Any time a coach, player, reporter or analyst scouts the 2011 version of West Virginia it begins with Geno Smith. The quarterback has engineered one of the most dangerous attacks in college football this season, marking only the beginning of the issues Syracuse faces on Friday.
To make things more interesting, both coaching staffs have had an extra week to prepare for the battle for the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy, considering both programs enjoyed a bye week after playing on October 8.
WVU's Offensive Attack
Smith is the table-setter for the entire team, and he has been on the money more times than not this season. SU coach Doug Marrone has re-iterated throughout the week that he is a much better signal-caller than he was during last season's upset, and it has shown through six games. Only three quarterbacks in America at the FBS level average more than his 380.5 yards per game. Smith has top-notch awareness in the pocket and he has already seemingly mastered first-year coach Dana Holgorsen's offense.
The duel-threat quarterback has staggering numbers, but his poise under pressure is an intangible that fuels the big plays the offense continues to put up. He has a staple of receivers who can get vertical, and the offense presents several problems for any defense while combining the weapons with multiple players in motion and shifts before the snap. Smith also has the ability and free reign to run a no-huddle look to spark the attack should it get off to a slow start. As a passer, he has shown some inaccuracies underneath, but the athleticism and skill of his targets make up for it. Not to mention there may not be a better down-the-field thrower in college football. Smith's athleticism is utilized to set up the pass more times than not, though he can move the chains if he breaks contain. Thus far, he has completed 165 of his 258 pass attempts for 2159 yards and 16 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
At Smith's disposal are perhaps the most talented group of wideouts the Orange defense will face this season. Unlike the games against USC, Toledo and Rutgers – where one WR set the tone – West Virginia's group is balanced. Smith does not favor any particular option, as any can provide heavy damage on any given play. A trio of receivers – Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin and Ivan McCartney – average at least 75 yards receiving per game. The three have combined for 110 catches and 10 scores already. Bailey is the smoothest of the group, possessing exceptional hands and football savvy. Smith targets him most often when he scrambles. Austin is more of a catch-and-run type, and he will be utilized on screens and even on some runs when he is not in the slot. McCartney is an underneath option who often takes advantage of miss-matches, but any of the three can get down the field if needed. Several other targets have made noise this season, but production-wise and skill-wise, the top trio stands apart from the rest.
Joining Smith in the backfield is usually Dustin Garrison. The shifty back has burst onto the scene of late, racking up 442 yards on just 63 carries this season. He is not a home-run threat, but his quickness and top-notch feet make for gashing runs at times. However, he can be neutralized if he is hit at or behind the line of scrimmage. Vernard Roberts and Andrew Buie provide a decent change of pace to Garrison, but they have combined for just 256 yards thus far.
The constant in the Mountaineer offense in up front. The offensive line is veteran-laden, big and athletic. Protecting Smith is always the priority, and the group has done its job. Opposing defenses average just over one sack per game on the versatile quarterback, representing the best rate in the Big East. The left side of the unit is utilized more times than not in the running game. Left tackle Don Barclay, left guard Jeff Braun and center Joe Madsen have been playing together for the better part of the last three seasons.
The Over-Shadowed WVU Defense
With the offense making most of the headlines this season, the defense has quietly performed very well. The undersized, yet speedy and aggressive group ranks 16th in the country in total defense, allowing just over 300 total yards per game. The only teams to challenge the unit have been LSU, who put up 47 points against West Virginia, and Maryland, who notched 31 points against them.
Up front is where the Mountaineer defense makes its money. DE/OLB Bruce Irvin is among the best pass-rushers in the country, notching 16 ½ sacks over the last 19 games. Julian Miller is the anchor of the line, and he has 23 career sacks. Along with him in the middle are the pair of athletic tackles in Jorge Wright and Will Clarke who have combined for 4 ½ tackles for loss this season.
The athleticism continues in the front-seven at the second level. The WVU linebackers are a versatile group that plays a big part as pass-rushers and zone defenders. The leader of the group and defense is Najee Goode, who patrols the middle and gets the defense set up. He is tied for the team lead in tackles with 41 thus far, and he is flanked by athletic talents. Doug Rigg has missed time with a wrist injury, but he will be back in time for Friday. In his place, Jewone Snow has excelled over the last two weeks as a tackler and big-play creator. Casey Vance starts on the weak side, making an impact as a rusher and Blitzer.
