The timing of penalties were still an issue, with Charles Pugh getting flagged on special teams for the nth time in his career and center Dan Mozes seemingly forcing WVU out of field goal range right before the half with a personal foul after the play – and 20 yards behind the new line of scrimmage. And West Virginia still failed get off the field in key situations with the game on the line, though the play differential was narrowed because of Syracuse's own follies, including a complete inability to stop the run and three dropped passes, one of which would have went for a score.
In short, everything WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez said would be fixed simply was not of yet. There are clearly problems in the secondary, which is allowing foes to run free and convert third downs at a Big East-worse 35 of 82 clip (42.7 percent). Syracuse (3-4, 0-2), with an offense that had averaged just 16.5 points against four BCS foes, carved up West Virginia early for 126 yards and two scores before the break, in the process converting six of 14 third downs during the contest.
"We gave up a couple big plays," Rodriguez said. "We had them where we wanted to have them and we have to finish the drive off. Our third down defense has to be better. And it was in the second half. Offensively we felt comfortable, we just did not have the ball much. When you run for that may yards, you should win the game."
The game itself was essentially sealed when White broke open for his second score of the game, a 40-yarder in which he was untouched that capped a five-play, 88-yard push that came mostly on the ground and upped WVU's lead to 24-14 early in the third quarter. The Mountaineers went over 300 yards rushing on the drive and established itself as clearly the better side.
"The hole was there and I was hitting it," said White of a counter play that WVU had run just once before this season before scoring three times on it today. "They were worried about Schmitty and Slaton. We have not run that play much, so it was something new for them and it worked."
There is no question West Virginia can run. It went over 400 yards rushing with more than 13 minutes left in the game on an eight-yard Slaton carry. That's a statement – even against Syracuse, a team which WVU has now beaten a record five consecutive times. The Mountaineers have weapons that are untouchable at times out of the backfield, as shown by White's scoring runs of 69, 40, 32 and 12 yards, the last of which broke his own personal and Big East record of 220 yards set against Pitt in a 45-13 win last season.
But the early play was troubling, especially when Syracuse moved the ball well on its first possession to take a 7-0 lead on a 47-yard pass from quarterback Perry Patterson to wideout Mike Williams to put WVU behind for the first time in literally a year, the last time it trailed being Oct. 15, 2005 when it was behind Louisville in the second overtime before rallying to win 46-44 in three overtimes, a span of 10 games. And it was the way in which the Orange struck first: Via WVU's main defensive handicap – third down defense. Syracuse converted a third and seven and third and nine before Patterson scrambled and found Williams behind the Mountaineer secondary for the touchdown pass on third and 11 to cap its second-longest drive of the year. The reception was the longest of Williams' career and helped him set a career-high for reception yardage in the first half alone with 99, though he did not catch a pass in the second half.
"I think our kids started out the first couple possessions and little jittery," defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "They wanted to play so well that at times that may have hurt them. I think guys wanted to play a perfect game. We had two breakdowns in scramble situations that led to the two scores that we did not handle real well. Sometimes guys complete a route. They have guys on scholarship, too, and we are not going to go out and stone everybody on third and seven and nine."
Perhaps not. But stoning them and getting solid stops with the game in doubt is vastly different. West Virginia allowed SU to convert its first four third downs, none shorter than seven yards. The third third down conversion went for the score to Williams.
"I talked to our defense about paying aggressively and not setting back and being passive or whatever," Rodriguez said. "I don't know if that sent the wrong message. I trust our defense. The most disappointing part of today without even looking at the film was tackling. It didn't look like we tackled well. You have to give their backs and quarterbacks credit. But we had chances to get off the field and we didn't tackle well and we didn't get off blocks well."
West Virginia answered in four plays when White broke two tackles and ran 69 yards for his second-longest career scoring run (76 yards against South Florida last season) to tie the game at 7-7 with 6:49 remaining in the first quarter. It was the eighth consecutive game in which WVU has scored a touchdown on its opening drive dating, ironically, to USF last year.
Slaton's third career 52-yard touchdown run following Pat McAfee's 25-yard field goal extended the Mountaineer lead to 17-7 with 7:29 left in the first half. The right side breakaway tied his career-long run and was his 25th career rushing score, moving him into fourth place at WVU. The four-play, 83-yard drive was West Virginia's second four-play drive of the half. The two combined scoring drives took just 3:10. McAfee's kick marked just the sixth time in 27 red zone chances that the Mountaineers failed to score a touchdown.
But Syracuse was again able to answer, this time on nine plays when Patterson's three-yard naked bootleg keeper. The senior signalcaller, who finished nine of 21 for 146 yards, faked the plunge to leading SU rusher Delone Carter (58 yards on 13 carries), then sprinted left, where he combined a fake with power to run over and past safety Eric Wicks and pull the Orange within 17-14. A key play was a 30-yard completion to Williams on second and seven from the West Virginia 46-yard line. The three-point edge held until the half, a tally much closer then anticipated.
This West Virginia defense certainly isn't poor. It recorded five sacks, giving it 11 in the last two games, and 11 for the season. It plays with great speed and effort and stops the run very effectively – Syracuse was held to 81 rushing yards on 35 carries and just 227 total plays on 57 snaps – which certainly sets up great third down chances. It just must convert those better.
"The first half, I would say we get a C because of the two long plays on passes," free safety Quinton Andrews said. "The second half I'd say a B-minus. They made some plays but we kept their offensive line very rattled with our blitzes and they kept jumping offsides. We basically made plays before they started and it helped us out."
Meanwhile, White and the offense continued to showcase their lethalness, totaling 562 yards on 65 plays, an average of 8.6 per snap. It built the 17-14 halftime lead to a 41-14 palindrome of an edge with White runs of 40, 32 and 12 yards and McAfee's 32-yard field goal. It solidified its Big East leading 328.3 yards per game average in handling an SU squad that was last in total defense, allowing 384.6 yards per game and 16 touchdowns entering. That ballooned to an even 410 and 21, respectively, after the game.
All of that means a feel-good Homecoming for the 60,051 who attended. But there are problems remaining. And there is one game left before Louisville. Let's see if WVU can use it, and perform – correctly – for an entire game.