By Cam Huffman
For the Daily Telegraph
The bulk of the preparation is over.
The West Virginia University football team finished up most of its work in advance of Saturday’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl matchup against Syracuse last week in Morgantown, before heading home for a Christmas break. The players and coaches reconvened last night in New York City, but they’ll have only a couple of light practices over the next couple of days before teeing it up Saturday at 3:15 p.m. in front of an ESPN audience.
While the team will be fine-tuning the game plan over the next couple of days — and taking in the sights and sounds of the Big Apple — fans of the Mountaineers and the Orange will have a much more difficult time of counting down the days until kickoff.
The presents have been opened, the carols have been sung and the eggnog is empty. All that’s left now is to analyze the matchup and try to predict the outcome.
With that in mind, here are five important questions that could determine the winner of Saturday’s big game.
1) What’s WVU’s motivation?
It’s easy to think that a bowl game should be enough motivation in itself for a team to come out prepared to try to pick up a victory.
But it doesn’t often work that way. When a team doesn’t want to play in a particular game, that apathy often shows in its performance.
For the Mountaineers, the New Era Pinstripe Bowl certainly wasn’t the desired destination. Sure, playing a game in Yankee Stadium is unique, and the game will be on national television in front of a lot of eyes, but this is a WVU squad that was once 5-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country. This is a Mountaineer team that was mentioned as a national title contender and picked by many to win the Big 12.
Even after a five-game losing streak that drastically changed all of those dreams, WVU was still hoping for a warmer climate and the Holiday Bowl after finishing the season with a pair of wins to end up 7-5.
So in the Bronx on a cold, windy day against an old opponent from the Big East, the Mountaineers probably won’t come out of the gates with as much energy as they did a year ago at the Orange Bowl.
If WVU isn’t ready to play, it could be in trouble against a Syracuse squad that’s excited to be playing in its home state and motivated to knock off the Mountaineers for the third year in a row.
Those back-to-back wins, though, could prove to be head coach Dana Holgorsen’s biggest ally. If he can get his Mountaineers to remember a miserable night at the Carrier Dome last season — a 49-23 Syracuse thrashing of WVU — maybe his team will play for revenge — even if the setting isn’t ideal.
2) Can Geno Smith solve the Syracuse defense?
WVU’s senior quarterback has put up some record-breaking numbers over the course of his Mountaineer career, but his statistics against the Orange the last two seasons bring about a second look for a much different reason.
In those two contests — both WVU losses — Smith completed just 44 of 78 passes for 516 yards. He tossed three touchdown passes but also threw five interceptions — one fewer than he threw in 12 games this season, if you’re keeping score at home. He was sacked nine times in those two games and posted a rushing total of 55 yards in the negative direction.
To put it simply, Smith’s best outings haven’t been against Syracuse.
In two very different offenses — the one Bill Stewart and Jeff Mullen used in Morgantown in 2010 and the one Holgorsen had put in place for the 2011 game — Smith looked very uncomfortable against the blitz-happy defenses run by Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer.
If Shafer can keep Smith flustered again, Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone his likely to end his afternoon with a Gatorade bath.
3) Can the Mountaineers continue to run the ball?
What was the biggest difference between the WVU team that won five games to begin the year and two more to finish strong and the group of Mountaineers that dropped five straight Big 12 games after beating Baylor and Texas in its first two? The winning group was able to run the football.
When WVU ran the football, it won games. When it couldn’t run, it lost.
There were a pair of exceptions — the Mountaineers gained just 25 yards on the ground in a 31-21 win over Maryland and used Tavon Austin’s heroics to rack up 458 yards rushing in a 50-49 loss to Oklahoma — but if those two games are thrown out of the equation, the numbers are staggering.
In the four losses other than Oklahoma — Texas Tech (49-14), Kansas State (55-14), TCU (39-38) and Oklahoma State (55-34) — WVU averaged 93.5 rushing yards per game. In the six wins besides Maryland — Marshall (69-34), James Madison (42-14), Baylor (70-63), Texas (48-45), Iowa State (31-24) and Kansas (59-10) — the Mountaineers averaged 212.3 yard per game on the ground.
Late in the season, WVU seemed to have found the answer with Austin shifting into the backfield, at times, and Shawne Alston bringing back his bruising style after finally recovering from a thigh injury.
If that trend continues, the Mountaineer offense has the perfect balance and is difficult for any defense to stop.
4) Can the WVU secondary slow down Ryan Nassib and the SU passing game?
As poor as Smith performed last year against the Orange, the Syracuse quarterback was the real story of that contest. Nassib completed 24 of 32 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns against the Mountaineers. He wasn’t sacked and didn’t throw a single interception.
This year, the senior threw for 3,619 yards and 24 touchdowns, compared to just nine picks. He completed better than 63 percent of his passes and averaged eight yards per attempt.
Combine those numbers with a WVU defense that ranked 119th out of 120 teams in pass defense, giving up more than 327 yards per game, and you find a scary formula for the Mountaineers.
If Nassib and the WVU defense both live up to their averages, it could be a long afternoon for WVU. But with a new defensive coordinator in place — Keith Patterson has taken control of those duties with Joe DeForest taking a step back — Mountaineer fans are hoping things will be different in the Big Apple.
5) How will the weather impact the game?
New York City forecasts for Saturday are calling for rain and snow showers and temperatures in the low 30s.
At first glance, those conditions would seem to favor Syracuse. The Orange play in Syracuse, N.Y., where snow is the norm, and they have more of a ball control offense, while the Mountaineers are a high powered attack.
But a closer look may actually tell a different story.
While WVU’s offense puts up big numbers in the passing game, a lot of those passes are completed within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, throws Smith should be able to make in any weather.
Syracuse’s preferred plan of attack is likely to include a few more deep balls against a WVU secondary that has struggled in that area. That may be a little more difficult with a wet football and frozen hands.
Bad weather games often come down to which team can find more success on the ground.
The Mountaineers have been a little better than Syracuse when it comes to running the football — averaging 177.6 yards per game, while the Orange averaged 171.8 — and the WVU defense has given up 142.5 yards per game on the ground compared to 148.2 for Syracuse.
Those differences are minimal, but where WVU seems to have an advantage is with a healthy Alston running the ball. He’s been the Mountaineers’ bad weather back.
In the rain against Iowa State on Nov. 23, the senior ran for 130 yards and a touchdown to lead WVU to a 31-24 victory. That didn’t come as a huge surprise to anybody who saw him torch Rutgers for 110 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the New Jersey show last year.
If precipitation is in the air, turn your eyes toward Alston, and don’t forget that while Syracuse players may see some snow on their walk to class, they play their home games in the Carrier Dome, where the conditions are always perfect.
So there you have it. You’re now armed with the questions needed to pick a winner. The hard part, though, is determining the answers.