Preview: WVU - Syracuse

A second road test in three games opens Big East play for West Virginia.

BlueGoldNews.com Game Scorecard
Sat 10/10/09 12:00 PM

Syracuse, NY

Carrier Dome
Record: 3-1
BCS: NR
Last Game
Colorado W 35-24
TV: Big East Network
Radio: MSN
Web: BlueGoldNews.com
Record: 2-3
BCS: NA
Last Game
USF L 34-20
Rosters/ Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2009 Schedule

Series: SU 30-26
First Meeting: 1945
Last Meeting: 2008
Rosters/Bios
Press Release
Season Stats
2009 Schedule

Click for Syracuse, New York Forecast


INJURIES

WVU – Tyler Rader (Knee) Out, Scooter Berry (Shoulder) Probable.

Syracuse – S Dorian Graham (Shoulder) Out For Season, TE Nick Provo (Knee) Out, TE Cody Catalina (Undisclosed) Out, LB E.J. Carter (Violation of team rules) Out, DE Brandon Sharpe (Undisclosed) Probable, S Phillip Thomas (Knee) Probable.


GAME OUTLOOK

WVU Offense vs. Syracuse defense

Syracuse has been stout against the run this season, allowing 91.4 net yards per game (2.9 per rush) and five scores in as many outings. Those are solid numbers considering the Orange defensive units were routinely ripped on the ground over the last four years. But a change in staff – new head coach Doug Marrone hired Michigan's Scott Shafer after, coincidentally, former SU head coach Greg Robinson was fired and remerged at Michigan as an assistant – has helped reinvigorate the entire team. The 91.4-yard average ranks 15th in the NCAA FBS, and has helped Syracuse get off the field effectively on third down. Those two spearheads have been the key to decent defensive performances, which certainly would be better if the Orange could contain the passing game. Foes have averaged almost 300 yards per game and 13 yards per catch for 91 of SU's 143 points allowed. Quarterbacks have completed 112 of 172 passing attempts, and the 13-to-five ratio of touchdowns allowed to interceptions isn't balanced enough to begin to bring down a four-score average.

That will likely be the area which West Virginia initially prods to see how Syracuse responds. The Mountaineers registered an effective run-pass ratio – an aspect which changes by game – against Colorado, scoring off big plays by running and passing and at one point running on 10 of 12 plays to run the clock and break the Buffs defensive will. Shafer is certain to stack his defense, pending situation, toward stopping the run first to try to force third-and-long setups. Opponents are nine of 45 on third downs (20 percent), a number that if duplicated Saturday will likely mean a close game if WVU doesn't hit big plays. The idea will be to make West Virginia methodically drive down the field and repeatedly convert in high-pressure situations. A key is middle linebacker Derrell Smith. The senior leads the team in tackles, tackles for loss and sacks, and is adept at both cleaning up in the run game and creating pressure in passing downs. A problem for the Orange is the suspension of weakside linebacker E.J. Carter for this game. The freshman will cause some shuffling in the line-up. Junior Ryan Gillum will get the start with junior Doug Hogue manning the strongside slot. That takes away from of the speed of the linebackers, which could be significant against Noel Devine. Gillum has experience, having started one game this year and played in three. Three of his eight tackles have been for loss. Hogue ranks third on the team with 31 tackles. He also has a pick.

The three will need excellent gap discipline and to be freed up by a front four that includes three senior starters and four upperclassmen and one junior in its two deep. That time in program doesn't, of course, directly correlate to quality play, but it appears the unit is working better together than in past seasons. Tackles Arthur Jones (6-4, 293 lbs.) and Andrew Lewis (6-3, 273 lbs.) are sizeable and have combined for 4.5 tackles for loss. They are primarily used, per the norm, to occupy blockers, but have enough athleticism and power to push lines back and create disruption. Ends Mikhail Marinovich and Jared Kimmel are actually less productive within the pass rush, but have amassed multiple pass break-ups and a handful of hurries. It's the interior play that should most concern the Mountaineers here.

The disappointing showing thus far by the secondary is surprising with strong safety Max Suter and free safety Mike Holmes. Both are talented players with a plethora of game experience and knowhow. Corner Niko Scott is fifth on the team in tackles – and Suter and Holmes are second and third, respectively, indicating the Orange are allowing openings down the field in the 4-3 set. Three of the four reserves are freshmen, so there isn't much else to turn to for Shafer. In trying to avoid the big play and bottle the run, SU is giving decent cushions, which account for a portion of the tackles made. But when the last line of defense has almost 70 tackles in five games, a bigger problem is indicative. Wideouts are getting open in varying spots, and yardage and scores are being surrendered. If WVU's running game can get going at all and not allow Syracuse to concentrate further on the pass game, big play chances should present themselves. This is a match-up the Mountaineers should win as long as they execute – and don't execute themselves with turnovers for a fourth consecutive game.

