Mountaineer defense offers no excuses
SYRACUSE, N.Y. - For one of the few times this season, West Virginia's defense had no excuses.
Not that they ever really used them, but in most of the cases this season when the Mountaineers have given up significant yards or points they could point to turnovers by the offense, bad field position produced by lousy special teams play or simply some bad breaks.
But after Friday night's shocking 49-23 shellacking by Syracuse, there were no excuses to be made.
And to the Mountaineers' credit they didn't even try.
"They did exactly what they wanted to do,'' West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said of the few-frills Syracuse offense. "We've got to get better.''
Indeed, the numbers would suggest that West Virginia has a long way to go.
A defense that had struggled at times but then clamped down recently and risen to No. 16 in the national defensive rankings fell apart against a Syracuse team that didn't trick anyone or run myriad formations or plays. The Orange simply steamrolled the Mountaineers.
A Syracuse offense that ranked 99th in rushing and 96th in total offense through the first half of the season piled up 443 total yards, 194 of them on the ground. Both were season highs for the Orange. It was also the most yards allowed by West Virginia this season, save for a 477-yard performance by Maryland.
Ryan Nassib, a competent quarterback whose real strength is simply running Syracuse's pro-style offense, passed for 229 yards and four touchdowns.
"Nassib is a good quarterback,'' linebacker Najee Goode said. "He made all the plays he needed to make.''
The real issue in this one, though, was not the yards Syracuse amassed or even the points it scored. It was how the Orange did it.
Syracuse had scoring drives of 84, 80, 79, 72, 51 and 35 yards. Two of the drives consisted of 14 plays each and another was 11 plays. The Orange had a nearly 12-minute edge in time of possession and converted 12-of-17 third downs.
In other words, they lined up and dominated a team that knew exactly what the plan was. Syracuse almost never failed to move the ball on first down, giving it plenty of great play options on second and third downs. In baseball parlance, Syracuse was ahead in the count all game long and simply waited on good pitches to hit.
"I don't think we had them third-and-5-plus,'' Casteel said. "They were really successful on first down running the football. And then if we did have some success on first down, they'd dump a ball out for 6 or 7 yards and it was third-and-2. They executed just the way they wanted to do it.
"They did a great job preparing for us. And obviously we didn't do a good enough job preparing for them.''
The only time Syracuse had a bad second-down situation was early in the fourth quarter with the score already 35-16. A penalty - the Orange only had three - made it second-and-18, but tailback Antwon Bailey lofted a rainbow pass down the field that no Mountaineer could reach. It went for a 20-yard gain.
Syracuse did manage to trick West Virginia a few times, but in a very conventional way. The Orange would pound the ball between the tackles or use swing passes to keep the defense near the line of scrimmage, and then go over the top. They weren't long passes, but they didn't have to be.
Of Nassib's four TD passes, three were to comically wide-open receivers. He also had another wide-open pass dropped in the end zone. Tight end Nick Provo caught three of the scoring passes.
"We have to learn from it. You have to learn from this,'' Casteel said. "We have to get better, and obviously we're not there yet.''
West Virginia might have been lulled into a false sense of security after solid performances as against Bowling Green and Connecticut, who averaged just 246 total yards against WVU. But against a team that didn't make mistakes - Syracuse had one major penalty and no turnovers - the Mountaineers couldn't get off the field.
They get another chance a Saturday against Rutgers, another offensively challenged team (111th in rushing, 97th in total offense) that will be playing at home with something to prove. The Scarlet Knights lost 16-14 at Louisville Friday night.
"Everybody's embarrassed,'' Casteel said. "The coaches are embarrassed, the kids are embarrassed. We were on national TV and Syracuse put it to us. Hopefully we'll be excited to play Rutgers and put this behind us.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org.