Pinstripe Bowl: WVU QB has third chance to beat blitzing Syracuse
NEW YORK -- The four seasons, the spring football, the preseason camps, the obsessive work ethic and the 38 straight starts have taught Geno Smith just about all he needs to know about his position and opposing defenses and how one combats the other.
He has the fundamentals down and the stats so high that he could be the No. 1 pick in April's NFL Draft, but there is this one annual occasion when he has to abandon the things he trusts so he can succeed against something that the logic of the game suggests shouldn't work.
Smith has his third crack at his first win against Syracuse in today's Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. The 3:15 p.m. game will be televised by ESPN.
"They blitz non-stop," Smith said. "There's no rhyme or reason for it. They send five guys over one side at a time. It's really unsound football, but that's the way they play."
It's also a small part of a big story before the game: Both offenses are playing guessing games against the opposing defense.
Smith lives to watch film of himself and opponents. What he's seen from his past against Syracuse is two losses, nine sacks, three touchdowns and five interceptions, as well as an aggressive defense that blitzes a lot but hardly ever the same way twice.
"We'll see how much improvement we've made against specific looks," said WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen, who is 0-1 against Syracuse after last year's 49-23 setback at the Carrier Dome. "They're very much a dial-a-blitz defense where you don't know what you're going to get. Seventeen of their first 18 blitzes last year, I think, were different."
Orange offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is taking an unconventional path toward the game, too. He's done the normal things coaches do before a game. He's reviewed WVU's entire season and searched for what the Mountaineers do against certain offensive packages, in particular down-and-distance scenarios and whatever situations Hackett likes to track.
He's paid close attention to the past few games, not only because teams tend to refine their defenses toward the end of the season with what's worked best, but also because WVU has been better in the past two games than it was in the five before that.
Yet he's also gone back to a loss in 2011 to Pitt. Keith Patterson was named WVU's defensive coordinator this month. He had the same role with the Panthers last season and did his part in a 33-20 win over Syracuse that swung when a safety scooped up a fumble and returned it for a touchdown.
Hackett has no film of Patterson coaching WVU's defense, so he's gone back to the next best thing.
"There were some things they did to us last year that got us that we want to be prepared for," Hackett said. "There are some basic things that we understand could show up."
Patterson did the same, though, and studied that Pitt game to see what counters Hackett made to the Panthers' defense. He hopes to use that to anticipate how Hackett might behave today.
"The biggest thing I do is re-familiarize myself with the personnel and see if anything we did to those guys might have helped," Patterson said. "But that was at Pitt and we were completely different than what we are right now at WVU. But, obviously, it did help to go back and look."
Syracuse's defense is no treat, either. There's a lot of movement and disguising before the snap and the offense has to be prepared for pressure, even if it's not sure from where Syracuse will send it.
"Some of the schemes, I think, are overrated," Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said. "You try to play a little harder than you did the play before and focus in on those things. The 1-on-1 matchups will be the big difference in the game and which guys play better than the guy over them."
That's been good to the Orange this season. The defense is No. 61 nationally in sacks per game, but also No. 10 in tackles for a loss per game. Hackett called it "the most insane defense ever."
"It's one of those things where it's not only aggressive, but it's hard to see where people are and where they're coming from," Hackett said. "They have people moving all over the place, so you keep an eye on everybody."
Smith's work with film will help, but only to a certain extent because Syracuse varies things so much. The defense can dress up one blitz a handful of different ways, but is also capable of trying something new.
"I expect that," Smith said. "I expect them to come out with their game plan, but they might also throw a few different things at us, maybe on the first third down, maybe on the first down. But they're going to throw something different at us.
"The thing is, once the game is in a flow of things, they'll probably go back to the old game plans and the things that have worked for them over the course of the season, which is them mixing up the blitzes and really putting pressure on the quarterback to recognize coverages and see the different blitzes and where they're coming from to put the offense in a better position."
Syracuse isn't as concerned with WVU's blitzing, because WVU doesn't blitz much, or the unexpected, because even Patterson admitted he can't make massive fundamental changes in the short amount of time he had before the game.
The Orange, who set school records of passing yards, attempts and completions this season and rank No. 21 nationally (301.6 yards per game) are instead intrigued by WVU's abysmal pass defense. The Mountaineers have improved to No. 119 nationally, but still allow 327.1 yards per game and still have concerns at cornerback, where many Big 12 opponents have aimed their focus this season.
"They've shown that they like to drop eight or nine guys into coverage," Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib said. "When it comes to that, it's a lot about discipline and not forcing the ball down the field, where they outnumber us in pass coverage. It's all about making good decisions."
Patterson promises to make that complicated and, in a way, borrow from Shafer's approach by using the unexpected to WVU's advantage in the 3-4 alignment.
"The whole premise of the defense is who is the fourth rusher?" Patterson said. "Is he coming from the field side? Is he coming inside? Is he coming from the boundary side? You have to be able to disguise that."
Still, most of Nassib's decisions will be made with patience, but most of Smith's will be made under duress. That's made a little more difficult playing with a new center. Jeff Braun, the starting right guard the entire season, will start at center in place of senior Joe Madsen, who had started the past 25 games and 50 of 51, but is academically ineligible. Pat Eger, who played his way out of the starting right tackle job after five games, will start at right guard.
"What we've got to do is stay out of bad situations," WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "That's not any different than any other week when you go into a game and say you want to stay out of situations where you just pass, because they can tee off on you.
"They bring a different element to the game the way they bring pressure. Every team doesn't bring pressure like they do. They bring pressure in unorthodox ways and put more pressure on the protection. With that being said, if you stay in a situation where they keep you from being balanced and keep you in a situation where you're being very predictable and have to throw it, they're going to be very successful."