ORLANDO, Fla. – Sometimes, life is all about the long game.
When West Virginia all-American left tackle Yodny Cajuste was ejected on a questionable call in the first quarter of the Texas game, it seemed like a potential disaster for the Mountaineers. Instead, substitute Kelby Wickline more than held up to the task, picking up valuable experience while West Virginia picked up the win.
The Mountaineers will no doubt be thankful for Wickline’s Texas experience this week. He’ll be making the start against Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl with Yodny Cajuste sitting the game out.
“He’s been playing really well,” sophomore left guard Josh Sills said of Wickline. “He’s really stepped up and been a huge help to us when we’re giving somebody a break or somebody goes down. He steps in and there’s not a big drop-off or something you’d expect where you’ve got to help him or give him a big lecture. The Texas game speaks for itself for him.”
Syracuse ranks ninth nationally with an average of 3.23 sacks per game, though the Orange will be without top defensive end Alton Robinson. Syracuse officially said that Robinson and defensive tackle McKinley Williams were left home for due to “personal reasons,” though some media outlets are reporting it as a suspension.
West Virginia’s defense is preparing to face a quarterback with the ability to do damage with his feet or his arm.
Syracuse senior Eric Dungey is particularly effective in the red zone, ranking third in the ACC with 15 rushing touchdowns this season. Dungey added 17 touchdowns and 213 yards per game throwing the ball this year.
“We definitely have to be more conscious of the A-gap, because he does have the threat of being able to pull the ball and run it,” said WVU senior defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow Jr. “So, that’s someone I’m keeping an extra eye on now and probably won’t get off a block as fast.”
Of course, a dual-threat is nothing new for this West Virginia defense. The Mountaineers just dealt with the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback in their last game – Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray of Oklahoma.
“I don’t think it’s any different from other guys we’ve prepared for,” said junior linebacker David Long. “But we’ve definitely had more time to prepare and work on the stuff that has hurt us when we’ve faced mobile quarterbacks.”
Gibson is pro-Holgorsen
Defensive coordinator Toby Gibson is a big fan of WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen doubling up as the Mountaineers offensive coordinator – perhaps tellingly so.
“When it’s the head coach calling games, we all have the same goal,” Gibson said. “I’m not saying that offensive coordinators don’t, but your goal is to win the game, and he’s going to do everything in his power to help the defense when we’re struggling, and there are times when you have an offensive and defensive coordinator, there’s not that same gel and you don’t know.
You’re trying to do what’s best for you on offense to score points and do what you do, but I think when the head coach gets control of it, then it’s a bigger team aspect.”
Holgorsen is calling the plays on offense for the bowl game. He hasn’t fully committed to reprising the role next season, but it certainly sounds like Gibson will advocate for that to happen.
“Dana has a feel for it and knows, ‘Hey, I have to help my defense right here.’ So, I think that plays a big part in it, whether it’s slowing down, whether it’s running the ball, whether it’s huddling, there’s all kinds of things that goes into it,” Gibson said. “And he knows when it’s go-time and he gets them on their heels – he’s going to do a great job with that. I think it’s just the mix of all it.”
Holgorsen called the plays before giving way to Jake Spavital the past two seasons. Spavital was hired as Texas State’s head coach earlier in December.
Kids at heart
No matter the size, most bowl games are rarely degraded in the cities in which they are actually played. Many of the games are a major part of their communities because of the opportunities they afford to local organizations and the players themselves.
Both West Virginia and Syracuse players interacted with kids from an Orlando youth organization on Wednesday with a trip to a local go-karting track.
“Kids are very unpredictable, and you have to be ready for anything,” said WVU senior defensive lineman Ezekiel Rose. “I enjoy having them around, and most of the time, I just enjoy letting them talk. They have funny stories all the time, and it makes my heart warm just to hear them tell their stories and have fun.”
Senior wide receiver Dominique Maiden said he was raised to understand why such events are important.
“My dad is a Navy SEAL, so growing up, you do a lot of community service with people in the military and military homes,” Maiden said. “Growing up with other kids around, I was always the big kid, so I loved to just connect with people and hang out with people. This is a really good experience for everyone.”