The Chalkboard: West Virginia Mountaineers – Syracuse Orange
While West Virginia is shorthanded offensively, one of the most instructive aspects of the Camping World Bowl to watch is the defensive emphasis both teams will face in stopping the run. That’s always been a goal for Mountaineer defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, but head coach Dana Holgorsen believes it will be a priority for Syracuse as well.
That makes sense, given the absence of three Mountaineer offensive starters, all of whom elected not to play in the game. Without two primary pieces of its passing attack, WVU might be expected to try to lean on its rushing game more. The goal is to prevent a repeat of last year’s Heart of Dallas Bowl, wherein Utah strangled the Mountaineer rushing attack, leaving it to rely on a passing game that had little hope of completing anything but short passes that didn’t stress the defense. Look for Syracuse to load up the box and force West Virginia to see if it can complete passes downfield — or at least more than a few yards across the line of scrimmage.
Which squad will be better able to do so? Both were mid-pack in the NCAA in rushing defense in 2018, with the Mountaineers holding a slight edge. WVU was 48th nationally, yielding 150.8 yards per game, while Syracuse was 65th at 163.8.
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The natural follow-on to this is the way in which the two offenses will attack. Syracuse can be expected to use some of those run-crowding defenders as pass rushers too, in an attempt to make first-time starter Jack Allison uncomfortable. If West Virginia can get into the right play calls and execute under the gun, it could make the Orange pay for such tactics, but that’s a tall task for a QB getting his first action in a college game where he’s the man from the outset.
WVU’s use of its running backs also bears watching. Kennedy McKoy, backed by Martell Pettaway, became WVU’s one-two combination over the last few games of the season as Alec Sinkfield was hampered by an ankle injury and Leddie Brown wore down a bit. The Mountaineers would love nothing better than to ride its complete stable of backs to not only take some pressure off the passing game, but also to keep the ball away from SU’s fast-paced offense, which averages almost 82 plays per game.
On the flip side, Syracuse employs quarterback Eric Dungey heavily in its run game. He leads the team in rushing attempts with 167, and carries the ball on just about every type of play. From QB power to QB draw to zone reads, the strongly-built Dungey powers and rumbles his way to a 4.4 yards per carry average — a number more reminiscent of grinding SU running backs of yore rather than the fleet, open-space runners who populate the game today. Still, when he gets going, he’s devastatingly effective, helping fuel long possessions that can suck the heart out of opposing defenses.
Perhaps the biggest key for the Mountaineers against Dungey is to tackle well. He’s tough to bring down, and if he piles up extra yards after breaking contact, WVU could be in for a long day.
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TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK: Getting to Orlando was no problem, even during the busy Christmas travel season. Of far more hassle is car rentals, especially when you are trying to be budget conscious. Just about every non-major car rental outfit in the Kingdom of the Mouse has gotchas, extra fees and predatory practices designed to make many people throw up their hands and accept outrageous, last-minute conditions at pickup. Those companies know they have most travelers over the barrel, because they often don’t have any other options for a rental that can be made on the fly during busy seasons.
(Yes, I’m all for ride-sharing services, but with deadlines and schedules to meet, it’s not practical to depend on those in these situations.)
Once I’m put in charge of the universe, these sorts of companies and practices will be consigned to a special level of hell.
WVU and Syracuse have played 60 times, making the Mountaineers the fourth most common opponent in Orange history. Pitt (74) and Penn State (71) hold the first two places on the list, but the third is a bit surprising. Can you name the school? Answer at the end of this column.
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The Mountaineers will be trying to improve upon a tough bowl record in Florida. WVU is 0-4 in games produced by the Florida Citrus Sports Commission, having lost previously in the Russell Athletic, Champs Sports and Carquest Bowls (twice.) West Virginia is just 2-10 all-time in Florida bowls. Its only wins came in the 2012 Orange Bowl over Clemson and the 2007 Gator Bowl over Georgia Tech.
This season’s Camping World Bowl berth snaps Syracuse’s four-year bowl drought, a stretch that had been tied for the second-longest among current Power-Five teams. Kansas (10 seasons) has the longest streak without a bowl appearance, while Oregon State has now missed the postseason each of the last ﬁve years.
Syracuse has suffered hits to its defense that, while not equaling the losses of Grier and Jennings for WVU, are nonetheless significant. Defensive end Alton Robinson and defensive tackle McKinley Williams will both miss the game due to personal reasons.
A junior, Robinson leads the teamd in sacks (10), tackles for loss (17), quarterback hits (11) and forced fumbles (three) this season. A second-team All-ACC selection, he’s also recorded 39 tackles and a pair of fumble recoveries, helping spearhead one of the most disruptive defenses in the country.
This is a major loss to a defense that has tormented offenses all season with its ability to turn the ball over.
Syracuse leads the nation with 30 turnovers taken and ranks third in the nation in turnover ratio, fifth in interceptions, third in fumbles recoveries.
The Orange, 9-3 and ranked 20th, also are eighth in sacks but Robinson was a huge part of that pass rush.
Williams has recorded 17 tackles, including three for loss, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery this season. A junior, he has shared starting responsibilities with redshirt sophomore Josh Black next to redshirt senior Chris Slayton.
The Orange will also be without defensive back Antwan Cordy, who missed the final two games of the regular season, also for unspecified personal reasons.
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WVU wide receiver Marcus Simms had an up and down year, with the down almost entirely caused by injuries. He’s not getting a lot of mention in the bowl run-up, but he could be a key factor as West Virginia tries to take advantage of a Syracuse pass defense ranked 110th nationally, if he can shake the lingering injury issues that have plagued him. With David Sills likely to get extra attention, Simms could have the chance to get deep on a few plays (assuming the pass protection holds up), and also work the middle of the field in combination with Sills and tight end Trevon Wesco.
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Syracuse has played Colgate 67 times in its history, and has a dead even 31-31-5 record against the Raiders. The Orange hold a 33-27 lead over the Mountaineers in the all-time series.