MORGANTOWN - This was supposed to be a team talented enough to overcome the occasional off day by a handful of its most important players, especially against the likes of Syracuse.
On Saturday, though, that wasn't the case. It really only took a poor performance by one player to spell the Mountaineers' demise.
No, Geno Smith's three first-half interceptions - he'd thrown only two in the first six games - weren't the only reason West Virginia was upset 19-14 by the Orange. The No. 3 rushing defense in the country also gave up huge chunks of yardage and WVU's own running game faltered at times, too. Breaks didn't seem to go WVU's way, either, like the Keith Tandy interception and return to the Syracuse 18 that was wiped out by a penalty.
But in addition to throwing those three picks that were ultimately worth 13 points - seven WVU didn't get and two field goals Syracuse did - in a five-point loss, Smith and the Mountaineer offense also were unable to generate any real scoring threats in 10 possessions after scoring on two straight in the first quarter. The last chance came when WVU drove from its 30 to the Syracuse 20 beginning at the 6:35 mark of the fourth quarter, only to go backward and turn the ball over on downs after a failed fourth-and-22 with 41 seconds to play.
The technical reasons for the Mountaineers' struggles can be debated from now until West Virginia retakes the field Friday night at Connecticut - and no doubt will be - but perhaps the bottom line is something far simpler: The No. 20 Mountaineers (5-2, 1-1 Big East) weren't expecting to be tested by a team that a week ago was drubbed 45-14 at home by Pitt.
No one would actually come right out and say that, of course, but the inference was there. It's hard to argue its validity.
"I don't know if we underestimated them or not because they played hard. They deserved that win right there,'' West Virginia nose tackle Chris Neild said. "And I don't know if we weren't ready to play, but they were definitely ready to play.''
Even coach Bill Stewart, normally quick to praise opponents even after a West Virginia victory, did so this time with an asterisk. After noting how well the Orange (5-2, 2-1) played, he repeated the message that he had delivered in far more vocal terms to his team in a closed locker room minutes before.
"Maybe I've got a football team now that will worry more about doing all the little things right, reading a few less press clippings and taking care of business when we have a chance to,'' Stewart said. "I'm very pleased with how hard we played, [but] I'm not pleased at all with how we played intellectually. The intelligence part of our game was just not good.''
Nor was the execution part. Defensively, West Virginia gave up just 246 yards, almost exactly the average (245.83) that has the Mountaineers ranked fifth in the country in total defense. Syracuse completed just five passes for 63 yards.
But one of those was a play-action pass that got Van Chew behind Tandy for Syracuse's only touchdown in the first quarter, a 29-yarder. The Orange also rushed for 183 yards despite losing top back Delone Carter to a hip injury late in the first half. His backup, Antwon Bailey, gained 94 yards on 19 carries.
That was enough to allow the Orange to take advantage of the opportunities WVU presented. Syracuse drove just 15 and 7 yards for two of its four Ross Krautman field goals, both following Doug Hogue interceptions. The other interception, by Phillip Thomas, also led to a field goal after a 71-yard drive, but more importantly it prevented a West Virginia touchdown.