PRE-GAME RUN THRU: THINNING PINSTRIPES EDITION
by: Brandon Priddy : @abpriddy
Welcome to the PRE-GAME RUN THRU – not to be confused with a “walk-through.” You don’t have time for that and neither does Coach Holgorsen! We’re hitting you with info as fast as you can take it…..we want TEMPO, TEMPO, TEMPO! Let’s get it rolling!!!
It’s finally here. Last dance, curtain call, encore – whatever you want to call it, it’s the end of the blue and gold line for Tavon Austin, Geno Smith, (most likely) Stedman Bailey and a host of other Mountaineer seniors who will end their college playing careers on the turf of new Yankee Stadium. It’s not quite the end they or we envisioned back in the heady days of early October, but given that not just this bowl game but ANY bowl game was far from a certainty in mid-November, things could be a lot worse.
So let’s get right to it – no need for introductions here because we all know the ‘Cuse and more importantly that familiarity breeds contempt. After failing to meet the Orange in the regular season for the first time since 1954 (58 years) this old rivalry was given a surprise one year extension by the good folks at the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. Given that the supposed finale last year was an embarrassment for the Mountaineers at every conceivable level, it’s a game WVU should be excited to play, no matter what the path was to get here.
Key To The Game: What is The WVU Defense?
As far as I’m concerned there’s just a single key to this game – what is the WVU defense? Is it a historically bad collection of inexperience, low-end talent and suspect coaching? Is it REALLY on the short list of all-time bad D units as evidenced by the unthinkable numbers it has given up through the air? Or is it simply a perfect storm of a merely below-average defense (with its largest weakness in the defensive backfield) being thrown against some of the most prolific passing offenses you’ll ever see? The unfortunate result of lining up up 7 of the top 24 scoring units in the nation and letting them take their shots against a D with limited depth and experience.
That boys and girls, is the entire crux of this thing.
The WVU offense will score, there can be little doubt about that. Outside of a 2.5 game disappearing act in the middle of the season, this is a squad that’s been good for 35 every Saturday and quite often the high side of 40. The points will be there and the only question is, can the WVU defense hold the Orange O to fewer?
This Syracuse offense is solid and at times quite impressive, but miles below the high-flying units that paraded up and down the field against WVU in Big 12 play. To wit, the Orange averaged 29.3 points, or enough to place them 3rd in the Big East and less than two points behind leaders Louisville and Cincinnati, who tied for the lead with 31 a game. That same total would tie the ‘Cuse for 8th in the Big 12, landing them even with TCU and ahead of Iowa State (25.2) and Kansas (18.3). Here’s the part where we point out that WVU’s best defensive performances in conference came against both ISU, Kansas and TCU. They held the Cyclones and Jayhawks to 24 and 10 respectively in wins and the Horned Frogs to 31 in regulation before falling in 2 overtimes (victimized by a missed call on the winning score).
So I say again, was the abysmal performance of the WVU D a reflection of their own shortcomings or the amazing opposition? Given an independent sample to work with on Saturday we could very well find out, and that answer will almost certainly decide the game.
Stop This Man
As Jed points out in his Hot Reads column over at MSNSports.com, Syracuse underwent a metamorphasis of sorts at the mid-point of the season this year. Having sputtered to a 2-4 record as they tried to ride the arm of Ryan Nassib to victory, they changed course and instead looked to the ground for more consistent production. Jed covered it well in his column:
In mid-October, Syracuse stood at 2-4 and had lost nine of its 11 games ….. with a Big East contest against Connecticut upcoming, Doug Marrone decided to get back to the basics. Against the Huskies, Nassib threw the football just 20 times (his fewest attempts since the 2010 win in Morgantown) as Syracuse rushed 53 times and gashed UConn with 251 yards on the ground.
The game marked a new beginning for an Orange team that has lived a tale of two very divergent half seasons. In its first six games, during that 2-4 start, SU was minus-10 in turnover margin and it managed just 128 rushing yards per game (3.6 per carry). In its last six games, a stretch that has seen Syracuse post a 5-1 record, it is plus-nine in turnover margin and has averaged 216 yards per game (4.7 per carry) running the football.
The Orange’s play selection during these two very different halves of the 2012 slate has been revealing. During the first half of the year, the ‘Cuse was running the football on 46 percent of its snaps and throwing it on the other 54 percent while in the second half, those numbers have been flipped, with the Orange running 58 percent of the time while throwing it just 42 percent. In short, Syracuse rediscovered a lost commitment to the ground game and that change went a long way toward saving its season.
That’s a pretty big deal, and as far as WVU fans are concerned it should be a welcome development. While the historic struggles of the WVU pass defense have been well-documented, its run-stopping prowess has been overlooked (giving up 3.54 yards per attempt to rank 18th nationally) and is solid if not spectacular – but sometimes it’s downright spectacular. So there’s that.
Before you get too happy, however, here are some not-so-happy numbers. While Nassib was throwing it less, he was much more picky with the balls he did put in the air and aimed many more of them at senior receiver Alec Lemon. Lemon is the clear #1 in the Orange WR corps, catching 70 balls for 1063 yards and 7 scores – leading the team in all 3 categories. In the first half of the season, 24 of Nassib’s 117 completions were to Lemon (I excluded the season opener against Northwestern as Lemon was injured and didn’t play) for a 20.5% hit rate. In the second half of the season however (when Syracuse went 5-1), Nassib found Lemon for 46 of his 121 completions – a 38% rate. Nearly double.
