West Virginia enters the House That Ruth Remodeled operating at a distinct disadvantage.
The Mountaineers have had less than a month to acclimate their new defensive coordinator and less than a fortnight to break in a new center. Both variables could swing the Pinstripe Bowl in Syracuse’s favor, but the Mother Nature could provide the biggest variable of all.
With the forecast calling for a 90-percent chance of snow and winds from 6-18 mph, the Geno Smith vs. Ryan Nassib passathon could instead become a battle of the running games. And if that blustery slushiness transpires, you have to favor the concept of Tavon Austin making timid-stepping Orange defenders miss on a frozen field.
“He’s an elusive athlete,” Syracuse linebacker Dyshawn Davis said of Austin. “When you’re playing a guy like that, you’ve got to make sure everybody gets to the ball. You’ve got to make good tackles, wrap up and clean up. He’ll make you look silly out there.”
“I was watching that (Oklahoma) film on my own. I couldn’t believe some of the things he was doing.”
As good as Austin looked on film, Davis and the Orange defense will find him even more slippery in Saturday afternoon.
Think West Virginia’s 7-5 record (accomplished against a Big 12 lineup) is more credible than Syracuse’s, which came against the sinking Big East? Well, WVU did play the nation’s 19th-toughest schedule, according to the Sagarin ratings. But the Orange’s was no slouch, ranking 45th thanks to nonconference games against then-No. 1 USC, Northwestern and Minnesota.
For all the talent on the field, much will be made of a player who’s not even here: 50-game starter Joe Madsen, the WVU senior center who was declared academically ineligible. Into his place steps close friend Jeff Braun, a 38-game starter at guard. Braun has always struck me as the most cerebral guy on the O-line, and hearing him assess the mechanics of his new role at bowl practice this week didn’t dissuade me. He’ll know what he needs to do, but how well he executes from an unfamiliar spot is unknown.
Regarding WVU’s defense, now under the direction of newly promoted coordinator Keith Patterson, any guess would be valid. After all, this was one of America’s worst defenses all season, and there’s the still-relevant 49 points Syracuse — operating with many of the same offensive players — scored against a much better WVU unit last season.
“We’ve had our ups-and-downs defensively, obviously, and Coach Patterson has done a good job here the last month of taking over,” said Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen. “I put him in a difficult situation by doing that, but it was one thing that I felt was best for our football team at the moment.”
GAMEDAY: West Virginia (7-5) vs. Syracuse (7-5), 3:15 p.m. TV: ESPN RADIO: MetroNews coverage starts at noon
Patterson warned us not to expect wholesale changes — the four weeks between the Kansas regular-season finale and Saturday’s game in New York didn’t allow for total overhaul — but neither will the changes be merely cosmetic.
“Other guys are basically getting ahold of his mentality, but the linebacker corp already knew how he game planned,” said linebacker Shaq Petteway. “We’re just trying to get the guys in the other positions to learn what Coach Patterson likes.”
What Patterson likes is pressure, which probably signals less drop-eight coverage and more blitzing. Nassib and Syracuse’s uptempo offense will exploit this at times, but during a week made for resolutions, here’s guessing West Virginia’s resolve will deliver a narrow win.
Pick: West Virginia 31-28