MATCHUPS AND STORYLINES
With the Orange ground game struggling, Williams and Smith have become the playmakers of the Syracuse offense. Averaging 16.2 and 18 yards per catch, respectively, the duo account for more than 44% of the Cuse's total offensive production.
After facing offenses that don't go downfield with the ball much (you can discount Matt Groethe's bomb in the USF game, which any high school quarterback could have completed), the Mountaineers will have to be more conscious of the deep pass against the Orange. While it doesn't exactly fit the profile of the West Coast offense, Syracuse is averaging 14.5 yards per completion, and isn't afraid to test the waters downfield. Granted, some of Williams' and Smith's long plays have resulted from runs after the catch, but that doesn't mean they don't have the ability to get deep against opposing coverage. They are solid, all-around receivers that can catch any type of ball, and can turn a missed tackle or assignment into a big gain.
West Virginia will need to mix up its coverages against the Orange and keep the pair from getting comfortable and finding consistent open spots against the zone, or breaking free from man-to-man looks. Of course, pressure on the quarterback also comes into play in this area, so success or failure can't be put on the back three defenders alone. Still, solid execution of the coverages, and good communication among the corners and free safety, will be vital is West Virginia is to slow SU's best pair of offensive players.
WVU kickoff team vs. SU kick returner Max Suter
Suter, averaging 27.9 yards per kick, is likely looking to add to his totals against an inconsistent West Virginia coverage unit.
Often, returners can get caught up looking at the coverage, and fail to make a quick decision. Once they do so, they sometimes don't seem to have fully committed to the path they have chosen, and thus don't appear to have the burst necessary to take advantage of a seam in the defense. Suter does, and rarely wastes time running horizontally or dancing in place. He gets maximum yardage out of every return, and thus is a dangerous force for the Orange.
West Virginia's kickoff coverage has been a mixed bag. At times, the Mountaineers have covered well, but a number of self-inflicted wounds (the most notable being a two-player collision against Marshall that opened the right side of the coverage unit for a long return) have allowed foes to set up in good field position on several occasions.
WVU must maintain better discipline in its coverage lanes, and must also work harder at getting off blocks to make tackles. There's no reason that a return team should be able to hold blocks for five or six seconds, but that has happened on more than one occasion this year. Ditto for the wedgebusters, who can't be happy with just taking out a blocker, but must also get back into the play and make a tackle every once in a while.
Several times, it has been the last available defender that has made the tackle on kickoffs, and when that happens, the return team has certainly won the battle. As good as kicker Pat McAfee is in running down opposing return men, its not something West Virginia wants to see on a consistent basis.
THINGS TO WATCH
Will Syracuse try to establish its running game, which has sputtered like Mr. Haney's truck in Green Acres, or will it go to the pass early to attack what is perceived to be the weaker section of the Mountaineer defense? Of course, WVU's defensive play the past two weeks has ranged from very good to excellent, so it just may be that the Orange don't have the tools to consistently dent the West Virginia stop troops. However, it will be interesting to see which path the Orange takes first.
SU head coach Greg Robinson was testy in answering questions about the running game this week, but it probably shouldn't have been a surprise to him, seeing as his team averages a paltry 1.3 yards rushing per contest. And despite deficits in every game except the Louisville win, Syracuse has maintained an almost even balance between the run and the pass, attempting 11 more runs than aerials through five games.
Robinson, like most coaches, knows that in order to control the game, you have to be able to run it. There are exceptions to that rule, but for the most part teams that can run the rock are going to win more games than they lose. With the odds stacked against him in this contest, the question is, will he stick to his desire to build a running game, or open it up in Louisville-like fashion?
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First it was stealing signals. Now it's concern over snaps. Did West Virginia fall into a predictable pattern with its silent snap count against South Florida, thus allowing the Bull defensive line to get the jump in some instances? Head coach Rich Rodriguez downplayed any such connection, but the concern lingers for some. And it's an easy thing to check out.
Watch when West Virginia readies itself for the snap. After the QB indicates he is ready, is the amount of time before the ball is snapped the same? Or does it vary? Are there any tipoffs from the line that the snap is imminent? These are all things that aren't apparent to casual observers of the game, but the sharp-eyed and thorough watchers believe that was the case at some points against the Bulls.
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While many will be looking to gauge West Virginia's psyche in this bounceback game after a loss, it may be Syracuse's mental state that bears more watching. The Orange's win over Louisville could have been the springboard that SU needed to advance its rebuilding effort, but the lackluster 17-14 loss to Miami (Oh) a week later put it right back in the doldrums. With another tough game against Rutgers looming next week, a seventh consecutive beatdown by the Mountaineers could send the Orange into a tailspin, not to mention fan the flames higher under Robinson's seat. Will Syracuse come out with the fire it showed against Louisville? Or was that just the result of playing against a defense that has been scorched more often than a new bride's frying pan?