Cactus Bowl is WVU’s desert destination
After Kansas State slew West Virginia with its special teams, the Mountaineers were left with a puzzled look on their collective faces and a 7-5 overall record that was still valued enough to receive a berth in one of the 40 bowls being played this Christmas season.
Five losses and a fifth-place finish in the Big 12 standings meant none of the more prestigious bowls were hunting the email or twitter addresses of any of West Virginia’s administrative hierarchy.
The Cactus Bowl in Phoenix came calling.
It could be a pleasant night under the stars in the desert southwest when the Mountaineers are at Chase Field to face the Arizona State Sun Devils. The game is supposed to start on Jan. 2, 2016, at 8:15 p.m. local Mountain Standard Time and 10:15 p.m. here where Eastern Standard Time is used.
It certainly has a better taste than those bowls in New York City, Detroit and Boise, Idaho where the Famous Potato Bowl takes place.
Chase Field is the home of baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. Its configurations might be a little hard to fathom for football people, but it’s still to be preferred over Yankee Stadium and the Pinstripe Bowl or the blue artificial turf in could-be-very-cold Boise.
The Sun Devils had been a pre-season pick to finish second in their division of the Pac-12, so losing a 48-46 decision to California in the last game and having to report a 6-6 overall record was somewhat disappointing.
Before it was announced that they would be West Virginia’s bowl opponent, the Sun Devils were one of the Mountain State’s favorite teams . . . because they had pounded Coach Rich Rodriguez’s Arizona team, 52-37, and had 565 yards of total offense against the Wildcats.
West Virginia’s finish in Manhattan was also a disappointment. A 13-3 lead at the half didn’t last when Kansas State changed quarterbacks and scored so quickly in the third quarter that some fans hadn’t even returned from their comfort break.
With quarterback Skyler Howard struggling some with an ankle injury, the Mountaineers began to have problems moving along the ground or through the air.
But late in the fourth quarter there was a 23-17 lead for the Mountaineers. That lasted only long enough for a long punt return score by the opportunistic Wildcats to give the home side a one point lead and West Virginia the ball with just more than two minutes to play.
Howard couldn’t outrun a linebacker when he went wide on fourth down. Kansas State had the 24-23 win it needed to reach a 6-6 record and make safe its sixth consecutive bowl game for 76-year-old coach Bill Snyder.
Phoenix is West Virginia’s new year destination. Plenty of golf courses. Plenty of cuisine decorated with spices, refried beans, flatbreads and items from the menu at Taco Bell. Plenty of pre-game events that will give the players head sets, watches, wearing apparel, electronic devices and red meat to eat.
There are 40 bowls. Three schools (Minnesota, San Jose State and Nebraska) with 5-7 records were needed to fill out the list of those still playing.
For those Mountaineer followers who would travel to see the team play through thick and thin, the location seems better than El Paso, Mobile or Memphis.
The opponent is a “big name” team. Its coach, Todd Graham, was once an assistant at West Virginia. And the game is on a Saturday, so some night owls will be able to stay awake until the last incomplete pass is thrown after 1:30 a.m. in the state of West Virginia.
Not playing in one of the traditional bowls (Orange, Sugar, Rose, Fiesta, Cotton or Peach) takes some of the mystique out of practicing for a month and then finishing the season, but think of the 47 schools that didn’t even qualify for the chance to see the desert (or downtown Detroit) in December or early January.