Indeed, West Virginia knew what was coming and it wasn't anything tricky. It was a zone-blocked inside running play that Syracuse used again and again and again. Two Orange running backs, Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith, used primarily that play to run the ball a combined 35 times for 365 yards.
Again, how bad does a defense have to be to know what play is coming and not be able to stop it? Ever? No, at least the Orange didn't swarm WVU's defense with passes as everyone else had, but even in lousy conditions Syracuse time and again converted third-and-longs with passes, usually to tight ends, and also managed to draw the normal handful of pass interference calls when WVU defensive backs refused to turn around and look for the ball.
Offensively the attack that Holgorsen takes pride in for being fairly balanced was anything but. When the conditions stymied the pass, the Mountaineers ran the ball for just 88 yards. Austin couldn't cut in the open field, and Andrew Buie and Shawne Alston couldn't run behind a line that didn't open holes. As a result, a Syracuse team that was fifth in total defense in the offensively-challenged Big East managed to hold West Virginia 215 yards below its average.
Oh, and don't even talk about special teams. Has any kicker in the history of college football ever had nine kicks blocked? Tyler Bitancurt did during his career. WVU used three punters and still finished among the worst in the country in net punting. Even with Austin the team was 91st in kickoff returns. And it allowed enough yards to rank 101st in kick return defense, which is even more significant because the Mountaineers kicked off so much.
And if you choose to blame any or all of that on a lack of talent, well, you also have to address a coaching staff that was wholly unable to modify things to make up for those deficiencies. Granted, if you choose to believe that talent was the major issue, then there are only so many smoke-and-mirror tricks one can employ to disguise those deficiencies. But there weren't many changes at all, at least not obvious ones, from the beginning of the season to the end. And whenever asked about changes, Holgorsen was generally snide or sarcastic and simply said that he and his staff hadn't forgotten how to coach.
You can't help but wonder, too, how prepared a team was to play a bowl game without a single live, hard practice in the seven full days prior to the bowl game. The one day the team had a chance, Wednesday in New York, Holgorsen moved it inside because of the threat of bad weather. And then when I asked him later that night if he was concerned about not going live for more than a week, his response was typical.
"Yeah,'' he said. "I guess we should forfeit.''
None of which means West Virginia can't bounce back. It doesn't mean the players are just so bad they can't compete or that the coaches are in over their heads. It just means that this year they didn't do a very good job. Not at all. And truth be told, they were a play or two against Baylor and Texas from being 5-7 and not even in a bowl.
Next year? Well, the common wisdom these days is that the biggest challenge facing this team is replacing Smith, Austin and Bailey. How does a team possibly just keep on going without arguably the three most prolific offensive players in school history?
But that's not the most pressing issue. Not even close. Holgorsen has proved at every stop that he can develop quarterbacks and receivers. He'll do it again. You should really have little or no doubt about that.
Coming up with a reliable 30 or 40 players who don't throw and catch is the trick. He needs blockers and tacklers, kickers and runners. And he needs to put them in systems - particularly defensive systems and special teams systems - that have a chance to work.
That's the challenge, not replacing three NFL skill position players. This team will need a lot more work than on the pass-and-catch game, or it will never improve.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.