Beyond the Bronx
Who says you can never go back again?
Seven years after falling to Syracuse on the hardwood at Madison Square Garden in the championship game of the Big East tournament – and three years after dropping an overtime semifinal game to SU in the same venue - West Virginia is once again calling out the Orange in the Big Apple. This time around the battle will be waged on the gridiron of Yankee Stadium (maybe the most oxymoronic words I’ve ever written) about 20 minutes up FDR Drive from the Garden.
In a unique postseason matchup between old foes with identical 7-5 records, similar histories but new conferences to call home, West Virginia will travel to the Bronx to square off against its former Big East counterpart Syracuse in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 29. The odds makers have pegged the Mountaineers as roughly 4-point favorites. What that means, in effect, is that Las Vegas feels a compelling argument can be made for - or against - WVU’s chances versus the Orange.
That much we can project. Trying to forecast anything beyond the bowl game for the West Virginia football program, however, quickly becomes a lot more complex.
Imagine if the Yankees had to replace Ruth, Gehrig and Waite Hoyt in the same year. WVU could be facing a task just as daunting. With the looming departures of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey (Bailey, a junior, declared early for the NFL draft) the Mountaineers will begin their offseason with three colossal voids to fill. The exit of this record-breaking trio forces the West Virginia offense to endure an obvious face lift before its 2013 opener next August against William & Mary. Heading into the bowl, WVU’s big three have accounted for a staggering 22,579 yards and 179 touchdowns during their time in Morgantown. That’s not to mention the impending losses of Shawne Alston (19 career TDs), J.D. Woods (56 career catches), Ryan Nehlen, the unsung Ryan Clarke and three senior mainstays up front, or Tyler Bitancurt (355 career points) and kickoff man Corey Smith on special teams.
In the weeks and months following the bowl game, Dana Holgorsen and his offensive staff will continue in earnest reconstructing a unit that will have massive shoes to fill. While an incoming quarterback (or two) will breed more intense competition at the position that inherently draws the headlines, West Virginia is looking to add several playmakers to its 2013 recruiting class. Take this as an obvious sign that this team’s lack of future depth at the playmaker positions isn’t lost on the Mountaineer coaching staff.
Returning contributors such as slot receivers Jordan Thompson, Connor Arlia and Cody Clay; wideouts Dante Campbell, K.J. Myers and Devonte Robinson; offensive linemen Quenton Spain, Curtis Feigt and Pat Eger and the running back tandem of Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison could all be integral parts of this offense moving forward - but help is needed. This might be particularly true at the receiver positions – a group left thinner than expected after the late-season defections of a couple players who were both starters (at one point or another) and who were both believed (at one point or another) to have tremendous upside. That being said, there’s no escaping the sense that West Virginia’s fortunes will turn most heavily on the outcome of a quarterback battle that takes place in the spring. WVU continues to recruit the position, but Paul Millard (34 collegiate pass attempts) and Ford Childress (41 touchdown passes as a prep senior last year) expect to be the frontrunners in that competition. If one – or both – of these young signal callers can take bold steps forward in the next nine months, WVU’s overall outlook for 2013 will be on the uptick.
Defensively? Forget the partridge in a pear tree, all I want for Christmas are a few Bruce Irvins and a Pacman Jones or two. That’s obviously not happening – but take a deep breath and try to chill out a little. Maybe – just maybe - things aren’t as far off as some think.
In recent weeks the West Virginia staff has undergone a shake-up on this side of the ball. One coach (Daron Roberts) has departed and another coach (Keith Patterson) has removed the prefatory “co” label from his defensive coordinator title and has assumed play calling duties.
“Keith Patterson has been doing a fantastic job. He is a great defensive coordinator and has been for some time,” said Holgorsen earlier this week. “Instead of having two guys sharing that responsibility, I think it is important for one guy to take the lead, so he will be doing that.”
From a personnel standpoint, the Mountaineer defense might have some critical pieces in place already. Pull out the defensive two-deep for WVU’s regular season finale against Kansas and one thing quickly becomes apparent: youth has been served. Overall, 17 of the 22 players listed on that two-deep should be returning next season, including five/six defensive linemen, six/eight linebackers and six/eight defensive backs.
