NEW YORK - West Virginia players and coaches remember well the difficult time they had defending Syracuse during last year’s 49-23 loss to the Orange up in the Carrier Dome.
Quarterback Ryan Nassib passed for 229 yards and four touchdowns, three of those going to tight end Nick Provo, as the Orange turned a competitive game early in the third quarter into a rout. Three consecutive Nassib touchdown passes, including a pair to Provo, gave the Orange a commanding 42-16 lead with 11 minutes left in the game.
West Virginia’s defensive coaches are no longer around, and the Mountaineers are using a new scheme this year, but that doesn’t mean defensive coordinator Keith Patterson is not familiar with the Orange.
Last year, Patterson’s Pitt defense created six Syracuse turnovers in a 33-20 Panther victory. One of those turnovers, a late Antwuan Reed 20-yard fumble return for a touchdown, turned out to be the deciding play of the game.
And Provo, who burned West Virginia with six catches for 61 yards and three touchdowns, could only manage five catches for 37 yards against Patterson’s Panther defense. Provo is now gone, but as long as Coach Doug Marrone is around Syracuse will utilize a tight end in its passing game. This year that guy is junior Beckett Wales, who shows 32 catches for 350 yards and a touchdown.
Earlier this week, Patterson recalled studying last year’s West Virginia-Syracuse tape very closely when he was at Pitt.
“I don’t ever question what someone’s doing just from the fact that I don’t know what the scheme was or what that team had done up to that particular point in the season, but (Provo) did have a big day,” Patterson said. “He was a great player. I tell you what it did for me it changed my game plan when we played them a few weeks later.”
Patterson’s game plan on Saturday against Syracuse is obvious – try and figure out a way to disrupt the Orange’s precision offensive attack.
Through the first six games of the season (when the games were a little tougher), Syracuse had a 2-4 record and was averaging just 22.8 points and 127.5 yards per game rushing.
In their last six games, the Orange averaged 35.8 points and 501.3 total yards per game, including an impressive 216.2 yards per outing on the ground. Syracuse has also reduced the number of turnovers it committed from 15 in its first six games to just five over its remaining six.
“They move the chains,” said Patterson. “They are very effective at doing that by running the football, and once they get the run going, they play action pass off of that. They pick and choose when they do take their shots.”
Nassib threw for more than 300 yards in three of Syracuse’s first six games (two of those losses to Northwestern and USC), but it was the consistent running of Jerome Smith and Prince Tyson-Gulley over the remaining six games that has made the Orange offense so difficult to contain. Smith had four straight 100-yard games against Rutgers, Connecticut, USF and Cincinnati, while Tyson-Gulley had at least 53 yards in each of Syracuse’s five remaining games (four of those victories). In the regular season finale against Temple, Smith managed 96 yards while Tyson-Gulley contributed 83 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
“They are very balanced,” said Patterson. “You look at them all the way through and they are 50-50 run –pass in almost every (personnel) grouping, so they are a very balanced football team.”
Syracuse ranks 11th among all NCAA teams with six 500-plus-yard games (compared to West Virginia’s five), but only show nine plays of 40 yards or longer from scrimmage, which means a lot of manageable third-down situations for the Orange.
“We have to create long yardage situations for them and when you can make a team one-dimensional with a team that is so balanced who can run the football, who can throw the ball as effectively as what they’ve done over the course of a season, we’re going to have to be very creative with being able to get them in long yardage situations and try and get off the field on third down,” Patterson explained.
Syracuse is also a fast tempo team, but considering what West Virginia has faced in the Big 12 this year, the Mountaineers should be able to handle Syracuse’s frenetic offensive pace.
“If you go faster than what we’ve seen with Baylor and our own offense, and Oklahoma and some of the tempo teams in the Big 12, it may be illegal,” Patterson joked. “This is what our whole system is designed for is up-tempo offenses and getting lined up. If they want to go fast then get the call in fast.”
Overall, West Virginia’s defense has played much better in its last two games of the year against Iowa State and Kansas. In the Mountaineers’ most recent outing against the Jayhawks, West Virginia limited Kansas to just 274 total yards, including 117 through the air, in a 59-10 WVU victory. Kansas was only able to muster 13 first downs for the afternoon.
“I think the last two games helped,” said Patterson. “I think they started playing better. To win the last two games does a lot for your confidence. The time off has been good for our kids just from a mental standpoint.
“What people forget in a course of a 12-game season that kids are going to class so you have the academic stress, you’ve got the strain of a new and challenge season where we found out that every single game is a challenge in the Big 12 – play after play you have to play your very best each and every week so it becomes a mental grind. I think the break has done our guys good,” Patterson said. “They seem to be very refreshed going back to see their family and then the excitement of coming to New York to face a quality opponent in a bowl game is good.”
Patterson’s Pitt defense was able to contain the Orange last year. Mountaineer fans are hoping something similar occurs on Saturday afternoon.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.