By The Numbers
West Virginia Syracuse
Scoring Offense 33.2 ppg Scoring Defense 28.6 ppg
Rushing Offense 208.5 ypg Rushing Defense 91.4 ypg
Passing Offense 256.8 ypg Passing Defense 290 ypg

Advantage: West Virginia


WVU Defense vs. Syracuse Offense

The Mountaineers have allowed almost 250 yards per game in the air, and haven't been able to adequately limit out/hairpin routes in scoring situations or slow crossing routes across the face of the defense. That has been a problem since the inception of the odd stack, though at times it has been less noticeable. Syracuse, like Colorado lacking a quarterback with a major arm, has kept the passing game short and given first-year starter Greg Paulus – who is listed as Gr., meaning grad student – safe patterns with which to work. If Paulus gets time, it could result in the Mountaineers having difficulty getting off the field on third downs and, as a result, allow the SU offense to keep its counterparts off the field. They key in this one is the line play on both sides. The return of Scooter Berry should help, as will matching up against a line that, while solid, hasn't done anything spectacularly. If WVU can bring pressure, Paulus has shown he'll wilt and force mistakes in a collapsing pocket. The best pressure possibilities will likely come from the outside, as center Jim McKenzie and guards Ryan Bartholomew and Tucker Baumbach are seniors. The interior play has been decent, with Paulus rarely getting flushed to the outside. Tackles Nick Speller (left) and Jonathan Meldrum seem more susceptible, with Speller, a sophomore, protecting Paulus' blindside.

The blitz must get home quick, however, as new offensive coordinator Rob Spence works the short game. SU's lone deep threat is Mike Williams, who is averaging 124 yards receiving per game and has the speed and athleticism to challenge West Virginia deep. No other receiver, however, is averaging more than 27 yards per game. The Orange have spread the catches around outside of Williams, but even so those numbers are surprising. Spence will have to figure out how to work a few more solid chances in for the wideouts, as two of the top three Orange tight ends are out. That should help WVU in defending down the seams, another area where it has been hurt in the past. Those ends, at times set in double formations, are significant in the running game as well, and how the reserves perform could be key for back Delone Carter.

The senior, a major talent who has often missed time because of injuries, is averaging 65 yards per game. His five rushing touchdowns lead the team, but his longest run of the year is just 16 yards. This isn't truly a pass-first team, as it shows 156 rushes against 166 passes, but it's productivity (56 first downs passing, 29 first downs rushing) skews heavily toward the pass. Paulus, 103-of-160 with eight touchdowns against nine interceptions, has forced some throws, especially early, but has settled some when not pressed. He slides in the pocket well, but won't win games running the ball. He can scramble to gain time, and his arm strength on the run is above average. At 6-1, he has decent height, and his leadership skills are this far unquestioned. With a pass efficiency rating of 130, if Paulus can limit his forced throws and, as a corollary, his interceptions, those numbers will skyrocket. Keep an eye on halftime adjustments, as Syracuse has been whipped 37-17 in the period. The Orange, in the middle two quarters, have almost been doubled up in scoring at 99-50.

By The Numbers
West Virginia Syracuse
Scoring Defense 26.2 ppg Scoring Offense 25 ppg
Rushing Defense 87.8 ypg Rushing Offense 94 ypg
Passing Defense 244.2 ypg Passing Offense 237.4 ypg

Advantage: Even


WVU Special Teams vs. Syracuse Special Teams

This is the most even special teams match-up, both of this season so far and against Syracuse in recent years. Placekicker Ryan Lictenstein, like West Virginia's Tyler Bitancurt, is a freshman who has impressed early. Lichtenstein has converted nine of 10 tries, including four of 40-plus yards with a long of 43. He has a solid, not spectacular, leg, though kicking in the Carrier Dome gives him a bit more range than he normally has. WVU's Bitancurt is five-of-five with a long of 45, but how he responds to a controlled but foreign environment is an unknown. Punters Rob Long and Scott Kozlowski are near the opposite end of the eligibility spectrum as a junior and senior, respectively. Long averages 43.2 yards per kick, with a long of 59. He has amassed almost 1,000 yards in punts this year with six of 50-plus yards on 23 chances. Perhaps more impressive, eight of those have been downed inside the 20-yard line. Kozlowski has been impressive as well, at a 48.2-yard average and a long of 63 and five of 12 kicks carrying 50-plus yards. The nod here will go to the unit that covers downfield and can breakdown and limit the return games.

Both teams also have skill in the return games, with SU's Mike Jones and West Virginia's Mark Rodgers and Noel Devine. Jones hits for about 25 yards per return with a long of 73. He will challenge the Mountaineer kick coverage unit, which appeared to shore up a bit against Auburn only to regress a bit against Colorado. Lane discipline and wedge destruction will be huge in this area, as will be the base desire to wrap and take to the deck. Rodgers (24.2 average) can hurt foes as well, but doesn't have the explosion of Jones. Donte Davis is the Syracuse punt returner. He hasn't done much at 5.6 yards per pop on five tries. But he also hasn't fumbled. Not making a big mistake is more imperative here than trying to make a big play. WVU must match the Orange execution in this game to keep special teams from losing the Big East opener. This is a deadlock. Which team will blink?

By The Numbers
West Virginia Syracuse
Net Punting 39.2 yards Net Punting 37.6 yards per punt
KO Returns 21.1 yards per return KO Returns 23.4 yards per return
Punt Returns 9.8 yards per return Punt Returns 5.7 yards per return

Advantage: Even


PICKS TO CLICK

On Offense: Eric Jobe.

On Defense: Brandon Hogan.


PREDICTION

The more potent offense here belongs to the road team, with much else being equal. The Mountaineers, winners of a school record three straight in the Carrier Dome, have better balance and big play ability than does Syracuse. But the Orange, via a few wins and playing competitively, have restored some of the intimidation into the Dome. If the ‘Cuse can avoid interceptions and get some help on special teams, it could pull a double-digit upset. It again seems, however, that it will take the Mountaineers to beat the Mountaineers. Look for a bit more conservation within the play calls from WVU offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, especially if his squad can establish a large early lead or a solid edge later in the third quarter. If the West Virginia backfield plays well on both sides, a fourth win in the Dome is imminent.

WVU – 31 Syracuse - 20


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