As most coaches will tell you, defense is less about thinking than it is about reacting. That doesn’t truly happen until assignments and techniques become second nature to a player. Those can only be ingrained through repetition. As such, experience should prove invaluable for a collection of defenders entering their second year in West Virginia’s 3-4 hybrid scheme. Good defenses are those that can minimize the 'whose got who?' post-snap lapses and focus instead on seeking and destroying. That level of efficiency – and familiarity with one another - comes most directly from playing together in game situations. The more live reps a group of players has as a unit to master not only their own assignments but also to learn their teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, the more consistent that group becomes.
The WVU staff will seek out a junior college transfer or two in the upcoming class to provide some immediate impact and/or depth where needed, but by and large the nucleus for a much improved unit might already be in-house. The truth is, when you start looking over a list of returning players you slowly grow cautiously optimistic about West Virginia’s future on this side of the football.
Will Clarke (6.5 TFLs) and Shaq Rowell (36 tackles) will return to anchor things at the point of attack, joined by Chidoziem Ezemma and up-and-comers Christian Brown, Kyle Rose and Korey Harris. The linebacking corps will be led by burgeoning stud Isaiah Bruce (12th in the Big 12 in tackles), followed by Doug Rigg (51 tackles), Jared Barber (52 career tackles), Shaq Petteway and other contributors like Tyler Anderson, Wes Tonkery, Nick Kwiatkoski, Jewone Snow and Taige Redman.
The real question with the linebackers is who among them will emerge as the pass rushing threats needed to replace Josh Francis (4.5 sacks) and Terence Garvin (4 sacks)? The 3-4 is a scheme built on eating space up front and pressuring the passer from the second and third levels of the defense. Nearly 80 percent of WVU’s sacks this year came from a combination of linebackers and defensive backs. In fact, almost 60 percent came directly from linebacker pressure. Who in this group might rise to the challenge and present that much needed second level menace for the Mountaineers in 2013? West Virginia’s search for pass rushers on its roster will be a big defensive storyline to monitor during the offseason - big, but not the biggest.
The biggest defensive focal point will be on the backend, where a year in this system could help remove some of the indecision that plagued WVU at key points this season. This should give the Mountaineers secondary a chance to be a more fundamentally sound group.
Some solid building blocks have already been laid, particularly at the safety spots. Freshman Karl Joseph (six pass breakups and seventh in the league in tackles) came on like a rising star at free safety as both a ball hawk and a headhunter. K.J. Dillon and Travis Bell showed flashes of promise and boundary safety Darwin Cook (64 tackles and three forced fumbles) overcame a midseason lapse to regain his 2011 form down the stretch for West Virginia.
Exceptional safety play will be central to the success of WVU’s secondary moving forward. You probably won’t be surprised to read that the Mountaineers have allowed a staggering 45 completions of 25 yards or more so far this season. Returning experienced centerfielders next year will be incredibly beneficial to a defense that has struggled so mightily to keep a lid on the big play.
But much like the fate of the offense will rest so directly on the play of the quarterbacks, the fortunes of the WVU defense could hinge on the development of a returning crop of corners. That group figures to include veteran Brodrick Jenkins (29 tackles and two pass breakups) and sophomores-to-be Ishmael Banks, Terrell Chestnut, Nana Kyeremeh, Ricky Rumph, plus a newcomer or two. This unit didn’t log significant reps against just anyone this year. Instead, they were tossed into the fire against a pair of 4,000-yard throwers (Rakeem Cato and Nick Florence), a Heisman finalist (Collin Klein), the third-ranked passer in the history of college football (Landry Jones, 16,368 career yards) and another signal caller (Seth Doege, 3,934 yards this year) who might eclipse the 4K yardage mark on the first series of his team’s bowl game. Hundreds of snaps against quarterbacks of this caliber can provide for some extensive offseason learning opportunities in the West Virginia film room.
The added experience that these players (and a host of redshirts not mentioned) get this month in the 15 practices and various segment meetings leading up to the bowl matchup will serve them well not only against the Orange, but also moving forward into next year. The extra practice time that a bowl game affords a program is an underestimated learning tool that can be as instrumental as spring ball in the development of young players.
As you watch things unfold against Syracuse, be sure to keep an eye on the Mountaineer underclassmen that make a splash in the game. They represent the future.
But don’t let it distract you from your last chance to watch what has proven to be a truly special class of West Virginia seniors. With 35 career wins heading into the bowl game, they’ve earned the right to take center stage one final time.
See you at the fifty.
Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia Mountaineers, WVU, Mountaineer football
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