West Virginia vs. Syracuse: Grading The Pinstripe

Jeff Zelevansky

After watching the West Virginia Mountaineers end the season against the Syracuse Orange on as sour a note as imaginable, we check in for the final game report card of the season.

Well that went about as badly as it could have possibly gone. What's the only thing worse than stumbling to a 4-5 conference record (5 losses all coming consecutively of course) in your inaugural Big 12 season you ask? How about wrapping the season up getting embarrassed by an old foe from a former conference that you keep saying you were too good for.

That's exactly what happened to the Mountaineers on a snowy late December afternoon in the Big Apple. It was a frustrating experience for players and fans alike as the inclimate weather, poor game plan and a cavalcade of self-inflicted wounds were way more than WVU could hope to overcome. Let's sharpen our pencils and get out that report card.


Defense: C-

I know, I know. You're shocked that I could drop anything other than an F on a unit that gave up over 360 yards on the ground and was seemingly dominated from top to bottom. Sorry, but I grade on a curve here. This was the final game of the season - doesn't get more "you are what you are" than that. This isn't a great defense. In fact it's about as far from a great defense as possible.

What we had this year was a Mountaineer team that was unapologetically offense first. You've got an offensive guru as coach hired by a former quarterback athletic director; their priorities are clear. So I'm not going to declare the D failures when they spend over half the game playing well enough to win until they finally collapsed under the weight of an offense that couldn't get out of its own way.

Yes, it was frustrating to see the lone bright spot of the season - run defense - give up over double their game average on the season, but they did some good things early. After giving up a field goal on the first Orange(men) drive, they forced punts on the next two before making a goal line stand on 4th and 1. The finally gave up a TD but then created a turnover near the 50 and held for another punt before the end of the half.

They gave up a quick score to start the 2nd half but created another turnover that their balleyhooed offense immediately gave right back. Finally halfway through the 3rd quarter they broke and the Cuse proceeded to gash them on the ground. Sorry, but if you expected more from this defense than holding things together for nearly 40 minutes, you haven't been watching this team play football.


Offense: D

Stedman Bailey single-handedly staved off an F here. His 7 catch, 126 yard 2 TD performance was the only thing that remotely resembled what had been one of the all-time great WVU offenses. The single bright spot of my day was getting one final patented Stedman Stiff Arm. Aside from him though, it was a disorganized (explicative) show from the snap - really before the snap, when senior center Joe Madsen decided to forgo the final game of his college career by first forgoing class.

Any time something remotely resembling rhythm began to take shape, a momentum-killing penalty was guaranteed. The run lanes necessary for a reliable ground game never materialized and the conditions were seemingly too harsh for any type of consistent air attack. For the first time in memory Tavon Austin was a non-factor. I can't believe I just typed that.

I was most disappointed in Geno Smith. Starting with reports that he was the instigator of the pregame midfield melee, he never looked completely locked in. Sure there were some nice throws - notably the bomb to Bailey, but for the most part he seemed disorganized and rattled by the conditions (if you're scoring at home you can add sleet to the west Texas winds as things that Geno can't overcome).

For better or worse this is how I'll always remember 2012 Geno Smith: blindingly spectacular when he was on, but running his mouth just a bit too much (like this unnecessary shot from earlier in the week) and unwilling to fight back against real adversity. Need a high-performance machine to keep pace in an offensive shootout? Geno is your guy. Need a tough set of wheels to plow through a little slushy adversity? Keep on looking.


Special Teams: C

Hey, at least it wasn't Stillwater! That's about the only good thing I can say for the special teams here. Tyler Bitancurt, who I spent the last 2 years defending, planted one firmly into the back of one of his own players for what felt like his 89th career block (my snarky Twitter self was even less charitable). Three different punters combined to average 31.4 yards on 5 kicks (but Jonathan Fisher of Syracuse only averaged 24.7 on 3 kicks so that can probably be blamed on conditions).

Mostly the special teams simply did nothing to aid in the effort to win. There were a pair of penalties on kick returns at times when WVU was trailing and absolutely did not need to be pinned inside their own 10. Tavon Austin, who had been a reliable returner when it was needed most all year, was neutralized by poor blocking and the field conditions. The special teams were simply unprepared on Saturday, but in their defense that didn't necessarily make their unit unique.

But hey - they didn't make any crippling or game-changing mistakes, right? Progress!!


Coaching: F

A failure at every conceivable level. Unprepared to play before the game and out-schemed during the game. It's one thing to appear mystified at what the other team is doing defensively - it's another to appear mystified when you were shut down by the SAME EXACT THING 14 MONTHS AGO. Additionally Tavon Austin was seemingly ignored in gameplanning. Inexcusable.

My biggest frustration though? You know that inability to fight through adversity I just addressed with Geno - well that starts at the top. Holgorsen made a point to mention the snow in both his halftime interviews (MSN and ESPN). Not only that, but he came unglued several times on the sidelines and even went so far as to burn a timeout to argue a call. I get that it was maddening. That was an incompetent officiating crew and I know for a fact the sideline was having real trouble communicating with them or even understanding what calls were being made - that shouldn't happen.

Having said that when you're the head guy you need to be able to deal with those things. Coachspeak exists for a reason. When Chip Kelly or Mack Brown dismisses the weather and says it isn't affecting his team even though you know 100% it's bullshit - that sends a message. There's a reason those guys come unglued once or twice a season and not once or twice a week. They project an air of confidence and dismiss any influencing factor outside of their immediate control as "unimportant." That resonates with fans and players. That matters. Let me say that I have 100% confidence in Holgorsen and his abilities, but I also think he's still a very green head coach who is learning hard lessons. Hanging up 70 a year ago didn't change any of that - it just made us forget it.

Just remember that Michigan State fans were probably grumbling about their 4th year coach hovering a couple games over .500 in 1998. Look that one up.

Thanks for following along with our report cards this year and he's hoping we get to hand out a few more A's in 2013.

Happy New Year!

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