The 3-3-5 scheme that the team has run over the last handful of seasons starts and ends with the "Spur" safety spot. The position is comparable to the rover that Florida State utilizes or the bear player in the acclaimed 4-6 defense that transcended the NFL in the 1980's. The West Virginia version is perhaps the most versatile, and Terrence Garvin plays it well. He will be seen as a Blitzer, drop-down linebacker and zone cover-guy throughout the game. Garvin has 2 ½ sacks to his name to go along with two interceptions while notching 38 tackles thus far. Eian Smith is the free safety, usually allowing the play to develop in front of him though he makes an impact in the turnover game once he gets to the ball (one interception, two forced fumbles). Barwin Cook is the third safety, known as the "Bandit" in the defense. The position is more similar to a traditional strong safety, and Cook exemplifies that with solid tackling. On the outside, corners Pat Miller and Keith Tandy have combined for 74 tackles; Tandy also has two picks to his credit. The defense will attack often, but the secondary sits back in the zone more times than not.
The kicking game is as sound as it's always been at West Virginia. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt has made 11 of 12 field goal attempts, with a long from 45 yards out. Corey Smith was the starting punter through the first five games, but Mike Molinari got his chance against Connecticut in the team's last game. Molinari averaged 43 yards per kick in his limited sample-size, and Smith averaged 38.5 over 13 tries before that.
In the return game, Austin is the primary threat. He seems to break one for a long gain in every game, and he returned one for a score already in 2011 (against Marshall).
The Syracuse offense will have its hands full with the attacking style of the West Virginia defenders, but gains can be made underneath. All season, the defense has been content with allowing short throws – particularly on the outside – against the zone cover-scheme. The question for Ryan Nassib, as it is for all opposing quarterbacks, is whether or not he can remain patient throughout the game and take what the defense gives him in the passing game.
Antwon Bailey and the running attack, no matter who else is in the mix between Adonis Ameen-Moore, Jerome Smith and Steven Rene, will also have to remain patient. WVU will stack the box on early downs to try and force third-and-long more times than not. They key for the backs will be to break the first defender's tackle and limit negative runs.
As it has been the case in recent weeks, the SU receiving corps will have the chance to finally break out on Friday. The Mountaineer secondary will play nearly as much zone as the Syracuse basketball team displays, opening up deep opportunities when eight defenders are in the box. Van Chew and Alec Lemon will have a considerable size advantage over the WVU cornerbacks. Dorian Graham and Jerrod West will have to deal with athletic linebackers and safeties over the middle, but TE Nick Provo may have a size advantage that could prove critical on third downs.
The offensive line will face the most athletic and speedy pass-rush it will see all season, not to mention multiple blitzers on nearly every play. The pass-protection will be critical on the edge especially, so Michael Hay and Justin Pugh will need to put in big games. The run-blocking should take care of itself, as the smaller defense should become more vulnerable against Bailey and company as the game wares on. SU managed 183 yards on the ground in last season's upset.
Defensively for the Orange, they key will be to limit the big play. Smith, Garrision and the receiving corps have thrived on the big play all season. They will show patience and take short gains early, but Smith will take his fair share of shots down the field. The pass-rush will have to be on its A-game, so the return of Chandler Jones (knee) should only help the cause. Against the run, the defensive line will need to hold the gaps in between the veteran offensive line to prevent big cut-back runs.
The linebacker play will be critical once again. It is always a premium to tackle well against any fast team, especially the Mountaineers. Whether Marquise Spruill and company are in run support or in coverage, broken tackles will have to be limited. If not, the game could get out of hand sooner than later. Dyshawn Davis and Dan Vaughn will need to show discipline on the outside, especially while trying to prevent both Smith and the running game from getting to the edge.
The unit with the most question marks surrounding it, once again, is the Syracuse secondary. The safety play will be critical when it comes to tackling and disguising coverages against a smart quarterback in Smith. Phillip Thomas and Shamarko Thomas will also have to stay disciplined against the play-action pass. The WVU offense will stay in the shotgun throughout the game, with multiple shifts and players spread out, so the calls need to be communicated effectively by the two. Corners Kevyn Scott, Keon Lyn, and Rishard Anderson will need to also make tackling a priority against the quick receiving threats, but staying with them in the passing game will be more critical. Bailey is an expert at adjusting to find the hole in the defense when Smith is on the run, and the other WRs are getting better at the situation. The return of Olando Fisher will only help in containing the talented groups of targets for Smith.
Syracuse may start fast in what will initially look like a defensive struggle, but Holgorsen's halftime adjustments will be the difference. Smith will eventually get his yardage as both a passer and runner, and it will open up the running game late. Syracuse's best bet is to keep the ball out of his hands while running the football, but the lack of a compliment on the outside will make ‘Cuse predictable and one-dimensional.
West Virginia 27, Syracuse 17