ORLANDO, Fla. – Even though Dana Holgorsen wanted to downplay it, there was no ignoring the players who weren’t there for West Virginia on Friday night.
“I could make a bunch of excuses,” Holgorsen said. “But we played a good team. Give Coach [Dino] Babers credit… it helps to have all your guys, but I thought we had good practices.”
Despite missing four offensive starters, No. 16 West Virginia was still good enough to hang with Syracuse for three quarters. But their absence was felt on a couple key plays in the fourth as the No. 20 Orange scored 17 unanswered points for a 34-18 win in the Camping World Bowl.
The hardest player to replace was quarterback Will Grier, who finished fourth in Heisman Trophy voting before deciding to end his West Virginia career a game early. Sophomore Jack Allison was unsteady but sometimes solid in his place, finishing 17 of 35 for 277 yards.
“I was proud of him. He’s had what, 10, 11 snaps this year?” Holgorsen said. “I thought his work ethic was good. I thought his demeanor was good. We’re obviously a different club [without Grier]. But again, I could give you a bunch of excuses. I’m not interested in saying any of them.”
Allison’s biggest misfire became a costly one.
Allison threw a pass too high for running back Kennedy McKoy, who attempted to make a leaping catch that instead deflected to Syracuse cornerback Allen Stritzinger, who picked it off at the West Virginia 38. The Orange took advantage of the short field for a 34-yard Andre Szmyt field goal to extend its lead to 27-18 two minutes into the fourth quarter.
On the following possession, Allison had no chance on a third-and-10 as he was engulfed by Syracuse Kendall Coleman for a nine-yard loss. It was one of Coleman’s three sacks against backup left tackle Kelby Wickline, who was replacing second team all-American Yodny Cajuste. Cajuste, like Grier, missed the game to prepare for the NFL Draft.
“The offensive line is one of the biggest positions of trust, and that’s where it kind of hurts in that continuity,” said right tackle Colton McKivitz. “I thought everyone fought their tail off with the guys we had, but we didn’t do enough to get the victory.”
One play prior to the sack, Dominique Maiden dropped an Allison pass. Maiden saw more playing time with the Mountaineers forced to replace two of their top three receivers. Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms, who combined for 1,595 receiving yards this season, were both out due to injuries.
Syracuse followed that three-and-out with a four-play, 58-yard touchdown drive that put the game to bed. With that, the Mountaineers — once Big 12 title contenders — closed the season a third-straight loss that dropped Holgorsen to 2-5 in bowl games as a head coach.
“In the end, maybe they had more players than us,” McKivitz said. “Inexperience could have been it. But if we’re a good team, we’re going to overcome that. We didn’t do that today. It’s something we have to build on in the offseason.”