Mike Casazza: Syracuse tight ends are ready for WVU
BRONX, N.Y. -- On the first rep of the first practice here Wednesday, three days before Syracuse takes on West Virginia in the third annual Pinstripe Bowl, the Orange ran a goal line drill.
The result was a touchdown pass from Ryan Nassib to Dave Stevens.
Nassib is the Orange quarterback and that he threw a touchdown shouldn't be a surprise - he had 24 in his first-team all-Big East season. Stevens is the tight end and that he caught a touchdown shouldn't be a surprise, either - Syracuse is preparing to play the Mountaineers.
The Orange riddled WVU's defense with its tight ends in last season's 49-23 victory at the Carrier Dome. Three tight ends finished with 10 receptions for 101 yards and four touchdowns.
"That was my big game of the season," Stevens said.
No offense to Stevens, who made a successful transition from linebacker to tight end last season, but his big game was two catches for 34 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown. It was indicative of that day, that nightmare, for WVU. The tight ends could do no wrong against a defense that could do nothing to stop it.
"It wasn't necessarily the tight ends. It was the scheme," Stevens said of WVU's now defunct 3-3-5 alignment. "We knew things would be open in certain areas of their defense and for whatever reason we kept finding it.
"But it wasn't just the tight ends. A lot of people were open. We knew some of the routes we always ran would be open. That's what we saw on film."
Nassib completed 14 passes to running backs and receivers for 128 yards, but when he needed a play and when Syracuse wanted to score, the ball went to the tight ends. Nick Provo caught six passes for 61 yards and touchdowns in the first, third and fourth quarters. Stevens' score halted a WVU rally and made it a 28-16 game in the second quarter before the defense stopped WVU and Nassib found Provo for a score just before halftime.
Every pass Provo and Stevens caught went for either a touchdown or a first down, including three third-down conversions on drives that ended in Provo's touchdowns.
"We did what our coach told us to do," said tight end Beckett Wales, who got into the game late last season and caught two passes for six yards. "That's basically all it was. It's what we did in practice and it worked, so we called it in the game and it worked again."
The natural inclination before the 3:15 p.m. game (ESPN) at Yankee Stadium is to wonder if it can happen again for Syracuse (7-5) against WVU (7-5).
"If it's open," Stevens said, "Ryan will throw it."
The Orange again feature tight ends in the offense and Wales is fourth on the team, and tops among tight ends, with 32 catches for 350 yards and a score. Stevens has 10 catches and 107 yards. Carl Cutler has five catches for 32 yards.
That's it for the tight ends this season. Provo caught more passes (52) for only a few fewer yards (537) and more touchdowns (seven) in 2011.
"This year it's a little different," Wales said. "We'll do the same scheme stuff we have all year. We haven't really changed a whole lot and we don't need to. We just need to get the offense working one more time."
Syracuse has become a better and more balanced passing team. Single-season school records have already been set for passing yards (3,619), passing yards per game (301.6), completions (283) and pass attempts (449) and the 24 touchdown passes tied the school record set in 1998.
Receiver Alec Lemon set the school record with 68 receptions last season and added two to that this season. He has 1,063 receiving yards, one shy or Rob Moore's total in 1989 and 68 yards shy of Marvin Harrison's school record set in 1995.
"They're opening it up a little bit more and they trust the quarterback more," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Their receiver skills are better than what they were last year. It just looks like they opened it up a little bit more because they trust (Nassib) a little bit more."
WVU has changed, too, though. Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest brought a 3-4 scheme to the Mountaineers in 2012. Many opponents, especially the Big East ones who knew WVU's previous defense, would use tight ends with success against the 3-3-5.
"On film, we've seen some things where they try to get out to the tight end a little more in certain situations, but it's nothing we haven't seen before," Wales said.
Actually, Syracuse hasn't seen the WVU defense it will see Saturday. No one has. DeForest was demoted earlier this month after his defense allowed, by far, the most points in school history during the regular season and finished near the bottom of the national rankings for total defense, passing defense and scoring defense. He was replaced by linebackers coach Keith Patterson, who said he'll keep the 3-4.
"It does a better job against the run game, and that usually involves the tight end," Stevens said. "The 3-3 is more about defending the pass. I believe they've used that occasionally this year, but mostly the 3-4. It's a new year and a new scheme. They're similar, but it's a different team with a different defense, but some things we do are still going to be there."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.