MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. You can read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller
It was October 24th, 2010.
Syracuse had stunned 20th-ranked West Virginia in Morgantown by a score of 19-14. The win snapped an eight-game losing streak by the Orange against WVU and it came on homecoming, in front of 58,122 bewildered fans.
It was an ugly game with even uglier twists. The Orange averaged a mere 4.6 yards per play. They converted just 29 percent of their third down attempts. They didn’t score a single point in the second half. Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib managed just 45 yards on five completions for the afternoon – the lowest passing total by a winning quarterback against West Virginia since Penn State’s Tony Sacca threw for a mere 40 yards in a 19-9 Nittany Lions victory at Beaver Stadium in 1989.
Despite all this, Doug Marrone’s squad found a way to win the game.
"You can't get much better than this," SU defensive end Mikhail Marinovich remarked after the game. "It was a mini bowl win for us."
A mini bowl.
Marinovich had no way of knowing how strangely prophetic those words would turn out to be.
Two years later, Syracuse and West Virginia are on a collision course to meet in a bowl of the full-blown variety - the New Era Pinstripe Bowl in New York City on Saturday.
Before its recent renaissance under Marrone, now 24-25 at Syracuse, the Orange suffered through the most dismal stretch in school history, losing 31 of 35 Big East conference games from 2005-2009.
It wasn’t until the aforementioned 2010 victory in Morgantown, however, that Syracuse was validated as a program truly on the mend. Sure, an upset win two weeks prior at South Florida was meaningful, but it didn’t carry the same weight as knocking off a team such as West Virginia – one that had dominated SU by an average of three touchdowns per outing since 2002.
The Orange went on to finish the 2010 season with an 8-5 record by edging out a young Kansas State team in the first-ever New Era Pinstripe Bowl, and optimism had at last returned to the ‘Cuse.
Then there was last year. The Orange didn’t supply many highlights for SU fans in 2011 – but the one they did conjure up left an indelible mark on West Virginia once again. In front of a nationally televised ESPN audience on a Friday night in October, Syracuse ambushed the 11th-ranked Mountaineers 49-23.
Believe it or not the 72 combined points in that game marked the most scored in the all-time series between these two schools. Honk twice if you think that record will be eclipsed at Yankee Stadium Saturday.
Unlike WVU’s loss in 2010, the reasons behind the setback in the Carrier Dome last fall were crystal clear.
“Syracuse beat us physically on all three sides of the ball,” said Dana Holgorsen following the loss. “They outplayed us and outcoached us. It's as simple as that."
The Mountaineers were indeed dominated in every phase of the game. Offensively, the Orange got the jump on WVU at every turn, averaging more than seven yards per snap on first down. This led to incredibly manageable third downs for Nassib (24 of 32 for 229 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions) who shredded West Virginia like soggy paper. The average length of the 17 third down situations Syracuse faced was barely four yards per attempt, helping Nassib move the chains on a dozen of them. So dominant was the SU offensive line that the Orange didn’t suffer a single lost yard on 41 rushing attempts.
Defensively, Syracuse hit Geno Smith
like Sherman hit Atlanta. The Orange challenged West Virginia’s receivers on almost every snap and kept Smith under duress all night, effectively knocking the nation’s 13th-ranked scoring offense off its axis.
“Seventeen of their first 18 blitzes last year were different,” Holgorsen recalled last week.
And it worked.
Despite racking up 215 yards passing in the first half, a red zone interception and a host of miscues led to Smith and company being on the short end of a 21-9 score at the break.
"We just did a good job of getting in that quarterback's head,” Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones said after the game, six months before being selected by the New England Patriots in the first round of the NFL draft.
“They blitzed almost every snap but even when they didn’t blitz their pass rush was better than our pass blocking,” added Holgorsen.
The 2011 blowout was a turning point in the seasons for both teams. West Virginia was galvanized by this wakeup call and went on to win five of its final six games, including a record-setting Orange Bowl demolition of Clemson. Syracuse, on the other hand, was left with an empty tank. The Orange didn’t win again, dropping their final five games of the year and sliding into a funk that spilled over into 2012.
In mid-October, Syracuse stood at 2-4 and had lost nine of its 11 games since the attention-grabbing triumph over WVU last year. At that point, with a Big East contest against Connecticut upcoming, Doug Marrone decided to get back to the basics. Against the Huskies, Nassib threw the football just 20 times (his fewest attempts since the 2010 win in Morgantown) as Syracuse rushed 53 times and gashed UConn with 251 yards on the ground.
The game marked a new beginning for an Orange team that has lived a tale of two very divergent half seasons. In its first six games, during that 2-4 start, SU was minus-10 in turnover margin and it managed just 128 rushing yards per game (3.6 per carry). In its last six games, a stretch that has seen Syracuse post a 5-1 record, it is plus-nine in turnover margin and has averaged 216 yards per game (4.7 per carry) running the football.
The Orange's play selection during these two very different halves of the 2012 slate has been revealing. During the first half of the year, the ‘Cuse was running the football on 46 percent of its snaps and throwing it on the other 54 percent while in the second half, those numbers have been flipped, with the Orange running 58 percent of the time while throwing it just 42 percent. In short, Syracuse rediscovered a lost commitment to the ground game and that change went a long way toward saving its season.
But don’t mistake this as meaning Doug Marrone and Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will keep exclusively to the ground against a West Virginia defense that famously ranks 119th nationally against the pass. This is, after all, the same ‘Cuse team that threw the ball 66 times in its season opener against Northwestern. The SU staff has plenty of faith in Ryan Nassib, the Big East’s leading passer (302 yards per game), and they will enter this game with every intention of getting full use out of him.
“I would assume they trust their quarterback because he just keeps getting better. The better he gets, the more they allow him to do,” said Holgorsen.
Just how productive has Nassib been?
Despite the laundry list of dynamic signal callers the Mountaineers have faced this year, only Oklahoma’s Landry Jones entered his matchup with WVU having more career yards and more touchdown passes than Nassib’s 9,060 and 68, respectively.
Marrone believes in running the football, but he also believes firmly in a controlled passing game and spreading the wealth. Want proof? Eight different Syracuse players this year have registered a reception of 30-plus yards. Eight. For the sake of comparison, consider that West Virginia’s sixth-ranked passing attack has only five such players.
Just how much does Marrone believe in equal opportunity passing attacks? Ponder this one. As the offensive coordinator for the New Orleans Saints in 2008, Marrone coached quarterback Drew Brees to just the second 5,000-yard passing season in NFL history. The remarkable part? Twenty-two league pass catchers that year eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving, but not one of them – despite the 5,069 yards Brees piled up - played for New Orleans. Let that sink in for a minute. A 5,000 yard passer without a single 1,000 yard receiver? Now that is spreading the wealth.
Such an uncanny level of evenhanded distribution in the passing game has been a hallmark of Marrone’s offenses for years. In last season's win over West Virginia, Nassib's 24 completions were spread among nine different pass catchers. To appreciate the stark contrast in styles between these two offenses, consider that when Geno Smith
completed 45 passes for 656 yards in a statistical bonanza against Baylor in September, he only used five different receivers to get there.
If West Virginia hopes to win its sixth bowl in eight years the Mountaineers will need to be the most physical team on the field. Perhaps even more critical than that, this WVU squad - which only 12 weeks ago was ranked in the Top 5 in the nation - will have to suppress the mental "could've been" game and prove that they are the most excited team at Yankee Stadium Saturday.
Dana Holgorsen doesn't foresee that being an issue.
"We're excited about the game," he said. "There is some unfinished business with this season."
I’ll see you at the fifty.