A Look Inside...Game Seven

Perhaps no other game on West Virginia's schedule this season will have less of resemblance from last than Syracuse.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Fri 10/21/11 8:00 PM

Syracuse, NY

Carrier Dome
Record: 5-1
BCS: 15
Last Game
UConn W 43-15
Sirius/XM: 93/190
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 4-2
Last Game
Tulane W 37-34
Game Notes
Season Stats
2011 Schedule

Series: SU 31-27
First Meeting: 1945
Last Meeting: 2010
Game Notes
Season Stats
2011 Schedule

The Orange had several edges – one hesitates to call them true advantages – in style and psychology last year. Both of those ideals would seem to favor the Mountaineers this season, as WVU's approach is a virtual 180 in terms of offensive playcalling and mental readiness this time around. That's not to say Syracuse can't pull the upset a second consecutive year. But the combination of the 2010 result, WVU's coaching change and lack of returning starters and ability to slow the pass defensively look to be lethal. Here's some things to watch Friday.

  • The start. West Virginia has started slowly in several contests, all at home. An extremely slow road start will hurt, especially in the Carrier Dome's stagnant, flatly lighted environment. The Mountaineers need to get Geno Smith into a flow early. Getting a few early completions will help the offense develop its playcalling and give Smith a chance to settle on a non-crowned surface that plays a bit awkwardly at first. Check and see is Smith is throwing high, a typical result of being used to receivers not on the same plane, but a bit lower than a quarterback as is typical of a crowned field. This is often remedied in pregame, but could take a few series, especially with WVU's pass-oriented offense and its myriad of timing routes. I don't look for the coaching staff to shackle Smith at all, but a few easier early throws could help. The later start should also aid the road team, as the Mountaineers have been notoriously slow starters in noon or 1 p.m. affairs.

  • With a solidifying line and an apparent starter in Dustin Garrison, look for WVU to have more success running the ball than expected. Syracuse will need some help to slow the Mountaineer wideouts, so added numbers off the line of scrimmage could give the offense a chance to bust a couple via the ground. Certainly, the more favorable match-up is West Virginia's vertical passing game vs. Syracuse's defensive backfield.
    WVU O vs. SU D
      WVU Syracuse
    Scoring 40.8 ppg 27.3 ppg
    Rushing 123 ypg 104.3 ypg
    Passing 380.5 ypg 293 ypg
    Pending how the Orange align and where they stack numbers, gains via Garrison could be available. Keep in mind that part of SU's success in holding foes to 104 rushing yards per game is because of the ease in which opponents have thrown the ball.

  • Vertical threats. West Virginia tried it against virtually every team this season. Expect it as much or more here. Syracuse has had major issues covering in the defensive backfield and is routinely getting burned both in midrange and deep routes. The Mountaineers would appear to have the athleticism needed to attack deep, especially after a series of setup plays. The line should protect well enough for Stedman Bailey, Ivan McCartney or others to run double move routes to open longer passing opportunities. This, comboed with midrange and crossing patterns, should be more than enough to put up solid points against this secondary. But watch the pocket pressure. SU has averaged more than two sacks a game. Again, that is often because of how much foes are throwing. Smith needs to get rid of the ball in adequate time and not force throws. West Virginia is likely good enough to overcome a turnover. It might not be able to overcome three to four.

  • Screen passes. With SU's defense perhaps trying to pressure the pocket and get to Smith before he can unload downfield, a few screens could be just what Dana Holgorsen orders. The Mountaineers have utilized a handful this season with varying success. If the Orange appear to be overloading a side or getting numbers to a certain area, a screen or some misdirection could back that off a bit. While this isn't a main staple of Holgorsen's offense, it is in there for these exact situations. Look at the numbers Syracuse is rushing and how they are defending the pass. If they are dropping, obviously a screen won't do much. But if they are coming in droves, a few timely tosses could slow the rush and afford Smith more time for downfield routes. A corollary to this is a few counter plays. WVU ran a few against LSU with success, and it did appear to at least slow the Tigers defense. If over-aggressiveness and pursuit are issues, a play flowing one way then going the other could keep the ‘Cuse honest – or at least punish it enough to gain some field position and possibly points.

  • Defensively, not much will change from last year to this in terms of approach. Syracuse was effective last season in using the power run game to keep WVU's offense off the field, eat clock and control the vast majority of the game. The line play has not been as good this season, however, and though the Mountaineer defense doesn't possess the overall talent it did in '10, it would seem that Syracuse should not be able to control most of the game in similar style. Still, it will definitely try, especially with facing a high scoring offense instead of what West Virginia used last season – a kind of hodgepodge, jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none operation. Look for a lot of power running early to attack the weaker Mountaineer front, with play action passes off of that setup. WVU must gain good gap control and leverage and tackle effectively. Players should be in position to make plays, but broken tackles will turn second and longs into more manageable downs and distances.

  • But … West Virginia can't overcommit to the run. Senior quarterback Ryan Nassib has solid experience and is good enough to win with. He has completed more than 62 percent of his passes and isn't forcing things like he did earlier in his career. He has seen the odd stack enough to feel comfortable, and is perhaps the most unlikely QB to rattle West Virginia has thus far played.
    WVU D vs. SU O
      WVU Syracuse
    Scoring 21.5 ppg 26.7 ppg
    Rushing 119.8 ypg 113.2 ypg
    Passing 220.3 ypg 181.3 ypg
    SU lacks a legit big play threat, but can nickel and dime its way down the field with some dink and dunks, crossing patterns and a few tight end throws. Syracuse will be in no hurry offensively, and perhaps the biggest issue for WVU will be patience. The road team might well not get off the field on its first few third downs. But as the game grinds on, can the defense keep from pressing and trying to make too big of plays – especially if the offense is doing the same?

  • Being honest, other than those few issues, it's hard to see where Syracuse could hurt West Virginia on this side of the ball if WVU doesn't hurt itself. The Orange don't have much of a power run game, they have not strung first downs together and they, frankly, are not moving the ball that well, for either points or yardage. This isn't a bad club, but it isn't a good one either. Combine that with the Mountaineers usually putting 30-plus points up, and it seems SU will be limited because of playing from behind. On paper at least, this match-up is as good as it gets for WVU the rest of the year.

  • Special teams also appears to give a solid edge to West Virginia – as long as it can catch punts and cover kickoffs. As the Blue and Gold News pointed out in its Syracuse preview, West Virginia ranks in the top two in the Big East in both kickoff and punt returns. Syracuse is sixth in both. WVU also seems to have an edge in the placekicking game with Tyler Bitancurt and has found a punter in Michael Molinari. The Mountaineers, however, are 116th in net punt and 99th in kickoff coverage. Ouch. Those numerics have hurt, and the backbreaker vs. LSU changed the entire game. It only takes one busted play to give up a touchdown and allow Syracuse into a game West Virginia could be controlling. Tackle, stay in coverage lanes and, as needed, place a few return men deep on punts and this area should not be an issue.

  • Since the addition of another returner on punt returns, the looks have not varied a ton for West Virginia. I would think much would stay the same this week, especially on the punt team. The Mountaineers covered well and pinned Connecticut deep often when punting, and it might need to do the same vs. the Orange.
      WVU SU
    Net Punt 32.1 yds 36.1 yds
    Punt Ret 12.8 yds 4 yds
    KO Ret 23.7 yds 22.7 yds
    There isn't much reason to tweak anything of now, as it appears some issues have been at least partially remedied and others improved upon. Just keep drilling the ideals. Check the kickoff team to see if Corey Smith gets additional chances, and see how the coaching staff changes the kick style if WVU doesn't cover well on the first few chances. Will the staff squib? Kick deep? Sky kick? It tried all these against Bowling Green before sticking primarily with a regular kickoff versus Connecticut.

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