By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Let us understand first that West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen was disappointed about everything in Friday night’s 49-23 loss at Syracuse, and understandably so.
But if you had to pick out one thing that disappointed him more than anything else, it was the lack of efficiency with which his team operated throughout the evening, on offense, on defense and on not-so-special teams where there was a kickoff return given up for a touchdown and an extra point missed.
“It’s been the same all year,” Holgorsen remarked. “We are not a very efficient football team. We make some big plays, but we’re not efficient.”
This was especially true when it came to first- and third-down plays, which normally set the tone for the game both on the offensive and defensive side of the ball.
If you want to know where Syracuse won this game, it was first and third down, for it dominated first down on offense which led to a series of third-and-short situations. At the same time, the Orange kept WVU from doing much of anything on first down, which led to third-down situations which were so difficult to pick up that WVU had to get a Google map to find the first-down marker.
The figures certainly back this up and show just how efficient Syracuse was and how inefficient the Mountaineers were.
Certainly Holgorsen was aware of what had transpired.
“We discussed that at halftime,” he said. “When you win first down against a team like this, then you have a chance to get them off the field. We did not win third down, either. They completely dominated us on all three sides.”
Let us begin with first down, which brings us to the game’s first play, a Syracuse run by Antwon Bailey right up the middle for 9 yards. That single play established a couple of things, most notably that Syracuse’s offensive line would control the line of scrimmage and that they didn’t have to do anything tricky to gain yards, simply play power football.
At the same time, when WVU got the football for the first time, Holgorsen called for a pass, one on which quarterback Geno Smith found Don Goggins in his face to bat down the ball, establishing that Smith would get nothing easy and that Syracuse would be capable of applying pressure.
And so it went. At the end of the night, Syracuse had run 30 first-down plays and on 17 of them was able to gain 4 or more yards. The Orange never had a negative first-down play and threw only two incomplete passes on first down with five completions. Of Syracuse’s 443 total yards, 202 of them came on first down.
WVU, on the other hand, ran 29 first-down plays with only 10 of them gaining 4 or more yards. While Syracuse was efficiently hitting 5 of 7 passes for 64 yards and a touchdown, Smith was hitting 10 of 21 first-down passes for only 101 yards with a touchdown and interception.
The results of the play on first down had a direct influence on third down.
Syracuse was always looking at makeable situations — never more than third-and-8 — thus successfully converted 12 of 16 third-down plays with two of them going for touchdowns. The Cuse did most of it through the air with quarterback Ryan Nassib hitting six of eight passes on third down, all for first downs.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, ran 13 third-down plays, only four of them of third-and-4 or less. On the other hand, they had five third downs in which they needed 10, 10, 13, 15 and 22 yards to convert.
The efficiency for West Virginia certainly was lacking in setting up situational football, but there was one other truly troubling aspect of the game.
Holgorsen believes one of the main staples of his offense when it gets into the red zone is to throw a fade pass into a deep corner of the end zone. He has not managed to complete one for a touchdown yet this year, seven games in.
That would not be so bad, but in this loss the play was called five times and fell incomplete each time, a wasted play in the red zone that worked against — not for — WVU’s chances of scoring.
“Their corners got their hands on us way too much,” Holgorsen said. “We’ve been stressing that. When teams do this, we have to be able to get their hands off and run a fade route. Stedman (Bailey) and (Bradley) Starks each did it one time. Other than that, we weren’t able to do it.”
Interestingly, Bailey and Starks both wound up with touchdowns on those fade routes, but they came from long distance, not restricted in the red zone where the pass has to be perfect and timing perfect as well.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel