The last time the West Virginia Mountaineers faced the Syracuse Orange, it was in the Pinstripe Bowl, played in the House that Babe Ruth built a second time, the new Yankees Stadium. Those Mountaineers, like their 2018 counterparts, started out fast, cruising to a 5-0 start before a 5-game losing streak. The streak ended with back to back wins over Iowa State and Kansas. Syracuse was the opposite, starting 2-4 before winning 5 of their last six games entering the bowl. The bowl game itself was miserable, cold, snowy and not a lot of fun for the Mountaineers. Syracuse cruised to a 38-14 victory.
The 2018 version of the Mountaineers are in a lot of ways similar to their 2012 counterparts. They both featured a dynamic offense led by a NFL-caliber quarterback. Both had dynamic receivers. The defense for both teams let the offense down on several occasions. With so many similarities, will this version of the old Big East rivarly be any different?
The Syracuse offense is led by dual threat quarterback Eric Dungey. Dungey is not a great passer but he is effective. Dungey threw for 2,565 yards on 341 attempts (7.5 YPA) with 17 touchdowns. In the ACC, Dungey was the 4th best passer per attempt, while in the Big 12 his numbers would ranked 7th in yards, 8th in YPA and 5th in TD. The Mountaineers have faced better passers.
However, Dungey isn’t just a passer, he was also Syracuse’s 2nd leading rusher with 732 yards and their leading scorer with 15 rushing touchdowns. Will the Mountaineer defense be able to contain a player who can throw the ball effectively and then beat you on the ground? They weren’t able to against Brock Purdy or Kyler Murray so this will be a real test.
When Dungey isn’t rushing the ball, he is handing off to junior Moe Neal. Neal only broke 100 yards twice this season but he did have 5 games where he averaged over 6 yards per carry. By comparison, the West Virginia defense only allowed 150 yards per game on the ground on 36 attempts per game. Will the defense be able to key on the run game?
Keep An Eye On
When the Mountaineer defense struggled this year, it was with tall, athletic receivers. Hakeem Butler and Lil’Jordan Humphries both put up over 100 yards on the Mountaineer defense and the undersized cornerbacks struggled to contain a player who was able to effectively box them out and win jump balls. Syracuse features a player who fits this mold in Jamal Custis. Custis stands 6’-5” and weighs 213 pounds. He only caught 826 yards this year, likely in part because of Dungey’s limitations as a passer and dependence on running the ball, but Jamal still averaged over 18 yards per catch. The Mountaineer defense better find a way to limit Custis because he has the ability to take over a game and make it a long 60 minutes.
The Orange defense wasn’t particularly impressive throughout the season. Syracuse finished the season middle of the pack in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense. Where Syracuse was impressive was their sacks. Dino Babers’ defense finished 13th nationally in sacks per game at 3.25 or 38 sacks in 12 games. Can the West Virginia offense, without Will Grier, Gary Jennings and Yodny Cajuste navigate a defense that made its living bringing down quarterbacks?
The good news for the Mountaineers is that the Orange’s sack leader, Alton Robinson and his 10 sacks, will miss the bowl game for “personal reasons”. Robinson was a monster on the defensive line both rushing the passer and stuffing plays behind the line and losing a player with Robinson’s speed could be a difference maker for a team that has dynamic running backs.
Keep An Eye On
Bowl games are notorious for players who had nagging injuries to get a couple extra weeks of rest and then showing up for one final game. Syracuse is starting to get healthy but looks to be without starting senior safety Antwan Cordy. If Cordy is unable to go, will his replacement be able to handle the Mountaineers “new-look” offense?
Cordy’s potential absence will put more pressure on Andre Cisco, Syracuse’s interception leader. Cisco finished the season with a three-game interception streak and now gets to put that streak on the line against two players who haven’t started a game: Jack Allison and Trey Lowe. Without Robinson and Cordy though, Cisco could find himself needing to take greater risks in order to compensate for his lack of playmakers.