In the most competitive Cactus Bowl in history, which ended in thrilling finish highlighted by a bowl record eight lead changes, the West Virginia Mountaineers held on for a narrow 43-42 victory over the Arizona State Sun Devils to win the 27th Annual Motel 6 Cactus Bowl in front of a crowd of 39,321 at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. The game featured two high octane offenses that combined for 1,196 total yards and felled multiple bowl records as both teams lit up the scoreboard in their final contest of the season.
West Virginia’s Skyler Howard became the first 500-yard passer in Cactus Bowl history and broke the bowl’s records for passing yards and passing touchdowns, posting 532 yards on 28-of-51 passing with five touchdowns and two interceptions to win the 2016 Cactus Bowl Offensive MVP. His core of receivers also put up impressive numbers as Daikiel Shorts led the way with six catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns, Shelton Gibson caught four passes for 143 yards and a touchdown and Ka’Raun White had four receptions for 116 yards.
West Virginia’s offense came out of the gate quickly on the opening possession, completing a 53-yard pass from Skyler Howard to Ka’Raun White on the third play from scrimmage to get into plus territory. However the drive stalled in the red zone and the Mountaineers settled for a 21-yard field goal to strike first. Forcing ASU into a quick three-and-out, Howard again found White on a long completion to cross the 50-yard line and setup a 31-yard field goal for kicker Josh Lambert, staking WVU to a 6-0 lead after six minutes of play.
ASU was still unable to get their offense started on their next drive, but the defense stepped up big as Salamo Fiso intercepted a pass from Howard on the Mountaineer’s side of the field and returned it down to the 22-yard line, setting up a Zane Gonzalez 37-yard field goal to get the Sun Devils on the board, trailing 6-3. On the Mountaineer’s next drive, they again attacked the ASU defense quickly, moving inside the 20 on just two long plays, but stalled inside the red zone for the third time in the quarter, settling for a 27-yard field goal for Lambert. West Virginia outgained Arizona State 236-42 in the first quarter of play, but had only a 9-3 lead to show for it.
However field goals gave way to touchdowns in the second quarter. With a short field to work with after pinning WVU behind it’s own 10-yard line, ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici took advantage on the next possession, connecting with receiver Devin Lucien on a 21-yard completion before finding Lucien again two plays later for a 19-yard reception for the game’s first touchdown, which put the Devils out front 10-9. The Mountaineers did not wait long in responding, driving 80 yards in 39 seconds to retake the lead. Howard found White on a 21-yard reception and a play later, hit Shelton Gibson on a 59-yard out route for a touchdown and a 16-10 West Virginia lead. Nearing the end of the half, ASU countered with an 80-yard drive of its own, but was unable to cross the goal line on three consecutive rushes within the WVU 5-yard line and was forced to call on Gonzalez for a 19-yard field goal, cutting the WVU lead to 16-13.
With less than three minutes remaining in the first half, a flurry of activity closed out the quarter. West Virginia’s offense marched down the field behind three long pass completions, capped with Howard finding Daikiel Shorts on a 10-yard touchdown reception to put West Virginia on top 22-13. However on the ensuing PAT attempt, ASU’s Ismael Murphy-Richardson blocked the kick and Tim White scooped up the ball and returned it 98 yards for two points, putting the score at 22-15. It was the first blocked PAT returned for a score in the 27-year history of the Cactus Bowl. ASU took advantage of a short kickoff following the PAT return and took Gonzalez into field goal range; his 35-yard attempt was good, sending the Devils into the locker room trailing just 22-18.
Receiving the kickoff to start the third quarter, ASU’s offense picked up where it left off, riding the hot hand of Tim White, who hauled in a 40-yard completion from Bercovici before catching a two-yard touchdown pass a few plays later to put ASU ahead 25-22. The lead would be short-lived as West Virginia scored on its next possession on a long 64-yard touchdown pass from Howard to Gary Jennings to retake the lead 29-25. The two teams would trade touchdowns to finish out the quarter, with ASU’s Bercovici finding White again for a 33-yard score and WVU’s Howard connecting with Daikiel Shorts for a 17-yard touchdown, leaving the score in the Mountaineer’s favor at 36-32.
Arizona State ended the third quarter with its second interception of Howard when Kareem Orr picked off a pass and returned it 25 yards to the WVU 35 yard line. Into the fourth frame a few plays later, Zane Gonzalez connected on his Cactus Bowl-record fourth made field goal from 48 yards out to cut the West Virginia lead to 36-35.
Trading punts for the next 10 minutes, Arizona State finally broke through with its quick-strike offense, as Bercovici completed a 58 yard touchdown pass to Gary Chambers to retake the lead at 42-36 with less than five minutes remaining. However, Howard was not done with his record-breaking evening, leading the Mountaineers 75 yards down field and tossing his fifth touchdown pass of the evening, 15 yards to David Sills, giving West Virginia a 43-42 lead. With 2:12 to go and the ball on the ASU 40-yard line after a short kickoff, the Sun Devils’ comeback bid failed on the 50-yard line as Bercovici sailed an incomplete pass on a fourth down attempt with just 1:26 remaining, allowing West Virginia to run out the clock and claim the 2016 Motel 6 Cactus Bowl championship.
ASU’s Mike Bercovici finished with 418 passing yards on 29-of-52 and four touchdowns. Devin Lucien led all receivers in the game with nine catches, which was good for 144 yards and a touchdown. Tim White was the all-around star for the Sun Devils, racking up 289 all-purpose yards with four receptions for 79 receiving yards and two touchdowns and a bowl-record 177 kickoff return yards; he also returned the blocked PAT, accounting for 14 total points in the game.