Normally this would be a good thing, right? You know who the main target and exactly who it is you have to stop. Unfortunately this is a WVU team that has struggled stopping primary targets. Maryland’s Stephon Diggs went for 113 yards and a pair of scores, Baylor’s Terrance Williams for 341 and 2 TDs and Oklahoma’s Kenny Stills 91 yards and 4 TDs. I left off a host of other receivers who put up big days this year, but I wanted to concentrate on guys that WVU entered the game knowing they had to stop. They didn’t stop any of them.
Happy feeling gone.
(Note: I started a paragraph that would have gone on to detail WVU’s propensity for upping the draft stock of guys like Calvin Johnson and Hakeem Nicks in bowl games and stopped when I was overcome by nausea. If you’re Alec Lemon’s agent, might want to put some bubbly on ice. You jerk.)
It’s So Hard To Say Goodbye. No, Really. We’re Having Trouble With This
Over the last few years of realignment turmoil, WVU has had a host of opportunities to provide parting shots to charter members of the Big East football league as they shuffled down the conference path to supposed greener pastures – or in the case of last season, when it was WVU doing the shuffling. The unfortunate reality for us fans to whom these eternal bragging rights are so important is that the Mountaineers have generally taken it on the chin. They lost the finales to all 3 exiting Big Easters from the classes of 2003-04 (Miami 2003, Boston College 2004, Virginia Tech 2005) and then were embarrassed by the Orange last year. Fortunately they were able to avoid an unthinkable loss to Pitt – but only by the slimmest of margins (winning 21-20) and even the reliably hapless Rutgers squad held the lead going into the 4th before WVU won by 10.
Now I don’t know what any of this means or why it happens or….well…..much of anything. I just know I don’t like it and even though the ‘Cuse is too chicken(explicative) to put the Schwartzwalder Trophy up for grabs like any self-respecting football program would, it sure would be nice to capitalize on this farewell mulligan we’ve been given.
Bob Huggins Might Not Have a Rearview Mirror, But We Do
If the name Marvin Graves still brings your blood to a boil like it does mine, here are a few looks back on the infamous 1992 melee between the Orange(men) and Mountaineers.
First John Antonik did a wonderful retrospective where he talked to a lot of folks involved and laid out exactly what happened in painstaking detail. It was great to get the perspective of guys like Mike Collins and Darren Studstill all these years later and find out that they’re still pissed. So am I.
Second yours truly did a much more tounge-in-cheek but still entertaining look back on the same incident over at the SmokingMusket.com, focusing on some great footage of the incident, which I embedded in the article. It’s worth a look if for nothing else then for that. Give that a read here.
What The SignalCaller Will Be Watching
Jed has been busy in the layoff between the regular season and bowl time, cranking out 3 previews with another on the way before gametime. Word is that Santa came down the Drenning chimney on Christmas Eve to find him hard at work before his keyboard, so deep in thought that he didn’t even notice when Mr. Claus filched Jed’s milk and cookies.
It’s really great stuff that I can’t recommend highly enough. You’ll be the guy at your game watch party spouting off the stats that nobody else has heard. The ladies will be justifiably impressed. Your kids will pipe down for 3 hours and let you finally watch a game in peace. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating but it’s info you’ll be happy to have all the same. A quick rundown:
A peek forward at what the blue and gold cupbord will look like when one of the most prolific senior classes in program history moves on.
A general look at the Orange and a collection of interesting tidbits and stats that will give you some insight into the old foe.
Here’s a look at the balance that characterized the Orange’s offense this year, and how it saved their season.
And here are a few things that jumped out at me (with my commentary added afterward):
Syracuse feature back Jerome Smith (1,019 yards) is a no-nonsense grinder who runs low with a great forward lean and is most comfortable plowing through contact between the tackles. Smith does have deceptive speed that can lure a defense into taking poor angles, sometimes helping him bounce things off the edge when you don’t expect him to.
Well thank God this WVU defense never takes a bad angle! (checks cabinet to make sure bourbon stock is full for game day)
The average length of the 17 third down situations Syracuse faced was barely four yards per attempt, helping Nassib move the chains on a dozen of them. So dominant was the SU offensive line that the Orange didn’t suffer a single lost yard on 41 rushing attempts.
This breakdown of last year’s Carrier Dome blitz gave real insight into where that game was lost – first and second down. If this WVU defense is to step up and give the offense a chance to win, it’s gonna have to happen on those first two downs. Which brings us to:
While some offenses tend to reserve their traditional screen game for third and long, Syracuse doesn’t like to wait. They start dialing up the single back screens almost like clockwork on second and long – and they aren’t afraid to go back to it even after you’ve seen it.
So now we’ve got two things. A) win second down and B) watch for this exact play. Just blowing it up once could be a game-changer. I just hope Patterson and DeForest read Jed’s columns. While we’re on the subject of second downs, here’s some more knowledge, this time when WVU has the ball:
With few exceptions other than the goal line, Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer likes to dial up the pressure on second down and long (typically blitzing five or six) while dropping into coverage on third and long (generally rushing only three or for).
Remember where you saw that when Tavon Austin snags a short pass and takes it to the house on 2nd and 9.
So there you go folks. The last PRE-GAME RUN THRU of the season and hopefully we provided some tidbits you can take into the game on Saturday for a little more insight and most importantly enjoyment. It’s been a great year and I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to preview and rehash the games with you every week. Let’s go get one more.
8-5 never looked so good.
Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it. Please feel free to hit me up with ideas or suggestions on how to make these pre and post-game wrap ups better and more informative. We’re here for you. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow me on Twitter: @abpriddy. I tweet throughout the game and love a little back-and-forth. Also check out some more of my work over at SmokingMusket.com where I was fortunate enough to become one of the newest staff writers.