Syracuse dominates WVU in every way, 49-23
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- While most of its fans were talking and thinking about the Big 12, West Virginia's football team took a Big East realigning loss.
Syracuse took advantage of an aggressive and attacking game plan against the Big East's only ranked team, answering every success the Mountaineers managed and more, and the Orange impressively pounded and routed WVU, 49-23.
A Carrier Dome crowd of 45,265 saw Syracuse (5-2, 1-1 Big East) throw the Big East race into more of a scramble on the same Friday night that first-place Rutgers (5-2, 2-1) fell at Louisville, 16-14.
Syracuse established it meant business faster than you can say "Schwartzwalder Trophy."
It was a really, really bad time for Coach Dana Holgorsen's bunch to come up empty, before a national TV prime-time audience on a day when most of the college football world figured the Big 12 might be in need of a team -- and it might be the Mountaineers.
"It was quite simple," Holgorsen said. "We knew what we were getting ourselves into. Physically, and on all three sides of the ball, they outplayed us and they outcoached us."
Now, next Saturday's 3:30 p.m. WVU visit to New Jersey becomes more crucial for both the Scarlet Knights and Mountaineers (5-2, 1-1), because the loser will have two conference losses.
Only Cincinnati (5-1, 1-0) remains unbeaten in a league that's trying to survive, as the Bearcats are in Tampa to face USF (4-2, 0-2) at noon Saturday.
On a day when Missouri's governing board gave its chancellor the power to choose where to call home in the current poker game of conference realignment -- go SEC or stay Big 12 -- neither WVU President James Clements or Athletic Director Oliver Luck showed up at the dome for the game against the ACC-bound Orange.
Maybe they were lobbying the Big 12 presidents, or perhaps on a call making Mayflower moving van plans with interim Big 12 Commissioner Chuck Neinas?
Their football team was pretty much a no-show, too, in a stadium where WVU is the only visitor in Carrier's 32-season history to win four straight times, a streak in which the Mountaineers had outscored the home team 138-57, a streak that ended with a thud.
"They just physically whipped us, from the opening whistle to the end of it," said West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, whose unit allowed 142 yards above its 301-yard average entering the game.
A good portion of WVU's woes came on first down for the Orange. The Mountaineers never seemed to be able to get SU in second-and-long, much less third-and-long.
"Never. I don't think we had them in a third-and-5-plus the whole game," Casteel said. "They were really successful on first down running the football, and then if we had some success on first down, they'd quick-game us or dump a ball for 6, 7 (yards) and get us back into third-and-2."
Holgorsen concurred after the loss to a team that was ranked 96th nationally in total offense (333 yards per game) in the first half of the season.
"We discussed that at halftime, and if you win first down against a team like this, you've got a chance to get 'em off the field," the first-year WVU coach said. "Not only did we not win first down, we didn't win third down, either."
WVU couldn't sustain drives against the aggressive Syracuse defense.
"I've been saying it all year; we're not a very efficient football team," Holgorsen said. "We're able to make some big plays, but we're not efficient."
Smith, who had opened plenty of eyes nationally with his performance in the first half of the season, was thoroughly outplayed by his SU counterpart, senior Ryan Nassib.
While Smith was spotty at best under severe Orange pressure and threw two interceptions and was sacked four times, Nassib hit four touchdown passes - one shy of his own school record set last season against FCS member Maine.
Three of those went to senior tight end Nick Provo.
Not much went right for the Mountaineers in a tone-setting first half. That included an extra-point try by Tyler Bitancurt, which clanged off the left upright.
It was his first miss after a 30-for-30 PAT first half of the season - and indicative of the myriad of issues that plagued Holgorsen's team under the bubble.
For the second time in the last four games, WVU allowed a kick return for a touchdown. The Orange lines dominated the WVU fronts, on both sides of the ball.
Syracuse gambled defensively against WVU's pass-first offense. The Orange entered the game ranked 112th among 120 major teams nationally in pass yardage defense, and figured it had little to lose by trying to force the Mountaineers to max protect.
Coach Doug Marrone's club blitzed aggressively and repeatedly and got to WVU quarterback Geno Smith time and again, pressuring and hitting him even when he was making completions.
That up-front control led to back-to-back, WVU-drive killing sacks by Orange defensive end Chandler Jones, and a crucial Jeremi Wilkes interception for SU in the late two minutes of the first half.
Mountaineer tackling was suspect against a Syracuse team that came into the game ranked only 96th nationally in total offense. That aided the hosts significantly in one of their primary needs entering the game -- keeping the WVU offense off the field.
With a pair of 14-play touchdown drives before Dorian Graham's 98-yard scoring kickoff return, Syracuse controlled the clock, keeping Smith and Co. off the turf.
In the game's first 21:32, the Orange kept the ball for more than 15 ½ minutes. For the game, the SU time of possession was a dominating 35:55.
Graham's return was the fourth longest kick runback in history for a WVU opponent, and follows the 99-yarder by LSU's Morris Claiborne four weeks ago in the Tigers' win at Mountaineer Field. It also was the longest by an Orange return man since Kevin Johnson's 100-yarder in 1998 against Miami (Fla.).
Were it not for another spectacular, leaping catch-and-run for a 64-yard score on a Smith throw to Stedman Bailey - the first of his two TD receptions in the game -- the two-touchdown underdog Orange would have had more than a two-touchdown halftime lead of 21-9.
It only got worse for WVU in the final half, after the teams traded TDs to start the third quarter.
"We were embarrassed," WVU senior linebacker Najae Goode said. "Really embarrassed."