their inability to defend the pass, the Sun Devils scored only two touchdowns in five trips inside the red zone.  The most glaring result was a failure to punch the ball in on 1st-and-goal at the five-yard line in the second quarter.  After Demario Richard rushed for four yards, Bercovici and Richard gained no yards on second- and third-down run plays, thus settling for a Zane Gonzalez 19-yard field goal, one of three he kicked in the first half.

STAT OF THE GAME

1,196: The number of total yards, including a Cactus Bowl record 950 passing yards

HE SAID IT

“We were supposed to go for a two-point play, and we didn’t do it.  That’s my responsibility,” head coach Todd Graham said, referring to the point-after try following the Chambers touchdown.  “It’s my fault.  We have a chart in the box that we go by.  We were supposed to go for two, and we didn’t.”

NOTED

Gonzalez had made 15 straight field goals before his third-quarter 40-yard attempt sailed wide right

Gonzalez in the third quarter became the school’s all-time scoring leader, surpassing Luis Zendejas (380)

White set the single-season school record for most kickoff return yards, surpassing Rudy Burgess (879)

As expected sophomore Marcus Ball started at spur linebacker in place of injured junior Laiu Moeakiola

On the job for just three weeks, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey called plays and did so from the field

The Arizona Skyhawks Parachute Team delivered the game ball and commemorative coin for the coin toss

UP NEXT

That’s it, folks; the 2015 season is officially over.

ASU won’t hit the field again until the 2016 season opener against the in-state competition of Northern Arizona University on Saturday, Sept. 3 at Sun Devil Stadium.

Of course, spring football begins in March for those who can’t wait that long.

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