MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Dana Holgorsen believes the formula Syracuse used to defeat West Virginia last year in Morgantown is likely the same one the Orange will try and employ this Friday night in the Carrier Dome.
The concoction coach Doug Marrone came up with in Syracuse’s 19-14 victory was a ball-control game on offense and the constant pressuring of WVU quarterback Geno Smith on defense. Smith threw three interceptions and was sacked five times by a defense that frequently came after him.
In all, Syracuse limited West Virginia to just 284 yards of offense and the Orange ground game managed to churn out 183 yards – easily the most allowed by WVU’s nationally ranked defense in 2010.
“It’s pretty obvious what they want to do,” said Holgorsen. “They want to control the game. They want to get in the huddle and run pro-style stuff. They want to beat you with formations, grind the clock down and get first downs. That’s what they did last year and had success with it.”
Syracuse is also having success with the same formula this year, posting a 4-2 record despite ranking 70th or lower in just about every major offensive and defensive statistical category.
The Orange is 99th in rushing offense (113.2 ypg.), 71st in passing offense (220.3), 96th in total offense (333.5), 73rd in scoring offense (26.7), 112th in pass defense (293.0) 86th in pass efficiency defense (135.93) and 71st in total defense.
They are also 76th in net punting (36.1) and 107th in punt returns (4.0) – not awe inspiring numbers - but where Syracuse thrives is in close games, the Orange going 9-3 under Marrone in games decided by a touchdown or less. This year, all four of Syracuse’s wins have been by a touchdown margin or less.
“Syracuse is a good football team,” said Holgorsen. “They’re 4-2 and they figure out ways to win.”
Marrone is also 10-3 when holding opponents under 20 points and 9-2 when holding the opposition to fewer than 300 yards of total offense. One more fun fact … Syracuse has never lost in the Dome under Marrone when scoring more than 21 points (9-0, including a 3-0 record this season).
In order to do this, you need a quarterback that can manage games and not make big mistakes and a reliable running game that keeps the sticks moving. Syracuse has both of those in senior quarterback Ryan Nassib and senior running back Antwon Bailey.
Nassib threw for 2,334 yards and 19 touchdowns last year as a junior, and through six games this season, is on pace to become the most prolific passer in Syracuse history. He is completing 64.6 percent of his attempts for 1,294 yards and 11 touchdowns. The last two seasons he has a 30-to-12 TD-to-interception ratio and has led Syracuse to late scores in all four of its wins this season.
In fact, Nassib’s second-half numbers are quite impressive, completing nearly 70 percent of his second-half pass attempts while going 8-for-8 in the fourth quarter and overtime in Syracuse’s season-opening win over Wake Forest. He was 5-for-5 on the game-winning TD drive against Rhode Island, and was 6-for-8 in the fourth quarter against Toledo.
Mountaineer fans may remember Bailey from last year’s game, the Landover, Mass., resident filling in for Delone Carter in the second quarter and running for 94 yards on 19 carries for the game.
This year, Bailey already has four 100-yard games to his credit against Wake Forest, Toledo, Rutgers and Tulane and is one of six active FBS backs with a current streak of at least three consecutive 100-yard rushing performances. Bailey is fourth in the Big East and 43rd nationally averaging 92.2 yards per game on the ground.
Blocking up front for Bailey is an experienced offensive line with four of five starters returning from last year, the only new starter being sophomore center Macky MacPherson.
Senior X receiver Van Chew and junior Z receiver both started in last year’s game in Morgantown with Chew scoring Syracuse’s lone TD in the game on a 29-yard pass from Nassib.
Chew caught 41 passes for 611 yards and five touchdowns in 2010 and is on pace to match that total this year, so far grabbing 20 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns.
Lemon leads the team with 31 catches for 322 yards and three TDs.
“We need to do a good job when we’re in third-down situations of getting off the field and creating turnovers,” Holgorsen said. “If they want to grind it and run the ball on third down and three then we need to be able to stop them.
“If they’re in two-minute offense and need to score, they do what they have to do, but don’t prefer it,” Holgorsen added. “Our job is to try and get up on them, get them out of rhythm, and if they do happen to be in a two-minute situation, much like UConn was at the end of the half in our last game, then we need to be able to stop them.”
