Once again, the Mountaineers didn't look much like a team that is quite ready to defend its Big East title. For the second straight week, however, they found a way to win, thanks to another strong effort from the West Virginia defense and some late-game heroics by sophomore tailback Noel Devine.
Devine rushed 18 times for 188 yards and a win-preserving 92-yard touchdown run as the Mountaineers defeated Big East doormat Syracuse by a final of 17-6. It was West Virginia's seventh straight win over the Orange, an all-time high for the 56-game series.
The Mountaineers (4-2, 2-0) were without the services of standout quarterback Patrick White, still recovering from a head injury sustained in last week's win over Rutgers. Head coach Bill Stewart reiterated throughout the week leading up to the Syracuse game that White would play against the Orange, but come kickoff, No. 5 was in street clothes. Stewart gave a lengthy explanation after the game not only for White's absence, but for his emphatic words throughout the week regarding the senior's status for Saturday's game.
"I always want to be honest with you (the media) because without you we have no football and we have no sports," Stewart said. "As of Thursday I thought he was going to start for us. He practiced Tuesday and his head began to hurt.
"I have been coaching him for (five) years so I looked at him and something didn't seem right," continued Stewart. "(Head trainer) David Kerns and our excellent medical staff saw the same thing. I know Pat wanted to play in the game and he was very disappointed that we didn't let him in."
Junior backup Jarrett Brown made his second career start, and struggled statistically, but improved his record to 2-0 as a starter. Brown completed 14-20 attempts, but registered only 52 yards passing on the afternoon. West Virginia averaged just 3.7 yards per completion.
With the game plan changing to revolve around Brown and his rocket right arm, the Mountaineers took a pair shots downfield on the first drive, but Brown overshot his intended receivers by several yards on both attempts. The junior calmed down slightly for the rest of the game, but never seemed to get into a suitable rhythm from the pocket.
"Those first two plays were going to the house, and he just couldn't get into rhythm," Stewart said. "He could not get into a rhythm."
Many of West Virginia's pass attempts were of the horizontal variety, even more-so than usual. The longest completion of the day was Jock Sanders's 12-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter, which gave the Mountaineers a 7-3 lead over the Orange.
Throughout the game, many of the 58,133 in attendance voiced their frustration not so much with Brown, but with the conservative offensive playcalling of the Mountaineer coaching staff.
"Fans are going to do that, but they're just fans. That's why they're in the stands," Devine said. "We just have to stay focused and do what we have to do. They're not on the field, they aren't players or coaches. We see things that they don't."
For most of the afternoon, the only thing visible to anyone in attendance – fans, players, coaches, media – was a game that was much closer than expected. The Orange, losers of 20 of their previous 22 Big East games under fourth-year head coach Greg Robinson, had not won in Morgantown since November of 2000. Robinson has been under fire for much of the past two seasons, with many both in Syracuse and around college football feeling that his firing is a question of when, not if.
Still, the Orange managed to hang around for much of the game on the heels of a solid defensive effort led by linebacker Derrell Smith (eight tackles and 3.5 TFL) and an ability to move the chains and control possession of the ball. Senior quarterback Cameron Dantley, the son of NBA Hall of Famer Adrien Dantley, was 24-40 for 204 yards. Tailback Curtis Brinkley turned in his fourth 100-yard effort of the season, netting 144 yards on 28 carries.
Despite the positive play on both sides of the ball, the Orange were unable to get into the end zone. Senior kicker Patrick Shadle, a Morgantown native, scored the only Syracuse points of the afternoon with a pair of field goals. Shadle's 53-yard make in the second quarter was the longest in Milan Puskar Stadium history.
"We have got to get touchdowns," the embattled Robinson said in his postgame remarks. "We talked about that. That was one of our goals – touchdowns, not field goals.
"I thought our guys played well," Robinson continued. "They played well today. For the most part, I was very impressed with our tackling today. Those guys – (Devine and Sanders) have made a whole lot of people miss…I just thought that we really got to the ball and tackled. I just wish we would have got some turnovers."
The game's lone turnover was a third-quarter interception by West Virginia's Nate Sowers. The play halted what could have been a go-ahead scoring drive for the Orange, who trailed 7-6 at the time and had already moved the ball into West Virginia territory.
After the Mountaineers went three and out on their ensuing drive, they were able to hold the Orange (1-5,0-2) on fourth down near midfield when defensive lineman Julian Miller batted down Dantley's attempted pass.
West Virginia's defense would make one last key stand late in the game leading 10-6. Syracuse held the ball inside the WVU 10, but Dantley's fourth-down pass attempt was broken up by linebacker Anthony Leonard.
Three plays later, Devine's 92-yard jaunt – thanks in no small part to an excellent block by fullback Will Johnson, put the game on ice for West Virginia.
"We really needed to stop one more play," Robinson shrugged. "It's really unfortunate. We really shorted ourself. It was that simple. We should have stopped that play."
"All I can do is press it to the outside, make everybody pursue to the outside, and then cut it back in," Devine said of the run. "They don't want to let me all the way to the outside. When they take my outside away, I just have to bang it."
Devine did just that, moving the Mountaineers to 2-0 in Big East play with 12 days to prepare for SEC foe Auburn.