Once combatants in the Big East Conference, the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Syracuse Orange now find themselves facing off against each other in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Saturday, Dec. 29.
The Mountaineers, under Dana Holgorsen who is now in his second season with the program, are one of the teams that has recently made the move out of the Big East Conference and now participates as a member of the Big 12. Early on this season the team destined for record-breaking greatness as it ran off five straight wins by averaging an astounding 52.0 ppg, but at the same time giving up 35.0 ppg.
However, after that successful early run the Mountaineers began to show cracks in the armor, putting up only two touchdowns against both Texas Tech and Kansas State in a span of seven days as they were outscored by a margin of 104-28.
West Virginia ended up dropping five straight contests, all in conference, before taking out Iowa State and Kansas in order to finish the regular season with a record of 7-5, but just 4-5 in league play.
As for Syracuse, which is slated to make the jump to the ACC in 2013, the team appeared to be headed for a very disappointing campaign as it lost three of the first four games, the lone win in that span being a 28-17 triumph over Stony Brook. However, the Orange were able to get on track, beginning with a 14-13 victory against rival Pittsburgh in early October, and then, with a 40-10 rout of UConn, rattled off five wins in the last six games on the schedule. The strong finish gave the Orange a 7-5 record overall and a mark of 5-2 versus the rest of the Big East, putting them in a four-way tie for first place in the league standings, but relegated to a non-BCS bowl due to tie- breakers. Nevertheless, head coach Doug Marrone is still happy that the season has one more game to be played.
"We are thrilled to be invited to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for the second time in three years...It means a great deal to us to play a bowl game in Yankee Stadium where many of our alumni and fans will have the opportunity to share it with us. New York State is the foundation of our program. I am proud of this team for the way it fought through early-season adversity to win five of the last six games and win a share of the Big East championship. It is great for our team, and particularly our seniors, to have the chance to play one more game. This senior class has given so much to our program on and off the field and will be great ambassadors for our program and University."
Now in just its third year, this postseason event hosted Syracuse once before in 2010 when the team held off Kansas State for a 36-34 triumph. The Orange, who missed out on a bowl last year, have a postseason history that dates back to a 61-6 blowout loss to Alabama in the 1953 Orange Bowl.
Syracuse has won three of the last four postseason outings and has an all-time mark of 13-9-1 following the regular season.
As for the Mountaineers, they had lost back-to-back bowl outings to Florida State and NC State in the Gator and Champs Sports Bowls, respectively, before blowing the doors off Clemson in a staggering 70-33 victory in the 2012 Orange Bowl. West Virginia, which began postseason life with a 21-13 triumph versus Gonzaga in the 1922 Christmas Classic, now has a record of 14-17 in bowl dates.
In terms of the all-time series between these squads, Syracuse owns a 32-27 advantage thanks to a 49-23 triumph in the most recent meeting last season in the Carrier Dome. In that matchup, Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib converted 24-of-32 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns to lead the home team to victory.
Since that big win over WVU in 2011, Nassib has only gotten stronger for Syracuse. The only one to take snaps for the program this season, Nassib set a single-season program record by throwing for 3,619 yards, adding 24 touchdowns against just nine interceptions as he completed better than 63 percent of his attempts for more than 300 ypg.
Nassib, who holds every single-season and career passing record (except career TD passes) in Syracuse history, including most completions and yards, is now on everyone's radar which will make getting passes to Alec Lemon (70 catches, 1,063 yards, seven TDs) and Marcus Sales (63, 863, eight) slightly more difficult even though WVU is by no means known for its defensive prowess.
The Mountaineers will also have to keep tabs on Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley coming out of the backfield after the pair combined for close to 1,700 yards and 10 TDs on the ground.
In terms of the Syracuse defense, the team ranked first in the conference and 10th nationally in tackles for loss with an average of 7.5 per contest. Taking the lead in that department was Brandon Sharpe who made more than one-third of his 35 total stops in the backfield, accounting for a team-best six sacks along the way as well. Dyshawn Davis was just one-half TFL behind Sharpe as he registered 13 in his 12 appearances.
Top-tackler Shamarko Thomas (84 stops), was credited with both a pair of interceptions and three forced fumbles for a team that had trouble forcing turnovers in 2012.
The Orange defense will have its hands full trying to slow down the likes of Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin each of whom has displayed the uncanny ability to produce massive stats this season.
Smith, who was thought to be on his way to a Heisman-type season, has been a numbers machine for the Mountaineers in 2012, at one point throwing for an incredible 687 yards in a single game against Baylor in late September and yet WVU survived by just seven points. Smith, ranked sixth in the country in total offense with 346.6 ypg, owns seven of the program's 11 400-yard passing games in history, including the top five positions.
However, Smith could not have gotten the job done without the services of Bailey and Austin who together own the top three receiving games in school history, all this season. In the meeting with Baylor, Bailey stepped up with 13 catches for 303 yards. In that same Baylor battle, Austin caught 14 balls for 215 yards as well.
Austin, who also carried the ball 61 times this season for another 598 yards and three TDs, finished with 110 receptions for 1,259 yards and 12 scores through the air, while Bailey turned his 106 grabs into 1,501 yards and a staggering 23 TDs. Both players were named All-Americans, Austin making the First Team as an all-purpose performer and Bailey to the second team as a receiver.
Unfortunately, this outing appears to be the last for the trio representing Morgantown with Bailey, a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, announcing his intention to enter the NFL Draft following the season.
"I kind of weighed out all of my options, sat down with my family, sat down with Coach (Dana) Holgorsen and we all came to the conclusion that this was the best decision for me," said Bailey.
If you were looking for positives on the defensive side of the ball for the Mountaineers, those are few and far between. The unit ranked 119th in the country in passing yards allowed (327.1 ypg) and 114th in points given up (38.1 ppg). Obviously, much of that had to do with the fact that the WVU offense was always moving the ball down the field and putting points on the board, bringing a weary defensive unit back out for action, but there's also something to be said for the number of underclassmen that were asked to play a pivotal role in 2012 as well.
One of the only bright spots for the group was Josh Francis who finished fifth on the team in tackles (52) and first with 15.0 TFLs and 4.5 sacks.