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WVU Still Trying to Figure Out What Happened in ’10

Syracuse bottled up Mountaineers in last season's tough loss

October 20, 2011
By JIM ELLIOTT , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

MORGANTOWN - It's sometimes difficult to pinpoint the low point for West Virginia last season.

Was it the inexplicable home loss to Syracuse in a game where quarterback Geno Smith was intercepted three times and players were talking about how they didn't respect the opponent? Or was it when they lost to UConn and sank their chances of winning an outright Big East title five days later?

Well, the UConn loss was at least explainable. They fumbled the ball in overtime. The Syracuse game? They're still wondering what happened there.

Article Photos

AP Photo
West Virginia University quarterback Geno Smith didn’t have a smile on his face as he left the field following last season’s loss to Syracuse in which he threw three interceptions, one in the end zone.

To recap: Syracuse's plan was to keep West Virginia's offense off the field with long, methodical drives. When those drives failed, the Orange punted in every instance, opting to play a field-position game. It helped that Smith threw those three interceptions - one in the end zone - and it didn't help that WVU was unable to capitalize on its own forced turnover, even as it happened on the Syracuse 34. The offensive line was so confused, Smith was sacked five times and the Mountaineers also had a touchdown called back because of a penalty.

In the end, West Virginia ran just 53 plays; Syracuse ran 72.

West Virginia lost 19-14, which was the same score as halftime. (That came during an historic six-game stretch where the Mountaineers did very little scoring in the second half of games).

''They present a bunch of challenges just like UConn because of the style that they play,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said of the Orange.

He was talking about Syracuse coach Doug Marrone's background, which was in the NFL, not unlike UConn's coach, Paul Pasqualoni, who is fresh off a multi-year stint as a coach at the game's highest level.

In short, that means more grind it out, keep it close, and don't let the other team's explosive offense get on track - for as long as you possibly can.

In West Virginia's victory against UConn nearly two weeks earlier, the Huskies limited the Mountaineers offense to eight first-quarter plays and dominated the time of possession. By time the game had ended, UConn still led in time of possession by 5 minutes despite giving up 43 points.

It's been an up-and-down season thus far for the Orange, who don't jump off the page statistically in anything and lead the Big East in absolutely nothing that is tracked by statisticians (West Virginia leads in 10 categories).

Nationally, Syracuse, behind quarterback Ryan Nassib, is 71st in the county in pass yards per game (220.3), 99th in rushing (113.2), 73rd in points for (26.7) and 68th in points allowed (27.3).

Yes, the Orange are giving up more points than they're scoring, on average, despite the 4-2 record. That happens when you win a pair of overtime games and get hammered by USC.

According to Marrone, inconsistency has been the big problem, and he used the bye week to address it.

''There are times when you watch our film and you might say 'this is a pretty good football team' and there's times you might say 'what are they doing?' '' Marrone said.

So they took a step back, reviewing some of the calls they've made, made sure they're aware of what's going on, and got ''back to the basics of fundamentals and paying attention to detail,'' according to the coach.

They also did some healing.

Back is second-team all-conference defensive end Chandler Jones and strong safety Olando Fisher, who had each missed the last five games. They'll join starting strong safety Shamarko Thomas, who returned a week earlier following a two-game absence with a hamstring injury.

''I think it helps the players that are on the field,'' Marrone said.

Meanwhile, West Virginia, too, was off last week, though it did climb a few spots in the rankings to No. 11. A relatively healthy team, Holgorsen said the Mountaineers used the time to work in some younger players more in practice, but didn't focus a whole bunch on Syracuse.

Getting a team prepared for an opponent is one thing, Holgorsen said, too prepared is another. They spent two days practicing last week and will be one short this week because of the Friday game, meaning they gained only one practice working on Syracuse.

They'll find out if that tactic worked Friday night, with Holgorsen unsure of its benefits.

''That's what your job as a coach is - to get concerned about something,'' he said.

As it relates to this game, Marrone knows exactly what concerns him - WVU quarterback Geno Smith. Smith, who has completed 165 of 258 passes for 2,159 yards 16 touchdowns, looks nothing like the guy Syracuse's coach saw last year.

''I see someone who's really matured in the system they're running now,'' Marrone said. ''I still look at West Virginia as being explosive with the players they have and spreading you on the field and putting that pressure on you defensively. But if someone were to ask me today what's the difference, I would say Geno Smith. He's been outstanding.''

Game Notes

Spending a lot of his career in the south and Southwest, Holgorsen has never been to the Carrier Dome. ... In the same number of games, West Virginia has scored 85 more points than Syracuse this season and has 1,020 more yards on offense. .... WVU is fourth in the country in passing yards per game at 380.5 and 13th in points for at 40.8