Big Apple Battle

  • By John Antonik
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  • December 04, 2012 10:24 AM
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Two longtime Eastern rivals will be meeting in the 2012 New Era Pinstripe bowl when West Virginia and Syracuse hook up for a Dec. 29 meeting at Yankee Stadium in New York City.

This will be West Virginia’s 11th consecutive bowl appearance dating back to 2002 and its 32nd overall.

“We have some star power obviously,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, now 17-8 in two seasons coaching the Mountaineers, after last Saturday’s 59-10 win over Kansas. “And we have a fan base that will travel.”

The two schools have met 59 times on the gridiron, including every year from 1955-2011 until West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12 Conference this fall.

Last year, the Orange routed West Virginia, 49-23, in the Carrier Dome and has won the last two meetings against the Mountaineers under current coach Doug Marrone. Quarterback Ryan Nassib passed for four touchdowns and ran for another score in the 26-point victory during last year’s game in New York.

This season, the senior quarterback has led the Orange to a 7-5 overall record that includes a 5-2 mark in the Big East Conference – Syracuse’s final season in the league before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference next fall. The Orange has victories over Stony Brook, Pitt, UConn, USF, Louisville, Missouri and Temple and losses to Northwestern, USC, Minnesota, Rutgers and Cincinnati. Syracuse has won five of its last six heading into the Pinstripe Bowl.

Nassib is currently 13th in the country in total offense averaging 312.3 yards per game and is 34th in the nation in passing efficiency with a 144.69 rating. The senior has passed for 3,619 yards and 24 touchdowns in one of the most productive passing seasons in Syracuse history.

Syracuse has a pair of lethal pass-catching targets in Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales. Lemon shows 70 catches for 1,063 yards and seven touchdowns, including a 12-catch, 244-yard, two-TD performance in Syracuse’s recent 31-27 victory over Missouri. Lemon is presently ranked 16th in the nation in receiving yards per game (96.64) and is 26thin receptions per game (6.36).

Sales has made 63 catches for 863 yards and eight touchdowns, with his best performance coming in a season-opening loss to Northwestern when he caught 12 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. Sales and Lemon both show five 100-yard receiving games this season.

Junior Jarrod West gives the Orange a solid No. 3 receiving target, catching 42 passes for 571 yards and two touchdowns.

Balancing Marrone’s offense is a rushing attack ranked 56th in the nation with an average of 171.8 yards per game, led by junior Jerome Smith who is 56th in the country with an 84.9-yards-per-game average. Earlier this season, Smith became one of just four backs in Syracuse history to have four consecutive 100-yard rushing games, which includes a season-high 144 yards in the victory against Louisville.

Overall, Syracuse has the nation’s 21st-ranked offense averaging 473.4 yards per game.

Defensively, the Orange is led by senior defensive end Brandon Sharpe and sophomore weakside linebacker Dyshawn Davis. Sharpe (13 ½ tackles for loss) and Davis (13 tackles for loss) have helped Syracuse rank 10th nationally in that category. Overall, SU has produced 90 negative yardage plays this season, including 24 sacks.

Senior strong safety Sharmko Thomas leads the defense with 84 total tackles.

Syracuse is ranked 50th in total defense, 48th against the run, and 93rd against the pass and will be facing one of the best passing attacks in the country in West Virginia.

The Mountaineers (7-5) have the nation’s sixth-ranked passing offense averaging 340.9 yards per game, and are eighth in total offense averaging 518.5 yards per outing.

Senior quarterback Geno Smith has thrown for 4,004 yards and 40 touchdowns this year against only six interceptions. In last Saturday’s win over Kansas, Smith completed 23-of-24 passes for 407 yards and three TDs – the seventh 400-plus-yard passing performance of his career.

“He didn’t have a ball hit the ground all day (Smith also threw one interception), which is pretty impressive,” said Holgorsen of Smith’s performance against Kansas. “He took a lot of the fault, in his eyes and across the country with the media – the finger got pointed at him for not doing specific things well, but he’s been playing well. He’s played well all year, he’s a great quarterback, and I’m proud of his accomplishments.”

Junior Stedman Bailey contributed 11 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns against the Jayhawks, while senior Tavon Austin added four catches for 110 yards. Both receivers have topped 1,000 yards this season: Bailey, a Biletnikoff Award finalist, catching 106 passes for 1,501 yards and a nation’s best 23 touchdowns, while Austin, a first team All-American as a return specialist, showing 110 catches for 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Austin has also added running back duties to his repertoire this year and has produced 2,760 all-purpose yards to rank second in the country in that category. He is the only player in the country to have scored touchdowns four different ways this season – by pass, run, punt and kickoff return.

“What Tavon did against Oklahoma (572 all-purpose yards) is the single greatest performance I’ve seen, ever, but we lost so he doesn’t get the notoriety that he deserves (for that performance),” said Holgorsen.

Bailey is third in receiving yards per game (125.1), tied for third in scoring (11.5) and is fourth in receptions per game (8.83), while Austin is tied for second in receptions per game (9.17) and is seventh in receiving yards per game (104.9); Smith is ranked sixth in total offense (346.6).

Sophomore Andrew Buie (817 yards), Austin (598 yards) and senior Shawne Alston (371 yards) headline an improving ground game that is now averaging 177.6 yards per game.

West Virginia’s defense, which has struggled mightily in its inaugural season in the Big 12, is beginning to show signs of progress, allowing less than 400 yards of total offense in its last two games against Iowa State and Kansas. In a season-ending 59-10 victory over the Jayhawks, West Virginia held Kansas to just 274 total yards – the lowest offensive output by any Mountaineer opponent this season.

True freshman safety Karl Joseph leads West Virginia’s defense with 95 tackles, while also collecting seven tackles for loss, two interceptions, six pass breakups and a sack.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Isaiah Bruce has also performed well for the Mountaineers’ young defense, accumulating 86 tackles, 6 ½ tackles for loss, an interception and three pass breakups.

Senior outside linebacker Terence Garvin shows 69 tackles, 8 ½ tackles for loss and four sacks. West Virginia is 28th in tackles for loss averaging 6.75 per game and is 41st against the run giving up 142.5 yards per game.

Garvin is one of 21 seniors on this year’s team.

“These guys have been through coaching changes and conference changes and they’ve never once said this is too hard or this isn’t fair or this isn’t why I came here or any of that,” said Holgorsen. “They’re here because they love it here and they’re a very tight group. We’re such a young team, but then you have 21 seniors and those guys are obviously the glue that kind of kept everything together when we were challenged.”

West Virginia’s seven victories have come against Marshall, James Madison, Maryland, Baylor, Texas, Iowa State and Kansas, and its five losses have been to Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. Two of those five defeats were by 1-point margins against TCU in double-overtime and against Oklahoma, which is facing Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

This year’s Pinstripe Bowl will be the fifth time West Virginia has played in Yankee Stadium, the last time coming in 1947 when the Mountaineers defeated NYU, 40-0.

Syracuse has played seven times in Yankee Stadium, including a win over Kansas State in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl.

The Orange holds a 32-27 advantage in all-time series play against West Virginia, winning the last two after the Mountaineers claimed eight wins in a row from 2002-2009.

“All bowls are fun,” said Holgorsen. “The ones that are in the Big 12, I’ve almost been to every one of them and they’re all fun. The venues are good, the accommodations are good and the teams are good.”

Tickets are still available and can be purchased through the Mountaineer Ticket Office by calling 1-800-WVU GAME or by logging on to WVUGAME.com.

The game will kickoff at 3:15 p.m. and will be televised nationally on ESPN.

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