Syracuse‘s year certainly started rough — a 2-4 start that appeared to be spiraling into another disappointing season for the Orange after last year’s 5-7 campaign — until they wrapped up on a hot streak that saw them win five of their final six wins, and capture a share of the Big East title. West Virginia, on the other hand, shot out of the gate at 5-0, and had a national championship on their minds. A few months later, they’re 7-5 and playing in one of the Big 12′s lesser bowls. So who’s got the upper hand in this rivalry renewal (despite the Schwartzwalder Trophy’s absence)?
Bowl Game: New Era Pinstripe Bowl
Location: Bronx, N.Y.
First Year: 2010
2012 Participants: Syracuse Orange (7-5) vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (7-5)
Last Meeting: Syracuse over West Virginia, 49-23 (2011)
Syracuse (previous bowl game: 36-34 win vs. Kansas State in 2010 Pinstripe Bowl)
Dynamic. Disappointing. Surprising. Frustrating… any or all of these adjectives apply to Syracuse football during a 2012 season that saw them both struggle and succeed in spurts. The passing game, behind senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, put up some of the best numbers in team history: 301.6 yards per game through the air, which would rank them 21st in the entire country. While the defense could never truly gain its footing from week to week, the group still allowed just 25.7 points per game (good for 52nd in the FBS), though it admittedly struggled against both mobile quarterbacks and the passing game in general (21 passing TDs allowed). The bright side for them, however, is that they also thrived in high-scoring situations. Six different times they scored 30 or more points, and in five of those instances, they were victorious. Syracuse knew how to play close to the vest too, with a 3-3 record in games decided by a score or less (including two straight victories in such games — October 27 vs. USF and November 17 at Missouri). Against a West Virginia team that can throw with the best of them, while failing to stop anyone in the same breath, it’s hard to see this as anything but a strength. The Orange defense will need to find some consistent pass-rushing from the defensive front, and lock down receivers on deep routes (a struggle all season). But if they can’t, SU’s offense has shown it can beat teams through both the running and passing games, respectively, piling up over 250 yards on the ground in two of their last three games.
West Virginia (previous bowl game: 70-33 win vs. Clemson in 2012 Discover Orange Bowl)
As mentioned above, West Virginia’s greatest strength is its prolific passing offense; a group that managed to put up 341 yards per game while amassing nearly 42 points per game. On the flip side, the Mountaineers allowed 38 points per game (116th) and were ranked the 123rd passing defense in the country, out of 124 schools (327 passing yards per game, 35 passing touchdowns). So with a defensive struggle firmly off the table, it would seem WVU’s also hoping for a matchup of the two teams’ significant offensive weapons. The Mountaineers’ Geno Smith is still a top-tier quarterback, despite his second-half swoon, in part due to the phenomenal skills of his two biggest targets. In wideouts Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, Smith gets a duo that combined for 216 catches, 2,760 yards and 35 scores this year — the best 1-2 receiving tandem in the country by a landslide. Smith himself, perceived deficiencies aside, still racked up over 4,000 yards and 40 passing touchdowns (to just six INTs). West Virginia will not have any problem scoring against Syracuse’s defense, but it’s not as if Syracuse will have any problem scoring against theirs either. Beyond the aforementioned coverage issues, WVU has never been able to develop a consistent pass rush, tallying a middle-of-the-road 21 sacks on the season.
Homerism aside, this really has the potential to be one of the bowl season’s most fun experiences. Two prolific passing offenses. Two horrific passing defenses. Plus, the rivalry element, which functions as a neat little surprise after fans of the two schools thought last year’s matchup (a win for SU) would be their last tussle for some time. If we’re allowing the offenses to cancel each other out however, then which defense truly holds the key to deciding this contest? WVU, while possessing one putrid scoring defense, also managed to produce 18 turnovers against much more prolific offenses than anything Syracuse faced in conference play. The Orange, while forcing 19 turnovers, also turned the ball over 20 times — and a good deal of them ended up being unforced errors. If they can protect the ball and avoid the stupid penalties that plagued them for much of the early part of the season, Syracuse stands a very good chance to notch their second Pinstripe Bowl in three years. An ill-advised pass or two, and the West Virginia offense may not give them a chance to get back in the ball game (ask Clemson). Prediction: Syracuse 52, West Virginia 49