Defensively, Syracuse has been stout against the run, ranking 23rd nationally in that category by allowing just 104.3 yards per game, but has been susceptible against the pass permitting an average of 293 yards per contest.
Four of Syracuse’s six opponents have thrown for more than 300 yards against the Orange secondary, including Tulane’s 355 yards two weeks ago in a 37-34 Syracuse victory.
“They been out of position a couple of times and have been beat, or they haven’t gotten to the quarterback in time on defense, but it’s a variety of things (for their difficulty stopping the pass),” said Holgorsen. “They’ve played some pretty good offenses, too. Toledo is a good offense. Wake Forest is a good offense. USC is a pretty good offense so they’ve played some guys that give us an opportunity to see what they do against the spread.”
Syracuse believes some of its issues defending the passing game can be rectified simply by the return of defensive end Chandler Jones and strong safety Olando Fisher. Jones, a second team all-league pick last year, missed the last five games after suffering what has been termed a “lower-body” injury against Wake Forest. Also, starting strong safety Sharmko Thomas made a return to the lineup against Tulane after missing the prior two games with a hamstring ailment.
Without Jones in the lineup Syracuse managed just 10 sacks in its first six games; last year Jones was in on 9 ½ tackles for losses and four sacks. He has accumulated 20 career tackles for losses and six sacks.
“From what I’ve seen in film from last year and their first game this year, he is as good as any defensive end in the league,” said Holgorsen of Jones. “Getting him back will cause problems.”
Syracuse also played most of the second half of the Tulane game without its top defensive lineman, junior Deon Goggins, who was sidelined with an ankle injury. Reports from Syracuse say Goggins was limited last week in practice but should be ready to go for Friday’s game against the Mountaineers.
“They’ve got guys that can make some plays,” said Holgorsen. “They’re getting better on defense; they’re well coached, and much like our guys who are well coached on defense, it takes time for them to mesh together.”
West Virginia will try and take advantage of Syracuse with the nation’s fourth-best passing attack.
Quarterback Geno Smith is on a record-setting pace, completing 165-of-258 passes for 2,159 yards and 16 touchdowns through the halfway mark this season. He is fifth nationally in passing average, sixth in total offense and 23rd in passing efficiency.
WVU has two receivers – Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey – on a pace to have 1,000 yards receiving seasons and a third, sophomore Ivan McCartney, not too far off pace.
Austin leads the Mountaineers with 42 catches for 564 yards and two scores; Bailey shows 34 catches for 634 yards and a team-best five TDs while McCartney has 34 catches for 455 yards and three scores.
Seven different players have now caught touchdown passes for the Mountaineers this year.
Dustin Garrison has reinvigorated a non-existent running game with a 291-yard performance against Bowling Green on Oct. 1 before following that up with an 18-carry, 80-yard effort against UConn. He now shows a team-best 496 yards and five touchdowns on the ground while averaging an impressive 6.9 yards per carry.
Defensively, the Mountaineers are coming off their best performance of the season against Connecticut, holding the Huskies to 275 total yards in a 43-16 Mountaineer victory. The WVU D did not allow an offensive touchdown against UConn – one of three times that has happened this season.
Jeff Casteel’s rebuilt unit is ranked 16th this week in total defense (301.2) and 17th against the pass (181.3).
Senior linebacker Najee Goode and sophomore corner Pat Miller share the lead in tackles with 41, while senior defensive end Bruce Irvin is tops on the team with seven tackles for losses and 2 ½ sacks. The Mountaineer defense now shows eight sacks and 36 negative yardage plays after managing only one sack through their first four games.
Keith Tandy and Terence Garvin lead the team with two interceptions each; Tandy has 11 picks and 20 breakups in 38 career games.
The winner of the game will take ownership of the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy. Schwartzwalder played for Greasy Neale at West Virginia in the early 1930s before becoming a nationally known coach at Syracuse in the 1950s and 1960s.
The two schools have played annually since 1955 and Syracuse holds a slim 31-27 advantage in series play.
Friday night’s game will be televised nationally on ESPN and will kick off at 8 p.m.
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