By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
The total collapse of West Virginia in its first season as a member of the Big 12 ended Saturday with an embarrassing 38-14 loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl in Yankee Stadium.
Playing in frigid weather and a steady snowstorm, the Mountaineers lost for the sixth time in the last seven games after opening the season with five consecutive victories as they moved into the Top Five in the nation behind a seemingly unstoppable offense.
Quarterback Geno Smith had put the team in contention for the national championship and injected himself into the early-season Heisman Trophy lead.
But that would be short-lived glory, for the Mountaineers staggered into a five-game losing streak that coincided with Smith beginning to struggle while the pass defense languished at the bottom of all of NCAA FBS football.
Only victories over Iowa State and Kansas, the two bottom dwellers in the Big 12 at the end of the season, avoided a losing year, but a 7-6 record and spot in the Pinstripe Bowl was hardly what athletic director Oliver Luck had in mind when he brought Dana Holgorsen in to replace Bill Stewart and moved the team out of the failing Big East.
A victory over Syracuse, a team that had beaten WVU badly last season and for two straight years, would have let WVU finish at 8-5 and with a bowl victory to go out on, but they never really had a chance in this one.
The weather was the great equalizer, shutting down Smith along with Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Smith came into the game ranked sixth in the nation in total offense at 346.5 yards per game and as the first WVU quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, but he could complete only 16 of 24 passes for 187 yards.
He ended his WVU career with 11,628 yards and 98 touchdowns to go with 21 interceptions.
He did latch up with Bailey for eight completions and 122 yards and a pair of trademark touchdowns, but Syracuse did an amazing job of taking Austin out of the equation. Austin, who was second in the nation in all-purpose yardage and had put together 572 all-purpose yards against Oklahoma, could manage just 58 rushing yards on 14 carries and 21 receiving yards on two receptions.
Smith was overwhelmed for much of the game with pressure and wound up once being sacked for a safety and then also being called for intentional grounding in the end zone for another safety.
At the same time, WVU’s new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson had concentrated on improving the pass defense, but Syracuse opted in the weather to stress its running game and completely overpowered the Mountaineers in that department.
Jerome Smith rushed for 159 yards on 29 carries and Prince Tyson-Gulley, the player of the game, pounded out 215 yards and two touchdowns, one from 67 yards out.
Syracuse finished with 369 rushing yards.
“It wasn’t tricky. It was split-zone over and over and over again,” Holgorsen said. “Any time you get out-rushed by 300 yards (281) you’re going to have some problems.”
Certainly tackling was one of the problems, but there was also a matter of committing 10 penalties for 104 yards, having more yardage stepped off against them than they gained rushing.
Included in this was a key call that erased an Andrew Buie 28-yard TD run on fourth and goal that could have turned the game.
Holgorsen was not going to bite when coaxed into commenting on the officials.
“Not going to comment on that,” Holgorsen said of the holding call. “It all falls into one category: You get behind the chains, you get calls, you get called back, but you have to keep continuing to play and we did a poor job of overcoming.”
Smith completed 16 of 24 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns to end his career with 11,658 yards passing and 98 touchdowns — both WVU records.
“The weather obviously had some effect (on Smith’s performance today),” Holgorsen said. “They didn’t throw for many yards either, but it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. We did a poor job of overcoming adversity and there was a lot of adversity. The surface was not good; it was sloppy out there, and wet, and you just can’t sit there and point out Geno.
“The O-line had a hard time of sitting down and the receivers had a hard time running routes. The team with the best running game was going to win and they clearly had the better running game.”
The first half was badly played by both sides, but WVU went into the locker room with a big chance at winning, trailing just 12-7.
But the third quarter was a complete fiasco, giving up three touchdowns and a safety.
From that point on, with the weather actually worsening, it became simply a matter of Syracuse surviving while WVU had nothing up its sleeve that could mount a rally.
WVU did have a few defensive players who distinguished themselves heading into the offseason. Senior Terrance Gavin was the defensive player of the game, while safeties Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook made their presence felt with numerous bone-numbing hits.
Holgorsen plans to make a full evaluation of where the program stands and what it needs heading into next season, but he avoided it in the post-game analysis.
“From a program, we will take a couple of days off and have some time to work on 2013,” he said. “I’m not going to discuss them now. I’m going to thank the 21 seniors. They have overcome a lot, coaching changes and conference changes.”
And now it’s time for them to move on.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.