The Pinstripe Bowl is still a couple weeks away, but with the holidays coming up and the basketball team faltering, now is probably a good time to take a look at what to expect when the Mountaineers meet our old Big East rivals(?) the Syracuse Orange. Sean Keeley of the outstanding Syracuse blog Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician helps give some insight to this year's battle for the
Schwartzwalder Steinbrenner Trophy.
Country Roads: First off, congratulations on Syracuse's 2012 Big-East co-co-co-Championship. Having won a co-co-Championship last year ourselves, I know how good it feels to go out sort of on top in your last year in the conference. How are Orange fans feeling about the 2012 season? Obviously the schedule had its landmines and you lost some close games, but you finished the year hot beating Louisville at home and Missouri on the road before the finale against Temple. Would you call that a success? And how does it impact expectations in the ACC?
Sean Keeley: All things equal, Syracuse fans are pretty excited about the way the 2012 season ended up. When we looked at the team and the non-conference schedule before the season (USC, Northwestern, Missouri), most of us were thinking anywhere from 4-8 and 6-6, at best. A 2-4 start really confirmed a lot of fears but the way the team turned it around from there and not only got back to the Pinstripe Bowl but also grabbed a share of the Big East crown, we're pretty impressed with ourselves. There's a lot of shoulda and coulda looking back on the season, but, 7-5 is a good place for this program to be headed into the ACC. I think just about any SU fan would call this season a success.
Looking at the ACC, other than Florida State and Clemson, no one really scares me. I'm bummed we're in the Atlantic with them and not the Coastal where it's apparently a free-for-all but I like Syracuse's chances to be competitive in the ACC today a whole lot more than I liked them in September.
CR: Looking over the offensive statistics, I see a lot to be afraid of as a Mountaineer fan. Ryan Nassib is one of the country's top passers, with 3619 yards and 24 touchdowns to his credit and Marcus Sales (863 yards, 8 TD) and Alec Lemon (1063 yards, 7 TD) are two quality receivers who have had very good years. And that's without even facing WVU's 119th ranked defense! Plus the ground game presents a solid challenge, with Jerome Smith a 1000-yard back and Prince-Tyson Gulley chipping in an additional 600 yards. Yet, the Orange rank only 61st in scoring offense at 29.3 points per game. What gives here? Turnovers? Red zone inefficiency? Something else? And how do you see the offense faring against WVU's young and porous defense? (You're probably going to run play-action to the tight ends again aren't you? Do you still have tight ends? Do they have hands? Please tell me you don't have any tight ends with hands.)
SK: The Syracuse Offense's toughest opponent all season long was itself. For the first half of the season, I can't tell you how many opportunities were wasted by dumb penalties, turnovers and just silly mistakes. Not to mention our redzone offense was atrocious.
Then, we found a rhythm as WR Alec Lemon and OL Justin Pugh returned from injury. We discovered that we had a 240-pound running back on the roster in Adonis Ameen-Moore, who was perfect for red zone opportunities. And whatever it was, this offense clicked and the mistakes faded. It was a different team in November than it was in September.
Our tight ends are good but not spectacular. Nick Provo graduated and took some school record numbers with him. In his place, Beckett Wales and David Stevens have performed well. We expected them to be a focal point of the offense but Ryan Nassib developed into a quarterback that none of us saw him developing into. Seriously, if you told me he was going to put up those numbers before the season, I would have said you're a dirty liar. I mean, I would have said that anyway because you're a West Virginia fan, but, you know.
CR: More than anyone else, Doug Marrone and Syracuse have had success shutting down Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin and company for two years in a row. A lot of that success has been predicated on playing ball-control offense and generating pressure on Geno with zone blitzes, forcing him into poor decisions (5 interceptions in those 2 losses). Do you anticipate another game plan along those lines? Is the Orange offense built to grind it out like the last two have been? What do you think is a reasonable point total for the Cuse D to hold the Mountaineer offense to?
SK: If I know defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, he's gonna bring the house against WVU. If there's an area where we have strength, its in our front seven. We've got a lot of fast linebackers that we can throw at you and a lot of big bodies on the line opening things up for them. Of course, our secondary is our big weakness, so if we don't get to Geno, he's going to have a chance to beat us.
We noticed this weird thing about the Syracuse offense early on. They played their best when they were down by 10+ points. They could stink up the joint all day but once the fourth quarter started and we were down 14, they became unstoppable. I don't know how we convince them they're ALWAYS down 14 points, but, if they play to their abilities, they can keep up with the West Virginia offense.
As for what we can hold you guys to, I have no illusions that you could very well put up 40-50 on us. We have a solid defense but it's been porous at times and prone to give up a lot of big plays. My goal for our defense is to keep you under 35. That sounds crazy, but, here we are.
CR: You did a great piece on why Syracuse should put the Schwartzwalder Trophy up for grabs on December 29, but let's talk about motivation in a more general sense. For WVU, having been ranked in the top 5 into October, this game feels like a bit of a letdown, even if it does present a chance to exact revenge for the last two years. Fans seem to share that apathy, as the prospect of playing a familiar foe in a cold weather environment isn't the bowl experience most folks hope for. How is morale in the Syracuse camp? Will the team be up for a second trip to the Bronx in three years? How about the fans? Does the hatred for WVU burn bright enough to draw droves of orange-clad fans to Yankee Stadium?
SK: I remain opposed to the idea of keeping the Schwartzwalder Trophy off the table. I understand why and I accept the reasoning, but I still don't agree with it. At the end of the day, if the roles were reversed and you guys didn't put it up for grabs, we'd be pissed off royally. So...I get it.
Morale is pretty good. It wasn't that long ago that we went into a game against WVU assuming a loss. But not anymore. We've won two-straight against you and we've not only won most of our games in the last month but we're also putting up a lot of points. We'll take our chances in a shootout.
I think the team will absolutely be up for another trip to the Pinstripe Bowl. Given where the program is coming from, these guys aren't above it at all. Plus, since so many of them are from the NY area, it's a homecoming. And even if its not, its a free trip to New York City.
From everything I'm seeing, Syracuse fans will be out in droves. It's probably the only bowl that we could promise to sell out our tickets for and we're apparently doing that. I know its a disappointment for you guys to be here but for us, this is a good stepping stone in our own backyard. And I think the mixture of Yankee Stadium and a chance to beat West Virginia one more time is a perfect way to end the season.
CR: The Smoking Musket crew can't help but engage in some degenerate gambling, especially around bowl season---for entertainment purposes only, of course. WVU currently is a 4-point favorite and the over/under is 73.5. How do you see this one playing out, and for those traveling to Vegas in the near future, where would you advise placing one's hypothetical money?
SK: I mean, take the over. I don't care if it goes up to 80.5, take it. I don't think either defense will be able to handle what's happening (unless it snows).
As for West Virginia being favored, I'm fine with that line. So basically Vegas is saying West Virginia will win 39-35 or something like that. I can totally see the score in that vicinity, however it ends up. I went against Syracuse in the Missouri game and paid the price for it so I'm not going to discount SU's chances, coupled with the assumption that this game matters more to us than it does to you. I'll go Syracuse 38 - West Virginia 35 and hope for the best.
Thanks again to Sean Keeley of Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician for taking a few minutes to answer our questions. Be sure to head over there to check out my answers to his questions, and for general Syracusian things. Seriously.