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Pinstripe Bowl: Braun making move to center as easy as possible

NEW YORK -- Jeff Braun will be West Virginia's center for Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse.

The veteran is trying to make the move there from right guard as uncomplicated as possible.

That's the persona of a fifth-year senior who has started at guard and tackle with the Mountaineers. He's also been the backup center all season and was taking regular practice reps there for a good part of this season.

He's even played center once before in place of Joey Madsen with Josh Jenkins to his left, the very scenario he'll have in the 3:15 p.m. game (ESPN telecast) at Yankee Stadium.

Of course, in that same game, the quarterback was Jarrett Brown, the leading rusher was Noel Devine and the leading receiver was Jock Sanders. It was the second game of the 2009 season and Braun's only other live action at center was at the end of a 35-20 win against East Carolina.

"For me, it's been like riding a bike," Braun said. "I snapped my whole senior year (of high school), so once I got the ball back in my hands, snapping it came naturally for me. I'm not worried about that."

The Mountaineers (7-5) knew early last week Madsen would be academically ineligible for the bowl and Braun had plenty of time to practice and to get reacquainted with center.

Madsen had started 50 of the past 51 games and played all but eight of WVU's snaps this season.

Braun practiced four times at center in Morgantown before the break, which means Pat Eger had as many opportunities to work out in Braun's place at right guard.

Braun said he needed a handful of snaps before he found the groove and could consistently zip shotgun snaps to quarterback Geno Smith.

"I've played it here my whole career, kind of silently in practice," Braun said. "I got a lot of reps all the way to halfway through the season and cut my reps back, but I started getting live reps again last week."

Snapping the ball is a big part of the position, but it's not the biggest, and especially not against a defense that likes to blitz as much and as unpredictably as Syracuse's.

The Orange (7-5) make 7.5 tackles for a loss per game and blitz on about half its downs.

Those blitzes are hardly ever the same.

"A lot of their defense is trying to confuse you," Braun said.

"They try to disguise things and where the blitz is coming from. They bring a lot of different guys from a lot of different places, so you've got to be ready for that. I'm responsible for picking that up and sliding (the line) to protect Geno."

WVU doesn't huddle, which could keep prevent Syracuse from being too exotic, but Braun will be charged with quickly reading the defense, finding the blitz, communicating it with the offensive line and sliding the protection to the appropriate spot.

The trouble with that, though, is that Syracuse is hard to diagnose.

"They're very random," Braun said. "They don't have many tendencies. But you can see the guys and where they're overloading."

Braun also spent a lot of time next to Madsen in games and observing how he handled that assignment. He's very familiar with what has worked in the past, but he said it's going to be a change being in the middle.

"I think I'll be able to do it, but the difference is at guard I could see better," he said. "I was back off the ball and sometimes I could get my head up and see. At center, I'm on the ball and it's harder to see everything I can see at guard. But I've got help from Josh. He's a veteran. Pat knows what's going on because he's started some games."

*  *  *

WVU PRACTICED outside at Fordham University Thursday, a day after weather in the area forced the team to practice inside a ballroom at the team hotel.

Dark clouds floated by a bright sun throughout the afternoon and a persistent breeze dropped the temperature to near freezing.

"Weather isn't an excuse when it comes to the game of football," running back Shawne Alston. "It's Miami out here right now."

It's not, nor is it even close to the conditions that preceded the Orange Bowl last season, when Alston had 20 carries for 78 yards and two touchdowns.

The Saturday forecast here is for a sunny day with temperatures in the low 30s and a 70 percent chance of snow.

"Personally," Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said, "I would like to see sub-zero temperatures and 15, 20 inches of snow throughout the game. But that's just me."

Alston had one of his better games in blizzard-like conditions in 2011 with 110 yards and two touchdowns, including a 52-yard score, at Rutgers. The senior tends to take offense to the suggestion he's better suited to run in cold weather because he's 6-foot and 235 pounds. He thinks it suggests he can't run in better weather, but he allowed for the possibility it might be hard on Syracuse defenders Saturday.

"I've heard that a couple times, but I guess if it's cold we'll see," he said.

*  *  *

WVU AND SYRACUSE revive their rivalry for the 58th consecutive year, the 60th time overall and probably the last time for a long time. Conference realignment threatens to end this series for at least a few years with WVU in the Big 12 and Syracuse off to the Atlantic Coast Conference in July.

But was the rivalry already over?

"I don't really consider it a rivalry," Syracuse cornerback Keon Lyn said. "They probably do because we beat them the last two years. It's probably important for them to get a win, but it's important for us to keep winning against them."

Even with back-to-back losses, WVU is 8-2 in the past 10 games, but still trails the series 27-32. The Schwartzwalder Trophy, which had gone to the winner since 1993, isn't on the line, so payback is the most WVU has to play for Saturday.

Or not.

"I don't think it's payback," Smith said. "I think that's a strong word. It's just a game, but there's definitely a respect factor there. Those guys have beaten us twice. We didn't get that chance to play them this year in the regular season, so being able to play those guys in the Pinstripe Bowl is a way for us as seniors and as a program to go out and prove doubters wrong."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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