SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — A year ago, Syracuse used an upset win over West Virginia as a springboard to postseason success. The Mountaineers are ready to make amends.
"Last year those guys did a great job boxing us in," said Geno Smith, quarterback of the No. 11 Mountaineers (5-1, 1-0 Big East). "They didn’t allow us to make enough plays to win the game. They made the plays. They were the enforcers. They were really hitting us and we didn’t hit back."
West Virginia, though, will get another chance to do just that on Friday, when the two teams meet in the Carrier Dome.
Syracuse hadn’t won more than one conference game in a season since 2004 when it visited Morgantown last fall to play the No. 20 Mountaineers, who had the nation’s fourth-best defense. But the Orange (4-2, 0-1) like to pressure opponents, and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer devised a winning formula.
Smith, who entered the game completing 68 percent of his passes, looked confused by the Syracuse blitz, threw three first-half interceptions, and was sacked five times. Syracuse led 19-14 at halftime, and it stayed that way, as West Virginia failed to score on its final 10 possessions.
"Syracuse played with more effort, more energy and more excitement for four quarters," Mountaineers first-year coach Dana Holgorsen said. "If we need any more motivation than that, then we’re out of luck."
The win snapped Syracuse’s eight-game losing streak to West Virginia and gave the Orange possession of the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy. Schwartzwalder was born in West Virginia, played center for the Mountaineers, and remains the winningest coach in Syracuse history.
But home turf hasn’t been kind to the Orange of late in this series. Syracuse hasn’t beaten West Virginia in the Carrier Dome in a decade, and Smith, who is well aware of that, is playing at an awfully high level.
Offensively, West Virginia is averaging 503.5 yards per game, tops in the Big East and 11th nationally. Through six games, Smith has thrown for 2,159 yards and 16 touchdowns with just three interceptions. He ranks fifth nationally in passing yardage (359.3 ypg) and has gamebreaking wideouts, in Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, to throw to.
Syracuse has faced its share of star receivers so far this season in Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers, Michael Camapanaro and Chris Givens of Wake Forest, and USC’s Robert Woods.
That experience has to help, right?
"When I look at this team, there’s explosive players all over the field," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "There are less things you can disguise when the field is spread out that way. Each week, we’ve played these great receivers and now we’re playing against multiple great receivers."
Bailey had seven catches for a career-high 178 yards in a 43-16 win over Connecticut in West Virginia’s last game, while Austin has 42 receptions for 564 yards and two scores and ranks third nationally in all-purpose yards at 193.5 per game.
"When they get those guys the ball in the open field, it could be dangerous," said Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones, who returns to the lineup for the first time since the season opener. "They’ve got five or six guys you could toss the ball to and they could make a play in the open field. We’ve got to do a good job of containing those guys and getting to Geno Smith."
Rest assured that Shafer will make sure Smith is looking at something different this time.
"It’s a new coaching staff over there, some different schemes," Shafer said. "The quarterback’s back. He’s a year older, a little bit more mature with his game. I think the biggest thing is trying to do a good job with variety. Change things up. Make it look like you’re going to run one thing, and then come with something else."
Last year, Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib threw one touchdown pass but left too many points on the field. Syracuse scored just nine points off turnovers as Ross Krautman kicked four field goals. The Orange failed to reach the end zone four times after moving inside the West Virginia 15 in the first half.
That can’t happen again if the Orange hope to make it two straight.
Nassib knows it.
"Last year we did a poor job of scoring touchdowns," he said. "We were given great field position by our defense a few times and didn’t capitalize. You can’t really settle for three points, you’ve got to get touchdowns whenever you can. That’s something we really need to focus on."
Both teams, off last week, have had plenty of time to gameplan.
"We were fortunate enough to have a bye week where we could take it slow," Nassib said. "This is a trophy game, a conference game. We went down there and now they’re coming back up to the Dome, and they’re going to want retribution from last year. We’ve got to make sure we hold on to that trophy."
The Orange are among three winless teams in league play.
"Everyone around this area thinks we have a shot," Syracuse offensive tackle Justin Pugh said. "We’ve got to go out there and show the world."