Grading The Mountaineers: Syracuse Report Card
Orlando, Fla.–With so many missing offensive pieces – quarterback Will Grier, tackle Yodny Cajuste and receiver Gary Jennings, who chose to sit out the game, and receiver Marcus Simms, who was a late scratch for an unspecified reason – West Virginia entered the Camping World Bowl in a big hole. WVU tried to stay close, but its best drives resulted in four field goals rather than touchdowns. The Mountaineers needed more to keep up with Syracuse, as the Orange pulled away in the fourth quarter and left Orlando with a 34-18 victory.
Let’s grade West Virginia’s effort against Syracuse.
Offensive Grade – D+ Down four starters, its no surprise the Mountaineer offense struggled. It wasn’t Heart of Dallas Bowl bad, but it was far from a smooth operation. Grier’s main replacement at quarterback, Jack Allison, finished 17-of-35 for 288 yards. Those numbers look reasonable for his first extended college performance, but he also took four sacks, threw a costly interception and just wasn’t as accurate as he needed to be. The sophomore transfer from Miami did make some big plays with four completions of 25 yards or more, but it was too much feast or famine. WVU’s run game was OK (146 net yards), but the Mountaineers converted on just six-of-18 third down opportunities and couldn’t finish drives when they needed to, instead settling for field goals. It needed more.
Defensive Grade – C- With all the offensive absences, West Virginia needed its defense to step forward with a strong effort. There were moments, like five sacks of Syracuse’s elusive quarterback Eric Dungey, that effort seemed pretty good. WVU also limited an Orange offense that averaged 206.4 rushing yards to just 115 on the ground. But missed tackles also came at inopportune times and allowed SU to make big plays in the pass game, as it totaled 303 through the air.
Special teams – B+ Evan Staley did miss his first extra point of the season, but he made up for that with four field goals, which ties him with Paul Woodside (1981 Peach Bowl) for the most FGs by a Mountaineer kicker in a bowl game. WVU’s best special teams’ play of the day, though, came from Dante Bonamico, who stayed home on a throwback off a Syracuse kickoff return and stopped the Orange trick play in its tracks.
Coaching – C Dana Holgorsen reached deep into the back of the playbook to try to generate an offense that was without four of its players. Without that talent and experience, Holgorsen tried to do what he could, but it wasn’t enough. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson also pulled out all the stops, blitzing constantly. But in the end, the Xs and Os can only take a football team so far. Blocking, tackling and execution are the true keys, and Syracuse was better in each phase than the Mountaineers.
Atmosphere – B- It’s a shame West Virginia fans – and some players –are so spoiled that they think the Camping World Bowl is now beneath them. A trip to the Happiest Place on Earth, an 82-degree game day, a recently renovated stadium, a matchup with an old rival – what’s not to like? Well, apparently many Mountaineers didn’t find this bowl or the destination appealing. Not only did Grier, Cajuste and Jennings bail on the game, so too did most WVU fans. West Virginia sold barely a third of its allotment of 8,000 tickets. The Mountaineer athletic department gave away its unused tickets to veteran groups and children organizations in the Orlando area. Meanwhile, Syracuse had nothing to give away, as it sold out its allotment. WVU fans used to have a reputation for traveling to bowl games in huge numbers, but those are bygone days. West Virginia hasn’t sold large numbers of tickets to its last six bowl games. I guess now that the Mountaineers have tasted champagne, they don’t like going back to Budweiser.