West Virginia Preview

Syracuse has this week off, but on Nov. 10 it welcomes West Virginia to the Carrier Dome for Homecoming Weekend. The Orangemen hope to continue their seven-game win streak against the Mountaineers with strong play from special teams.

Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer tried to warn reporters that Syracuse's special teams units were better than people thought.

But for some reason, know one wanted to listen. They saw firsthand, though, during SU's convincing 22-14 upset, where special teams led the way to victory.

"They're good," said Beamer following the loss. "I tried to tell you all week. This team (Syracuse) is good on special teams. They have good people. You can go back to should have, could have all you want.

"Give them credit. They did a nice job."

That nice job included a Jamal Riddle punt return for a touchdown, a blocked punt that set up a field goal, two field goals by Colin Barber and numerous big plays on punt and field goal returns.

Those plays changed the game's momentum, Barber said. In the week leading up to Virginia Tech, Barber and Syracuse punter Mike Shafer discussed the Orangemen's special teams' lack of respect. They heard over and over that the Hokies had the best special teams in the Big East. But they were intent to prove that Syracuse held that honor. For one week, at the very least, they did.

"We didn't expect this much from special teams," SU defensive back Will Hunter said. "We really didn't. But we wanted to play well on special teams. We didn't turn the ball over ourselves, and we got it a couple of times. That is huge. That is why we won this game."

The Orangemen (7-2, 4-0 Big East) hope to continue the productive special teams' production when West Virginia (2-5, 0-3) travels to the Carrier Dome on Homecoming Weekend on Nov. 10. Last year, Syracuse needed a last-second touchdown throw from R.J. Anderson to Malik Campbell to steal one in Morgantown, W.Va.

But players and coaches insist this is a different Syracuse team, one that has surprised the nation with seven consecutive victories, including its first at Tech since 1987. And this is a different Mountaineer squad, too, which SU players say is better than its record indicates.

For a team with five losses, West Virginia couldn't have faced much tougher competition. It started the season with a loss to Boston College and followed it with wins over Ohio and Kent State. Four losses came next, but they came to three Top 25 teams in Maryland, Virginia Tech and Miami and another perennial power in Notre Dame. The remainder of the Mountaineers Big East slate is not nearly as daunting.

Especially with tailback Avon Cobourne in the backfield. He averages 125.5 yards per game through seven games and has scored five touchdowns, and Rego Cooper has proved a more-than-adequate backup when Cobourne needs some rest.

Complimenting the backfield is quarterback Brad Lewis, who has completed 56.7 percent of his passes for 1,045 and five touchdowns. His favorite targets are Phil Braxton (25 catches, 267 yards), Antonio Brown (22 catches, 251 yards), Shawn Terry (21 catches, 212 yard) and A.J. Nastasi (20 catches, 163 yards). In total, the West Virginia offense averages more than 178 yards per game through the air.

Defensively, the Mountaineers have faced some of the toughest offenses in the country and limited them to only 146.3 yards per game passing. Both Kyle Kayden and Rick Sherrod have registered over 100 tackles through seven games, and Bryant Richard has recorded four interceptions. West Virginia has also garnered 10 quarterback sacks.

In order to contain that potent offense, Syracuse will have to tackle like it did against Virginia Tech, defensive coordinator Chris Rippon said.

"We were not going to win this game if we tackled the way we had tackled in some of our other games," Rippon said. "That's been getting us in trouble. Against a team like Virginia Tech and the remaining games that we have on our schedule, you have to be great tacklers. That goes right back to fundamentals - the fundamentals of tackling, the fundamentals of pursuit angles, the fundamentals of stripping the ball. These kids are great kids to work with. They do whatever you ask them to do. They believe in what we ask them to do.

"And we believe in them executing it."

They have been for seven consecutive games, including three very complete and convincing victories in a row, where the Orangemen outscored opponents 109-27.

Players and coaches attribute at least part of the efficiency to a tough early-season, non-conference slate where Syracuse dropped games to Georgia Tech and Tennessee.

"I'll say this to you," Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "The hottest fire makes the strongest steel. We were in some hot fires early on in the season. Georgia Tech was a good team. Tennessee playing at Tennessee. We battled Tennessee. If you look at the score of that game, and you say, ‘Syracuse really got beat in that game.' That's not the case. We battled. We turn the ball over. We didn't take care of opportunities we had against Tennessee. Since then we've been doing a better job. The commitment to play those games has made us a better football team."

And it's started with special teams. Barber has emerged as the steady kicker SU has lacked for the past two seasons. David Tyree has become a beast on kickoff and punt coverage and is also the team's top punt blocker. Willie Ford and J.R. Johnson continue to be two of the top gunners in the conference. And Jamal Riddle has solved Syracuse's punt return questions.

"Absolutely, I want to you understand," Beamer continued. "Syracuse has good special teams. From our side of it, when we were trying to return punts, we had trouble getting things done. When that's the case, you're mind is not where it's supposed to be. And when your mind's not where it's supposed to be, then it goes back to myself as the head coach getting the team ready to play.

"We didn't play well enough to play a good team like Syracuse and win."

Which was an unthinkable comment at the beginning of the season. A team like Syracuse? Now, the Orangemen have earned that respect. Don't believe? Ask Tyree for his opinion on the subject.

"I have never had anybody come up to me personally and say that they thought we were going to suck, because they now what they would be dealing with talking that kind of trash," he said. "I am not going to jaw with anybody, but to all the doubters, they know who they are, it is time for them to wake up to something else.

"Syracuse is back."


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