Syracuse A Tough Assignment For WVU’s Defense
ORLANDO, Fla.–West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen says WVU’s Camping World Bowl opponent has the look of a Big 12 team, particularly on offense where Syracuse is fast paced and generally racks up a ton of yards and points.
The Orange average 82.3 offensive plays per game, which is the second most in the NCAA’s FBS, trailing only East Carolina (82.9). By comparison, the most up-tempo teams in the Big 12, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, averaged 81.0 and 77.6 plays per game respectively.
SU not only went fast, but made the most of what it did. It was 10th in the FBS in scoring offense (40.8 points per game), 16th in total offense (468.8 yards per game), 30th in rushing offense (207.3 yards per game) and 36th in passing offense (261.5 yards per game), all of which helped lead the Orange to a 9-3 regular season record.
If some of Syracuse’s style looks familiar, it should. SU head coach Dino Babers is a native of Honolulu and a 1984 graduate of the University of Hawaii who has been in the college coaching business for 35 years. His four-year stint (2008-11) as the wide receivers coach at Baylor under former Bear head coach Art Briles has greatly influenced Babers’ offensive philosophy.
“(The Baylor offensive system) has worked for him,” Holgorsen said of Babers, who left BU in 2012 to become the head coach at Eastern Illinois (19-7), spent two years at Bowling Green (18-9) and then took over at Syracuse in 2016 (17-19). “When he went to Bowling Green, he got those guys pretty good in a couple of years, and it’s pretty much the same stuff at Syracuse. Three years into it, they’re pretty good at what they do. They have something they believe in, and from a team perspective, they’re good with being able to play like that.”
Like those Baylor teams of old, Syracuse utilizes a dual-threat quarterback, and SU has a good one. Senior Eric Dungey is one only two quarterbacks in the FBS to rush for more than 700 yards and pass for more than 2,500 yards this season. The other – Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray.
“He’s a lot like the other (mobile quarterbacks) we’ve prepared for,” said WVU junior linebacker David Long said of the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Dungey. “The one difference is that we’ve definitely had more time to prepare and work on the stuff that has hurt us in the past when we’ve faced mobile quarterbacks.”
Dungey isn’t the only feature of the Syracuse offense that impresses Long.
“They play hard, especially up front on the line,” said the 2018 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, who had a team-high 97 tackles in the regular season. “They definitely play hard, they get out there, they’re nasty, I like that. The running backs run hard, and No. 2 (Dungey), he does what he does back there. He gets the offense together and makes some plays.”
Dungey was Syracuse’s second-leading rusher this season. Junior running back More Neal (5-11, 191 lbs.) led the way with 827 yards, while Dungey had 732.
“(Dungey’s running ability) kind of adds a 12th man to that offense that somebody has to account for, where most quarterbacks are just back there throwing the ball,” explained WVU senior nose tackle Kenny Bigelow. “He’s a real dual-threat kind of guy. He has, what, 15 touchdowns? So, he’s a really accomplished runner and is somebody we definitely have to keep track of.
“We definitely have to be more conscious of the A gap, because, like I said, he does have the threat of being able to pull the ball and run it,” added the graduate transfer from USC. “So, that’s someone I’m keeping an extra eye on.”
The SU quarterback also was effective throwing the ball this season, completing 205-of-341 passes this season (60.1 percent) for 2,565 yards with 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Sean Riley (63 catches for 733 yards), a 5-foot-8 junior, and 6-foot-5 senior Jamal Custis (46 receptions for 826 yards) were his top two targets.
“They like to take shots,” noted WVU senior safety Dravon Askew-Henry. “They have big targets on the outside, a nice quarterback, and I feel like they just try to use that to their advantage.”
Schematically the Syracuse offense has a lot of weapons. It also has something else it takes to win bowl games – desire.
Until this season, the Orange hadn’t had a winning record or been to a bowl game since 2013. On the other hand, West Virginia had been to a bowl game in 16 of the past 17 seasons.
Thus, what is WVU’s enthusiasm level for the Camping World Bowl?
“I think the biggest thing is who wants to be here the most,” stated the Mountaineers’ defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. “If you have kids that come down here, and they just want to come down here and have fun, go out and do all that, then that’s not a good mix.
“Did we reach the goals as a football team this year that we wanted to reach? No. But this just gives us another opportunity to go out the right way with these seniors, so we have to do that.
“Syracuse, they’re going to be excited because this is their first bowl game in a while,” continued Gibson. “Nobody on that team has ever been to a bowl game or had a 10-win season. They have a lot of stuff riding on this, and they’re going to be excited. So, we have to be able to match that intensity. I think that’s the key all the way around. (The Mountaineers) have to, No. 1, want to be here, want to play and have fun doing it.”