Orange Ground Game Sinks Mountaineers

  • By John Antonik
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  • December 31, 2012 08:27 PM
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West Virginia’s offensive and defensive coaches will have plenty of time to evaluate the tape to determine exactly why their players performed so poorly in the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse, but a few things that occurred on Saturday were painfully obvious.

One, the Mountaineers couldn’t stop the run, and two, the Mountaineers couldn’t consistently run the football – the two things they needed to do to get on the right side of the scoreboard in very difficult playing conditions at Yankee Stadium.

“We don’t have any excuses,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “We just got beat by a better team (on Saturday). It is what it is. They ran the ball better than we did in those conditions and they won the game. That’s basically what it comes down to.”

West Virginia wasn't able to run the ball effectively against everybody it played this season, but it did run it enough to believe it could do so against a Syracuse defense that was giving up an average of 385.7 yards per game coming into the bowl, especially when Tavon Austin started getting carries at running back for the Mountaineers against Oklahoma.

In its final three regular season games against the Sooners, Iowa State and Kansas, West Virginia had 458, 239 and 240 yards rushing, respectively. Yet against Syracuse on Saturday, WVU could muster just 88 yards on 37 attempts.

“Last year we got greedy and we tried to throw a lot more drop-back passes,” said Dawson of Syracuse’s surprising 49-23 victory over the 11th-rated Mountaineers in the Carrier Dome. “This year we ran the ball and got behind the chains. There were times when we executed well. We got in third and manageable a good bit, but I don’t think we converted a third down all night (0 for 11). If you go 0-for on third down and you have 280 yards of offense (285), you’re probably going to get your (butt) whipped.”

On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was equally frustrated. Handling the run was the one thing West Virginia’s defense managed to get accomplished this year - only Iowa State (234 yards) was able to run for more than 200 yards on the Mountaineers. But Syracuse running back Prince Tyson-Gulley had 208 yards alone, and the Orange finished the day with 369 yards on the ground.

It was the most rushing yards allowed by a Mountaineer defense since Navy ran for 388 yards on them in 1999, and it was the fifth-highest rushing performance ever by a West Virginia opponent. Ironically, Syracuse holds the record for the most rushing yards against the Mountaineers when it produced 431 yards in 1965. And that team had a pair of runners named Larry Csonka and Floyd Little. Now Tyson-Gulley and Jerome Smith were pretty good on Saturday, but it’s quite a stretch to put them in that league just yet.

“I didn’t think they would be able to run the ball on us,” admitted Patterson. “Without evaluating the video to see what some of the problems were, I think I have an idea what was going on, but I don’t want to identify that yet until I have a chance to evaluate it and see what happened.”

Patterson did say that Tyson-Gulley’s two long touchdown runs of 33 and 67 yards were the result of the same defensive breakdown.

“When the ball gets into the backend you’ve got to be able to get the ball down,” he said. “You have to give offenses credit because they sometimes execute, but it was the same problem on both of them. It was a split-zone play, we did a great job of forcing the ball off the edge and the ball bounced all the way out to the outside, so it ought to be a dead play.

“And both times we had backers over pursue the football,” Patterson said. “Obviously that’s my fault. I didn’t have those guys understanding you’ve got to rock back with the split-flow action.”

Patterson said they even tried to get extra guys in the box when it was clear that Syracuse was going to run the football, but to no avail.

“We were trying to sink a safety down in there in the box,” he said. “There were times we’d fit it up air tight and the next thing you know it splits us. I’m sitting here kind of perplexed because, honestly, I thought we’d be able to stop them running the football.”

Dawson, too, thought running the ball was the right recipe against a Syracuse defense that likes to bring pressure in a variety of different ways.

“You can’t sit there with the way they play defense and expect to get a whole lot of time to throw it,” he noted. “You’re taking chances and you don’t want to go backwards. I feel like we had the right ideas going into the game, we just didn’t execute it very well.”

For the returning players, this year’s Pinstripe Bowl performance will likely be brought up quite frequently when winter conditioning work commences at the start of the second semester. It’s also a good bet that it will be brought up a time or two when the coaches get them back on the field for spring football practice as well.

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.