Gwaltney, the highly touted true freshman running back from Long Island, New York, entered the game in the second quarter and rambled 32 yards for a touchdown on his first carry as a Mountaineer, evoking memories of Amos Zereoue's 69-yard run on his first carry in a WVU uniform against Pittsburgh in 1996. WVU quarterback Adam Bednarik, starting his first game after the graduation of three-year starter Rasheed Marshall, completed 12 of 24 passes for just 130 yards with two interceptions, while the WVU rushing attack tallied 199 yards to Syracuse's 131. West Virginia outgained Syracuse 355 yards to 329, and was in Syracuse territory late in the game when Gwaltney's fumble thwarted West Virginia's hopes of getting into range for a third Pat McAfee field goal that would have sent the game into overtime.
"This is as tough a place as anywhere to open a season and we made some critical mistakes that really cost us," lamented WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez in the Mountaineers' locker room after the game. "I liked our effort and our intensity, especially some of our younger guys, but we obviously have some things we have to correct. We just can't turn the ball over, especially against a good team like Syracuse, and expect to have a chance to win. But, we'll look at the tape, see what we need to correct and get after it."
"We made some really big plays that won the game for us," said Robinson, who was clearly pleased to win his first game as Syracuse's head coach after serving as defensive coordinator at the University of Texas last season and for 13 seasons before that as an assistant coach in the NFL. "We beat a quality team today. Once they get some experience under their belts they're going to be a handful, especially Gwaltney. But, Perry was terrific for us today and Rice (Moss, Syracuse's sophomore wide receiver, who caught six passes for 108 yards, including one of Patterson's touchdown throws) was just outstanding."
Neither team was able to get their offense untracked early, as the defenses dominated. Syracuse drove into West Virginia territory for the first time late in the first quarter and, with 0:18 left in the quarter, settled for a 44-yard Brandon Carey field goal to take a 3-0 lead. Patterson completed three passes in the drive with a key third down completion of 14 yards to Moss to maintain the march.
After trading possessions, West Virginia took over on its own 29 with 10:14 remaining in the second quarter. Bednarik completed passes of 16 and 17 yards to Rayshawn Bolden and Brandon Myles, respectively, along with a key third down carry of four yards by fullback Owen Schmitt to keep the drive alive. Schmitt appeared to be stopped for a loss on the play by blitzing Orange linebacker Kellen Pruitt, but bounced off Pruitt and bulled his way forward for the first down. On second down from the Syracuse 32, Gwaltney took his first hand-off as a Mountaineer from Bednarik and raced through a hole on the left side. After cutting to his right to freeze Syracuse linebacker Tommy Harris, he sped to the right sideline, outracing the Orange defensive backfield to cross the goal line with 7:41 left before halftime. McAfee's extra point gave West Virginia its only lead of the game at 7-3.
Syracuse answered quickly as Patterson led Syracuse on a 74-yard march to re-take the lead. Patterson completed passes of 19 and 11 yards to Moss and 13 yards to junior wideout Tim Lane. Tailback Damion Rhodes, who tallied 97 yards on 22 carries on the day, picked up 22 yards on the ground during the drive. On second-and-goal from the WVU five-yard line, Rhodes took a pass in the backfield and, racing around the right end, dove across the corner pylon to give the Orange a 10-7 lead with 3:01 left in the first half. West Virginia's final drive before halftime stalled at the WVU 48, leaving the Orange with a three-point halftime advantage.
Syracuse received the opening kick-off of the second half and quickly extended their lead as Patterson led the home team on a 68-yard drive, aided by a 15-yard personal foul penalty on the Mountaineers. Spur Eric Wicks was called for a late hit out of bounds on the controversial play that would have forced a punt. Wicks appeared to be accidentally knocked into Orange fullback Breyone Evans by teammate Dee McCann, but a livid protest from the Mountaineer sideline did not result in a change in the call. Patterson completed the series with his second touchdown pass of the game – a perfectly placed throw to Moss on a corner fade pattern on the left side of the Syracuse end zone. The extra point gave the Orange a 10-point lead at 17-7 at the 11:27 mark of the third stanza.
On the following WVU possession, Bednarik threw the first of his two interceptions on the day on a pass tipped by Orange defensive lineman Kader Drame, giving Syracuse possession on the WVU 45. Syracuse then moved to the WVU 21, but the Mountaineer defense stiffened and stopped Evans two straight times with less than a yard to go for a first down. Syracuse settled for a 38-yard Carney field goal with 6:43 remaining in the third quarter as the Orange took a commanding 20-7 lead.
West Virginia then mounted a scoring drive of their own, moving from its own 47, following a 45-yard kick-off return by Antonio Lewis, to the Orange 18-yard line, where the drive stalled. McAfee kicked a 35-yard field goal to trim the Orange lead to 10, 20-10 with 2:19 left in the third quarter.
