With such a big-time chance at taking "the next step", Syracuse had many standout performances Friday in its win over West Virginia. But there were several smaller, unnoticed efforts that were just as noteworthy in the win.
SU's Offense Shows Out
Going into the game, it was clear that the way to pull off the upset once again would be to control the clock and attack the quarterback while on defense. ‘Cuse was able to do both in ideal fashion.
Statistics can often be misleading, but the numbers didn't lie in this one. On the first two Orange drives, Ryan Nassib took 28 snaps, taking nearly an entire quarter of time off of the board. The plan and microcosm of the entire night was evident on the first play from scrimmage. Nassib shifted the backfield into a power-look, and Antwon Bailey received the counter handoff with a gaping hole ahead. Fullback Adam Harris cleared-out the backside defender on one of his many solid blocks and Syracuse totaled 9 yards with ease on its first attempt.
Gaping holes, solid blocking and efficient gains were a trend on Friday. SU didn't score offensively with very many big plays, it was methodical and assertive. The same can be said for the offensive line, in easily the best performance of the season for the group. Justin Pugh was dominant on the left side opposite top-notch rusher Bruce Irvin, who entered the game with 16 ½ sacks in his previous 19 games. Pugh's effort set the tone, as the group played feisty with a mean streak throughout the night against the smaller WVU front. The run-blocking established a line of scrimmage nearly 2 yards ahead of the original one at times, allowing Bailey and the other backs to find nearly 200 yards on the ground for the second-straight season against the Mountaineers. As pass blockers, Nassib saw arguably the most comfortable pocket he has all season long. The biggest indication of the line's dominance is that Nassib wasn't sacked, and that not one single Orange player was taken down behind the line.
On the outside, there is an emerging and hungry talent in Dorian Graham. Yes, he ignited the crowd with a savvy 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but he was just as good on offense. He was on the same page as Nassib on a pair of audibles, and he came up big after-the-catch on more than one occasion. His speed was no secret coming in, but he was finishing runs like a power-back even after getting shaken up early in the game. However, outside of Graham, there was the same lack of big plays from the receiving corps. Alec Lemon and Van Chew were just steady in the short game, combining for 60 yards on six catches. Lemon deserves credit for his 8-yard catch in the first half when he because the defender on one of the few off-target throws from Nassib on the night. He then found a way to catch the deflection to provide a 3rd-and-managable for the offense.
What the receivers could not do in the down-the-field department, the tight ends did. Nick Provo was a red-zone machine yet again, hauling in a career-high three touchdowns in the upset. He could have had a fourth score in the second quarter, but he could not handle Nassib's ball up the seam. Still, Provo ran precise routes and held his own as a blocker as he has all season long. David Stevens got into the mix as well, securing his first career touchdown on a busted zone coverage.
The running backs performed well yet again. Bailey notched north of 100 yards for the third straight game and fifth time in 2011. He again broke several tackles in the process and continues to fall forward after contact despite a not-so-ideal frame. On his touchdown, he plowed through the leader of the Mountaineer defense, Najee Goode. Behind Bailey, Adonis Ameen-Moore and Jerome Smith each served as a solid change of pace. The power backs each averaged 3.8 yards per carry, and proved big on third-downs and short-yardage situations. Bailey was again solid in blitz-pickup, even against the sometimes confusing 3-3-5 blitzing scheme West Virginia utilizes.
Then There's Nassib. The O-line set the pace, the receivers and tight ends made some plays and the backs held their own, but Nassib was near perfect in the win. He was poised, patient and precise in his ball distribution. He made good decisions as he has all season, but his play was on par with his mind throughout what may have been his best game as a college athlete. Nassib made several effective audibles and checks to successful plays against the underneath coverage and he was incredibly confident in his offensive line on a pair of touchdown throws that required him to hold the ball to allow the play to develop.
Defense Answers the Call
If the offensive line was steady, the Syracuse defensive line was opportune. Facing an offense that was a pass-first spread instead of a balanced attack like the WVU teams of old, the pass-rush was needed at a premium. The unit registered just two sacks, but Geno Smith was hit early and often. Chandler Jones did most of the damage, not only notching both sacks, but creating consistent pressure and even getting his hands on a pass attempt. On the other side, Mikhail Marinovich continued his consistent play as a balanced defender against the run and the pass. Inside, Deon Goggins, Eric Crume and company held their own against an emerging running game. The defense has not allowed a single 100-yard rusher all season long.
The linebackers had the most surprising effort on the defense. With the Mountaineers in the spread and several wide receivers in the game, the group had to play the pass much more than usual. Not only did they hold their own, but they made big plays in the process. Marquis Spruill got his hands on a deflection, Dan Vaughan held contain against the athletic Smith and company and Dyshawn Davis played well in his limited time on the field. The reason he was in and out of the mix was because Siriki Diabate was utilized as an underneath player when six defensive backs were on the field. He was the most impactful linebacker, blitzing well for most of the night and making solid tackles in coverage as most of the defense did.
The LBs surprisingly played well in the upset, but the secondary had to play well to restore confidence in the group. Most secondary players on any roster will admit that confidence is the most important factor in a defensive back, so poor performances must be followed by solid ones.
The cornerbacks were physical and in position nearly throughout the game. The only exception was on Stedman Bailey's touchdown reception, when he beat Kevyn Scott off of the line and somehow stayed in bounds while Jeremi Wilkes came over too late with safety help. Scott played well the rest of the way and made his presence felt on a few big hits and Wilkes redeemed himself with one of the biggest momentum-shifts of the night – when he intercepted Smith at the goal line before the game got out of reach. Keon Lyn and Rishard Anderson were steady when tested in big spots. Lyn was in the end zone four times, one-on-one with some of the best wideouts in the Big East, and he didn't allow a catch in those situations.
At the back-end, the safeties were solid. Wilkes had a slow start against the spread, but he figured things out in a hurry. Shamarko Thomas missed some early tackles and an assignment, but he rebounded and again made some big hits when it counted most. Phillip Thomas played as far away from the line of scrimmage as he's played all season, but he was solid in disallowing any deep passes over the middle and finished as a sure tackler when short passes were completed in front of him. He also helped to seal the game with his late interception of Smith after Jones got pressure on the signal caller.
There are still several kinks that need to be worked out on both sides of the ball, but the Syracuse football team may be heading in the right direction. A big key as the squad prepares for Louisville (Saturday at noon) will be to remain humble heading on the road against a scrappy opponent.