Like a $26 martini from one of Gotham’s overpriced swankpads, West Virginia’s trip to New York was unfulfilling and generated virtually no buzz.
Picked over by bowls that offered tradition and sunshine, yet given a chance to save face on a season that capsized months ago, the Mountaineers adopted a workmanlike persona only to get worked by a Syracuse team that was grittier and trending upward as the season aged.
Forget all that bluster about West Virginia being incentivized to pay back Syracuse for two recent losses, or Dana Holgorsen’s talking point of WVU having “unfinished business” after last season’s Carrier Dome drubbing. Saturday’s business was finished when Syracuse stormed out for the second half. The Orange moved 80 yards on an opening drive that was kept alive by three third-down conversions, a drive that launched a third-quarter onslaught in which Syracuse outscored WVU 23-7.
Syracuse’s execution on the money downs was exceptional: 9-of-18 on third-down tries and 2-of-4 on fourth. West Virginia, meanwhile, couldn’t scratch, finishing 0-of-11 on third-down conversions and 0-for-3 on fourth. Imagine, if you can, a team with a first-round NFL quarterback and two bona-fide NFL receivers somehow whiffing on every possession down.
Questioned on the extent of the snow and slush impacting his team’s offensive precision, Holgorsen said: “The surface was not good. It was sloppy out there and it was wet. The O-line had a hard time sitting down and receivers had a hard time running routes. The team with the best running game is going to win and they clearly had the better running game.”
Yes, as 369 rushing yards would attest, the Orange definitely had the better running game. But of Syracuse’s 28 first downs, eight came via pass and two more transpired on pass-interference penalties in which receivers had beaten the coverage. Syracuse simply embraced the elements and owned all the game’s crucial moments. And the team from Morgantown responded with a rousing, “oh, well.”
We realized not long after kickoff in Lubbock on Oct. 13 that West Virginia wasn’t a great team, but that’s not where the shame lies. The sad epitaph for the 2012 Mountaineers is that they lacked resilience. Defensive mix-ups snowballed into game-long traumas, leading new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson to proclaim late Saturday, “We’ve got to build a new foundation defensively. We have to re-establish an identity.”
As must the offense. Even though the statistical aggregate suggests WVU’s offensive season was a success, there were too many roll-over moments for a unit blending NFL skill and fifth-year experience. Of course one of those five-year veterans, center Joey Madsen, didn’t partake in Saturday’s game, having been felled by an insufficient GPA. That such an integral player, two starts shy of the school’s career record, would allow himself to flunk out of his final game was the week’s most curious pregame storyline.
The postgame theme, meanwhile, involved seniors seemingly having accepted the terms of their mediocre finish. Perhaps that’s an undeniable facet of human nature, to feel relieved rather than embarrassed after spending a frigid four hours getting gashed by a team more enthused and far more hungry. Not to presume anyone in the media has a capacity for mind-reading, but as players summed up their sick Saturday vs. Syracuse, their words floated on merciful undertones.
Coaches don’t think like that, of course, which is why minutes before the players came out, Holgorsen warned, “We have to re-evaluate a lot of things in our program.” Asked to elaborate on what areas demand review, he declined to specify, redirecting the topic to the 21 seniors who closed their careers with a 24-point loss.
Several of those seniors, after edging Iowa State for win No. 6 on Nov. 23, discussed how depressing it would have been not to reach a bowl game. Well, they made it to one, and that’s all you can say about that.