Remember the days when West Virginia's annual showdown with Syracuse struck fear in the hearts of Mountaineer fans far and wide? Needless to say, those days are long gone, and have been for some time.
More specifically, ever since Greg Robinson took over the Syracuse program prior to the 2005 season, the Orange have simply not been competitive in any way, shape or form when it comes to the Big East gridiron. Now in his fourth season leading the Orange, Robinson is just 2-20 in Big East Conference play, far and away the worst mark for a conference team over that period of time.
Robinson has been under fire more than ever in 2008. The Orange's 1-4 start includes a two-touchdown defeat at home to MAC bottom-dweller Akron, a 55-13 drubbing at the hands of Penn State in front of dozens of SU legends on hand for the world premiere of "The Express", and a narrow, one-point win over I-AA foe Northeastern.
Unfortunately for Robinson and his team, the forecast for the rest of the season is cloudy, at best. Next up this weekend is West Virginia, which defeated SU 55-14 in last year's meeting at the Carrier Dome. While the Mountaineers have lost plenty of offensive production from that team and have struggled to score at times in 2008, Robinson is still wary of the playmaking prowess possessed by WVU.
"I think I probably have the same impressions that a lot of people have," he said this week. "There is a lot of skill on that field and it starts at the quarterback position (with starter Patrick White). Even in that case, they've added some nice depth. Not that Jarrett Brown hasn't played before, but he's more functional now than he's ever been. They have a corps of receivers that are playmaker-type people. When they get their hands on the ball, they know what to do with it."
The key for the Orange if they are to have a chance at notching their first win in Morgantown since the 2000 season will be containing the potent West Virginia rushing attack, spearheaded by the efforts of White and sophomore tailback Noel Devine. Looking at the film, Robinson has been impressed by the collaborative way in which the Mountaineers churn out their rushing yards, no matter who is carrying the ball.
"The running back situation with Devine and bringing Jock Sanders back in there, they are explosive," he said. "I don't think there is any other way to put it. Their offensive line, I have been impressed with what they're doing up there. These guys have a lot of experience in the line."
In recent wins over Marshall and Rutgers, West Virginia has added a unique element to the running game that utilizes backup quarterback Jarrett Brown and his 6-4, 220-pound battering ram of a body in short-yardage situations. Preparing for one running threat from the quarterback position such as White is enough trouble for any team, let alone the Orange. Prepping for two? That's enough to give any defensive-oriented coach such as Robinson a host of headaches.
"I think he's a bigger, physical type player," Robinson said of Brown. "He's not nearly as fast as Pat White, but he is a big back that can fall forward and make yards. He gets out there on the perimeter some and goes. Plus, he's a good passer. He sees the receivers and he can get them the ball. He is an accurate thrower."
Aside from the running game, the Mountaineers have shown signs of a living, breathing passing attack at times this season as well. Though West Virginia has not thrown the ball nearly as much in its past four games as it did in the season-opening win over Villanova, the threat is certainly still there.
"They have the ability to throw the football," said the former defensive coordinator for the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. "They came out of the blocks against Villanova showing that they can throw the football. Now, you look at these quarterbacks and they are both over 70 percent on completions. Pat White has thrown (nine) touchdowns and not a lot of interceptions. They've worked hard at it and I think they get it to a number of those guys and try to do something with it.
"Obviously, it's a group with the ability to make a play on any given play," Robinson concluded. "So you are kind of having to hold your breath a little bit and just do everything you can to minimize."