The West Virginia Mountaineers will search for their third consecutive win this weekend in an Big East clash against the Syracuse Orange, who haven't beaten West Virginia in the Carrier Dome since 2001.
West Virginia has won two consecutive games, including a convincing 41-16 win over Connecticut on October 8th. Dana Holgorsen's team seems to have turned the page since losing big at home to LSU in late September, following that game with blowouts over Bowling Green and the Huskies. Last week's bye segues into a two-game road trip for the Mountaineers, who will travel to Piscataway to take on Rutgers on October 29th.
Syracuse is also coming off a bye, with its latest win coming over Tulane on October 8. The Orange have had an emotional start to the season, playing in three overtime games that yielded a record of 2-1 in those contests. Now comes perhaps the most difficult challenge of the 2011 slate in West Virginia.
"Obviously we have a great challenge, playing probably the best team since I've been here, and that���s this West Virginia team," said Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone at his weekly press conference on Monday. "When you look at their offense that's eleventh in the country and their defense that's sixteenth in the country, they obviously pose a great challenge to our football team."
Syracuse leads the all-time series against West Virginia, 31-27.
West Virginia's offense has continually flourished this season, and has been dominant the past two games, posting 98 points in wins over Bowling Green and Connecticut. West Virginia ranks fourth nationally in pass offense with 380.5 yards per game, 24th in passing efficiency at 152.54 percent, 11th in total offense with 503.5 yards and 13th in points per game with 40.8.
Furthermore, West Virginia averages 123 yards rushing per outing. The past two games have been a contrast of high passing and rushing outputs; against Bowling Green, the Mountaineers racked up 360 yards rushing against 283 yards passing, while against Connecticut West Virginia generated 469 yards passing and just 72 yards rushing. Dustin Garrison leads the team in rushing, averaging 72.6 yards per game. Garrison has five touchdowns this season, while Vernard Roberts has rushed for three.
Geno Smith has secured a spot as one of the elite quarterbacks in the country, and his production has been notable this season. Smith has thrown for over 2,100 yards with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions. Tavon Austin is one of the best receivers in the Big East, catching seven passes per game and averaging 94 yards. Stedman Bailey leads the team with 105.6 yards per game on 34 catches, and Austin and Bailey combined have scored seven touchdowns. Ivan McCartney has contributed 34 catches for 455 yards and three touchdowns through six games.
"They have a very good receiving corps," said Marrone. "Geno Smith is playing extremely well right now; I think he's made great improvements in what he's been able to do. That���s really been the key for them."
The West Virginia defense has given up just 19 points in the past two games, and currently is allowing just 21.5 per contest. The Mountaineers lead the Big East in total defense, surrendering 301.1 yards per game; that includes 119.8 on the ground and 181.3 through the air, the latter of which ranks first in the league as well. And even though the unit has struggled to accumulate sacks (eight sacks in six games), it still averages six tackles for loss per game, with Bruce Irvin leading the way with seven this season. Pat Miller leads the team with 41 tackles, while Terrance Garvin is tied for sixth in the Big East with two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. West Virginia has recorded six interceptions total this season, along with three fumble recoveries.
Syracuse's offense is led by Ryan Nassib, who has thrown for just 169 and 186 yards in his last two games against Rutgers and Tulane, respectively. Nassib has three interceptions against Rutgers, Nonetheless, he has been instrumental in four close wins this season for the Orange, orchestrating late fourth quarter scoring drives in each. Nassib has thrown for 1,294 yards with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions, and is 57th in the country in passing efficiency (135.9). The Orange register 333.5 total yards per game, including 113.1 yards rushing. Antwon Bailey gains 92.1 yards per game, good for fourth in the Big East, and has scored five touchdowns on the ground. Excluding Nassib's 25 carries, no other player has rushed more than 18 times out of the Syracuse backfield. Bailey also has 13 catches in six games, which ranks fifth on the team. Alec Lemon leads the team with 31 catches for 322 yards and three scores, while Van Chew and Nick Provo have combined for 42 catches for 564 yards and five touchdowns.
Syracuse's defense gave up 471 yards of total yards against Tulane, including 355 yards passing by Ryan Griffin. The caliber of offense will only elevate this weekend with Geno Smith and company testing the Orange, a team that is allowing 397.3 yards and 27.3 points per game. That includes a pass defense that is 112th in the country, surrendering 293 yards per. Syracuse is seventh in the Big East in both sacks (13) and tackles for loss (43) through six games, and the Orange are allowing a 43 percent conversion rate on third down (43-of-99). Phillip Thomas and Dan Vaughn have combined for 87 tackles this season, while Dyshawn Davis is tied for fourth in the league with four sacks. Thomas is tied for second in the Big East with three interceptions this season.
"Syracuse is a good football team. They're 4-2. They figure out ways to win. Both of the opponents that they've lost to are 5-1," said West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. "They play a very physical brand of football. Defensively, they pressure you a ton," said Holgorsen.