WVU football: No. 11 Mountaineers seek revenge against Orange
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia is the only ranked team in the Big East Conference and possesses the top offense and defense in the league.
Every occurrence to build those facts established the No. 11 Mountaineers as the favorite early in conference competition to win the Big East and represent it in the Bowl Championship Series.
Those are the conditions that existed before WVU played Syracuse last season.
The Orange won, 19-14, and the season began to unravel for the Mountaineers.
WVU carries the same superlatives into tonight's 8 p.m. (ESPN telecast) against the Orange inside the Carrier Dome and hopes to keep things together moving forward.
"I couldn't honestly tell you what happened last year," senior defensive lineman Julian Miller said. "It definitely was one of those games where at the end of the day you said, 'Wow, what happened?' Now you hope not to get caught in the same situation this time."
The Mountaineers were 5-1 overall and 1-0 in the Big East with a meaningful victory against South Florida.
They also were ranked No. 25 before losing to Syracuse and Connecticut in succession last season. WVU led the Big East in all the major statistical categories and while it didn't lead in an offensive measure, there was Geno Smith, Noel Devine, Jock Sanders, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey -suggesting the Mountaineers had the Big East's best offensive talent.
In back-to-back games, WVU scored three touchdowns and 27 points and totaled seven turnovers and 13 third-down conversions in 34 opportunities.
"Obviously the offense struggled last year," senior left tackle Don Barclay said. "That was the biggest thing. At times during the games we struggled because I don't think we had an identity like we do this year."
The Mountaineers are again 5-1 and 1-0 in the Big East, and this time they opened conference play with a win against UConn.
They again lead the Big East in total defense. The offense is No. 1 in passing and total offense and Smith has excelled in his first season with Coach Dana Holgorsen and his offense.
Syracuse Coach Doug Marrone said WVU has many of the same skill players on offense and still spreads the field, but Smith is the most noticeable difference between the two seasons and systems.
"Last year was my first time starting here, and I took my lumps and moved on from it," said Smith, who was sacked five times and threw three interceptions against the Orange last year.
"So, for one, we're older. I was young and we had young guys. That's no excuse being made. That's just the way life goes, the way the game goes sometimes.
"You've got to take your lessons and learn from them and get better with experience."
The loss to Syracuse was the first since 2001. The loss to the Huskies was the first since the two teams began playing in 2004.
"I think I would be naive not to think that we had gone to Morgantown and might have caught them off guard a little bit," Marrone said.
To prepare for the Orange (4-2, 1-0), Holgorsen studied their six games this season, but simply watched last year's game at Mountaineer Field. He didn't make any notes or take anything to the practice field, but he witnessed what he thought was the difference in the game.
"Every game in this conference, you have to get ready to play, as West Virginia learned last year," Holgorsen said. "Syracuse played with more effort, more energy and more excitement for four quarters and ended up knocking off West Virginia. If we need any more motivation than that, then we're out of luck. That's all I've got for them this week and that should be plenty."
Holgorsen had a similar message this season before the UConn game, but his team led only 10-9 at halftime and was in danger in the third quarter. The Huskies were driving toward WVU's end zone, but the quarterback couldn't slide before cornerback Pat Miller hit him, jarring the ball loose. The fumble bounced to linebacker Jewone Snow, who returned it 83 yards and set up a touchdown.
That was the first of 33 straight points in a 43-16 win.
"I think we've got a lot of confidence going into this and we know what we can do," Barclay said. "We've got great schemes if everyone buys into it and has confidence in it. Last year, I think we didn't know if we were a spread team or a power team or kind of both, but this year, we've got an identity."
The indecisiveness last season left WVU as a team that felt like it lost two games it should have won, which was ultimately what left them sharing the Big East championship with Pitt and Connecticut. Armed with an identity on offense and emboldened again by defense, the Mountaineers want that title to themselves.
"We've talked about that a lot through the last few weeks," said receiver Stedman Bailey, who has a school-record four consecutive 100-yard receiving games. "We don't want to go through that again and realize we could have had the outright championship. We're focused on not repeating our mistakes and walking around with the coulda-shoulda-wouldas. We want to go out and get the job done and not look back and have any regrets about the game."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.