Opponent's Take - Syracuse

Syracuse head coach Greg Robinson will be looking for his first career Big East win on Saturday when he leads the Orange into battle at Mountaineer Field.

Let's get one thing straight: this is not your father's (or even older brother's) Syracuse squad. The Orange have fallen to the basement of the Big East Conference over the past year and a half. Robinson is 0-8 in Big East play, including 0-1 in 2006 after Saturday's 21-11 loss to Pitt.

Truth be told, though, the Orange are an improved football team compared to last season, when they limped to a 1-10 finish. At 3-3, Robinson's ballclub still has an outside chance at becoming bowl eligible. To take the next step, though, the Orange must continue to get solid play from quarterback Perry Patterson. The senior signal-caller was 20-29 against the Panthers on Saturday, and has improved immensely from last season. His two interceptions place him in a tie for third-fewest in the nation.

"Last week he was 20-29 and he had three legitimately dropped balls," noted Robinson, who came to Syracuse after spending a year as defensive coordinator at Texas. "Going 23-29 is a nice number. He rushed for 40 yards. When I see him functioning like that, I think it's a good thing. "I think we're catching the ball better," Robinson continued as he assessed his offense. "The running game has at times been well, but last week with penalties and sacks we put ourselves behind the eight ball. When you get a sack on first down, your running game dries up. It's better, though, and it's improving. I think we've got a lot of room to grow and develop. We're a work in progress, and I look forward to watching us. If everybody else develops as well as Perry has, we'll be a darn good offense."

As Robinson mentioned, the Orange have had some problems with shooting themselves in the foot. The alma mater of Jim Brown and Donovan McNabb has had at least seven penalties in every game except one (the season opener against Wake Forest.) To beat a team like West Virginia, that must be corrected. From listening to Robinson, one could gather that it's simply a matter of technique.

"I would say that the biggest penalty that has jumped out at us is holding," he said. "There was a personal foul a few weeks ago that I wasn't happy with. Holding has been the issue, and it's been one that I've had to address."

While that may sound simple to correct, the fact that it has been going on for five weeks does not bode well for the Orange. For a team that is still settling into the West Coast offense, penalties can be a huge disruption.

"It hurt our rhythm. You're moving the ball and then you get a holding call and it's second and 20, or first and 20. We found a way a time or two to convert, but all in all the odds are not in your favor, and we've got to find a way to correct that," Robinson said.

"We're still in a bit of a transition state. What I mean by that is our offensive line is still learning how to pass protect. We have a young offensive line, but at the same time it's getting better."

While some Mountaineer fans have complained day and night about West Virginia's defense, Robinson (he of the NFL defensive pedigree) is impressed with the talent of Jeff Casteel's troops.

"They're a good defense," Robinson said. "They play the run very well. In the Mississippi State game there might have been a little bit here and a little bit there, but I think they've played very well. I think a lot of people were expecting to see a falloff because of the players that left last year's team, but I see them playing very well."

With regards to his own defense, the Orange are second in the nation when it comes to sacking the quarterback. On the season, Robinson's defense (he also serves as defensive coordinator) has registered 26 sacks. Leading the way is defensive end Jameel McClain, who is tied for fourth in Division I-A with seven sacks. Getting pressure on the quarterback is, without question, the strength of Robinson's defense.

This week, however, getting sacks will not be at the top of Syracuse's "To-Do" list. The reason is the running ability of West Virginia quarterback Patrick White.

"The priority isn't sacks this week. On a 1-10 scale it isn't very high," admitted Robinson, who won two Super Bowls as defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos from 1995-2000. "We want to sack the quarterback, but there are so many things to consider before you even think about the pass rush. Their offense reminds me of playing against the wishbone where they challenge you to the nth degree. If it happens, great, but the mobility of White poses certain problems. We've got to deal with those."

Also posing a stiff challenge to the Orange 'D' is Mountaineer running back Steve Slaton. The sophomore, who did not carry the ball in West Virginia's 15-7 victory last September, is a legitimate contender for the Doak Walker Award.

"He's a fine back, obviously," Robinson says of the 2005 Big East Rookie of the Year. "He just keeps doing it. He doesn't have to be at home to chunk up the yardage, either, because I've seen him do it on the road a number of times. He's just excellent. Their offense is a fine, fine offense."

The Orange have a talented sophomore of their own who is very familiar with Mountaineer Field. Kicker Patrick Shadle, a 2005 Morgantown High School graduate, has been nearly perfect on field goals this season. Shadle is 9-10, with a long of 46 yards. He'll be back on familiar turf as he used to take part in the annual MoHawk Bowl between Morgantown and University High School at Mountaineer Field.

The former Mohigan has left a good impression on his head coach, beginning with the off-season.

"He's doing a really good job. I mentioned before that he had a great off-season. He really, really worked hard and got himself in great condition," said Robinson, who in addition to his defensive background spent the 1989 season as the offensive coordinator for UCLA team which won the Cotton Bowl.

"I think he's more balanced now. He's been very consistent for us and I expect he's very excited about coming home. I'd like to believe that he's very excited about kicking extra points as opposed to field goals. He's done a nice job, he's a great young man, and I look forward to watching his progress."

There's a lot on the line Saturday afternoon, and not just the Floyd "Ben" Schwartzwalder Trophy awarded annually to the winner of the game. Robinson's troops are trying to take a gigantic step in their return to prominence. The Mountaineers are looking to defend their home turf, and beat Syracuse a fifth straight time.

"I really think that our players are going to be fired up about going down there. When Syracuse and West Virginia play, it's always an intense game. It doesn't appear to be any different this week."

The Orange are hoping for a different outcome than they've been accustomed to over the past four years.


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