By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Considering that is a hardly the bowl game West Virginia was anticipating when this season and even at the midseason point after they had swept through their first five games, today’s 3:15 p.m. Pinstripe Bowl game against Syracuse has taken on mammoth proportions because it is one of those rare minor bowl games with a purpose.
“We’re excited about the game; there is some unfinished business from this season,” Coach Dana Holgorsen said.
Indeed there is. That mid-year five-game losing streak dismantled the glory phase of this year but winning this bowl game against a one-time rival in a trophy game, a trophy game apparently so significant that they don’t wish to risk the award which they currently possess.
Without playing for championships or glory, respect is going to have to do and as Holgorsen puts it “8-5 is a heck of a lot different than 7-6.”
“Much like we ended with the Kansas game playing for the seniors, those guys have been through a lot and I respect a lot of the things those guys have done,” Holgorsen continued. “We have some pretty good football players in that group to the point to where we want to send them out on top. To win eight games sounds a lot better than 7-6.”
It would be measurably better, too, since it would come in what mounts up to a revenge game against an important opponent.
“With Syracuse, we have some unfinished business as well,” Holgorsen noted. “We didn’t play well when we went up there and that was the turning point with Geno, as far as what they did defensively.”
That was last year, of course, when WVU lost for the second consecutive season to the Orange. Syracuse upset them, 19-14, on Homecoming, of all days, in 2010, and then last year it was a completely different story as Syracuse won, 49-23, for the most points scored in the entire series of games between the two teams.
That record is definitely in jeopardy in this game, or do I have to mention the 70-33 score against Clemson in last year’s Orange Bowl.
Syracuse’s defense was the constant in the two games, even though this season it was hardly as strong or consistent.
“They do have good players, but their scheme got us a little bit,” Holgorsen admitted. “We’ll see how much improvement we made on specific looks. They’re very much a dial up a defense kind of team, so you don’t know what you’re going to get. Seventeen of the first 18 blitzes last year were different, so we have to identify that and get in the right play.”
Holgorsen expects that not to bother quarterback Geno Smith this time around.
“He (Smith) has matured a bunch, and from a scheme standpoint, he is going to be able to see that and make some pretty good checks; I feel comfortable about that,” the coach said.
The other side of the ball presents a different situation, however.
In that first victory over WVU, Syracuse’s offense was downright dismal, especially quarterback Ryan Nassib, who managed just 45 yards on five completions for the afternoon — the lowest passing total by a winning quarterback against West Virginia since Penn State’s Tony Sacca threw for a mere 40 yards in a 19-9 Nittany Lions victory at Beaver Stadium in 1989.
A year ago, however, he had become a different quarterback by last year when he dismantled the 11th ranked team in the nation in WVU.
“Syracuse beat us physically on all three sides of the ball,” Holgorsen said following the loss. “They outplayed us and outcoached us. It's as simple as that.”
And if WVU’s doesn’t show rapid improvement under new coordinator Keith Patterson it could happen again.
“They (Syracuse) have everybody back on offense. They’re a very good offensive football team,” Holgorsen noted. “That quarterback (Ryan Nassib) just keeps getting better and better. He has worked his way up, much like Geno, to where he is going to be a top draft pick and play at the next level. They have a good running game and have some receivers that can go, and they obviously have a tight end that can catch the ball. We have our work cut out for us defensively to match what they do.”
Syracuse dominated the game offensively because they dominated third down. Nassib miraculously completed 24 of 32 attempts for 229 yards and four touchdowns during the game.
So dominant was the offensive line that they did not lose a single yard on 41 rushing attempts.
But that isn’t just schemes and technique that works to complete those passes.
“A lot of times, it’s about me making decisions,” Nassib said. “Coach (Nathaniel) Hackett tries to put us in the best position to make plays, so when the play comes in, it’s my job to get the ball in the right guy's hands and to make plays. Decision-making is key in the offense. One decision can be a big play and another one can be a big loss. It’s something that takes work, but that’s the fun part of it. I feel like we have the controls.”
It could come down to whether Nassib or Geno Smith handles the defense he sees best to decide just which team will walk away with the Pinstripe Bowl Trophy.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter@bhertzel.