After trading possessions, Syracuse mounted their final scoring march of the day, moving from their own 24 to the West Virginia 22. Patterson was sharp on the drive, hitting four of six passes for 24 yards while Rhodes gained 26 yards on the ground. The WVU defense again rose up to stop the Orange on third down, but missed a chance to totally stifle the drive as Mike Lorello just missed on a diving interception attempt. Carney came on to boot his third field goal of the day, this one from 39 yards out, for a 23-10 Orange lead with 12:48 remaining in the game.
West Virginia took the ensuing kick-off and began to pick up yardage quickly, as Gwaltney and junior running back Jason Colson began shredding the Orange defense. The drive appeared to have stopped when a Bednarik pass was intercepted by Orange cornerback Tenard Jackson, but Jackson was hit and fumbled the ball returning the interception. Mountaineer tackle Travis Garrett pounced on the loose ball at the Syracuse 42-yard line and WVU maintained possession. Following the recovery, Bednarik went back to the air and hit Schmitt for 17 yards, but the gain proved to be a costly one. On the play, Bednarik sprained an ankle when he was hit and rolled over by two Syracuse defenders, and despite immediate attention by the West Virginia training staff, was unable to return. Redshirt freshman Pat White entered the game and showed no freshman jitters, as he completed the drive with a 14-yard swing pass to tailback Pernell Williams, followed by a fout-yard touchdown run by Colson, a native of nearby Rochester, N.Y. The extra point made the score 23-17 with 7:37 left in the game.
The touchdown seemed to energize the Mountaineer defense as it forced a three-and-out on the following Syracuse offensive series. WVU's Vaughn Rivers caught the Syracuse punt at the Mountaineer 33-yard line and following several key blockers raced down the Syracuse sideline to the Orange 35 before being knocked out of bounds. WVU could only muster four yards on three plays and had to settle for McAfee's second field goal of the day, from 39 yards out, which cut the Syracuse lead to three with 4:13 to play.
Another WVU defensive stand resulted in another brief Syracuse possession and Rivers used a fair catch to give WVU possession at their own 37 with 1:56 remaining. Gwaltney ran for 14 yards on two carries, and White followed with a scamper of 11 to move the ball to the Syracuse 38. But with 1:02 remaining, Gwaltney was hit by Syracuse free safety and All-America candidate Anthony Smith after breaking past the line of scrimmage and fumbled the ball. Orange middle linebacker Kelvin Smith recovered and the Orange ran out the clock to preserve the victory.
"It looked like they just put a hat right on the ball," said Rodriguez about the late fumble that may have cost his team the victory and spoiled an otherwise exceptional debut by Gwaltney, who picked up 71 yards on 10 carries.
"Anthony made a perfect hit and Kelvin was in the right place at the right time," said Robinson about the late recovery. "Good teams make plays like that in key situations. I don't know if we're a good team yet – we'll have a better idea about that as the season plays out – but this is a great way to get out of the gate."
"We especially hate to lose a conference game because we focus on winning the Big East every year as our first team goal," said Rodriguez. "But we'll learn from this and we'll correct what we need to correct."
Syracuse hosts Buffalo next Saturday in the second of three consecutive starts in the Carrier Dome. West Virginia will play its home opener next Saturday against Div. 1-AA Wofford, a replacement game for one that was scheduled with Central Florida. UCF backed out of an agreement to play a game in Morgantown this year. WVU, no stranger to scrambling to replace broken contracts, signed the Terriers as a last moment replacement to fill the Knights' spot on the schedule.
PASSING – WVA – Bednarik 12-24-130-0-2 White 2-5-26-0-0 SYR Patterson 17-28-212-2-0 Fields 1-1-6-0-0
RUSHING – WVA – Colson 12-54-1 Williams 8-43 Gwaltney 10-71-1-1 Phillips 2-6 Schmitt 3-13 Bednarik 5-(7) White 3-19 SYR – Rhodes 22-97 Sellers 4-14 Evans 4-9 Moss 1-15 Patterson 4-(4)
RECEIVING – WVA – Bolden 2-29 Myles 3-22 Rivers 2-18 Dawson 1-28 Thompson 1-12 Colson 1-6 Williams 2-16 Schmitt 1-17 Douglas 1-8 SYR Moss 6-108-1 Lane 4-52 Bembo 2-17 Brown 1-15 Kowaleski 2-13 Rhodes 2-5-1 Evans 1-8
DISCLAIMER: The contents of this article are intended for entertainment purposes only. No criticism, direct or implied, is intended. The author assumes no responsibility for any errors or inconsistencies and has produced the series strictly for the enjoyment of Mountaineer football fans during the agonizing summer months without WVU football.