In Focus: Scouting West Virginia

In Focus: Scouting West Virginia

The New Era Pinstripe Bowl is fast-approaching. Now is the time to join us at CuseNation.com in scouting what lies ahead for the Orange.

In their first season outside of the Big East Conference, the West Virginia Mountaineers ended with a 7-5 record.

In their last season as Big East members, the Syracuse Orange matched that record.

Standing before both teams is the New Era Pinstripe Bowl trophy, but standing between them and the trophy are each other.

Before heading into the match, take a look at who the Mountaineers are and what to exxpect:

History under head coach Dana Holgorsen:

Holgorsen became the head coach of the Mountaineers in the team's final season inside the Big East, 2011-12.

In that campaign, Holgorsen helped to guide West Virginia to nine wins in 12 attempts during the regular season, resulting in the team being Big East Conference champions.

As champions, the Mountaineers were given the nod to participate in a Bowl Championship Series (BCS) match. West Virginia won that match, 70-33, over the Clemson Tigers of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

To end the season, Holgorsen aided the Mountaineers to a 10-3 record, making him the first-ever coach at West Virginia to attain a conference championship in their inaugural season at the helm of the team.

Holgorsen also became the first West Virginia football head coach to guide the team to a BCS Bowl victory in their initial season.

This season, the Mountaineers have not been as successful. They began strong at 5-0, but would then lose five straight contests, all inside their new conference, the Big 12, before winning their final two games. That landed them out of BCS Bowl play and into the New Era Pinstripe Bowl to face their familiar foe in the Orange.

Offensively for West Virginia:

Mountaineers' passing game:

Quarterback Geno Smith has been at the helm of the West Virginia offense all season. In 12 games, he has posted numbers that cannot be understated. Smith has completed over 70% of his passes, connecting on 350 of his 490 attempts, for a 4,000-plus-yard season to date.

He has thrown 40 passes that have ended in touchdowns to only six that resulted in interceptions.

In all of West Virginia's seven wins this season, Smith has completed about 70% of his passes or better. He connected with his receivers 87% percent of the time or better in four separate games that ended in victories. Smith completed 95.8% of his passes the Mountaineers last competition of the regular season.

These numbers are not manipulated by Smith passing only a few times a game. Smith attempted more than 20 passes in all seven games where he completed at least 70% of his tries.

West Virginia's passing attack have been a large portion of the team's output throughout the season. Smith helped to guide the Mountaineers to a 5-2 record in seven games where he passed for at least 300 yards.

Among all 12 games leading to the upcoming New Era Pinstripe Bowl match, Smith has only passed for less than 200 yards once.

But, all the credit cannot simply go to Smith. In nine of the Mountaineers' 12 games, at least one receiver gained more than 100 receiving yards.

The top two performers on the receiving side of Smith's passes have been wide receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.

Bailey led the team in receiving in six of the nine games in which a West Virginia receiver had at least 100 receiving yards, while Austin was atop all Mountaineers' receivers in the other three matches.

Between Bailey and Austin, at least one of them caught 10 or more passes in eight of the nine games where one of them attained 100 receiving yards.

Austin scored a touchdown in nine of the team's 12 games, while Bailey reached the end zone in 10 of those 12 matches.

Mountaineers' running attack:

West Virginia comes into the match with Syracuse with two running backs who have crossed the threshold into the end zone on seven occasions apiece, Andrew Buie and Shawne Alston.

Buie leads the team in carries (172), running the ball more than two times as much as any of his teammates.

Despite Buie being the go-to rusher, fellow running backs Alston and Dustin Garrison are given opportunities, including in the redzone, with nine touchdowns between them.

With three different running backs finding success on the Mountaineers, other players are also getting involved in a positive way.

Along with his prowess through the air, Smith has carried the ball 63 times for over 200 yards, crossing into the end zone twice, including a 28-yard scamper. He has achieved more than 30 yards on the ground on three occasions.

Smith's target, Austin, has also taken to the ground for West Virginia, running the ball more than 60 times for just under 600 yards, averaging about 10 yards per carry. He has three rushing touchdowns, including his 74-yard score.

Overall:

Smith has provided more than enough for defenses to have to handle. With a multi-headed running attack, the Mountaineers offense has become even more of a challenge to take on. Running up the score has been West Virginia's MO to victory, so the Orange will have to condense their scoring to give them the best opportunity of getting ahead and staying ahead.

In the redzone, West Virginia has scored on 49 of their 58 opportunities, with all but eight scores being touchdowns.

Defensively for West Virginia:

Against the pass:

18 of West Virginia's defenders have broken up at least one pass, with 14 of them breaking up more than one pass attempt from an opposing quarterback.

Nine different Mountaineers' defenders have at least one interception going into this match with the Orange.

Five of those nine players reside in the linebacker core, showing strength in the middle of the West Virginia defense.

Linebackers Isaiah Bruce and Doug Rigg have also each returned a fumble for a touchdown this season.

But, the Moutaineers have allowed nine of their 12 opponents to throw for more than 250 yards. Three different passing attacks gained more than 500 yards through the air versus West Virginia.

Against the run:

West Virginia has struggled to contain the run, allowing more than 100 yards to 11 of their 12 opponents' rushing attacks. The Mountaineers have given up more than 150 yards to five of those 11 foes.

They have failed to prevent 10 of their 12 opponents from scoring on the ground. In half of those 10 games, West Virginia has allowed multiple rushing touchdowns, including three games where they gave up four touchdowns in each.

Overall:

Despite scoring at least 30 points in 10 of their 12 contests, the Mountaineers have struggled to prevent their opponents from also stacking up points.

In eight of their 12 games, West Virginia gave up at least 30 points. Six of those eight games ended with West Virginia's opponents accumulating 40 or more points. In four of those six games, the Mountaineers allowed 50 or more points.

West Virginia's five-game losing streak feature four foes who were allowed to score at least 50 points.

The Mountaineers have allowed as many trips to their redzone as they have had to their opponents' (58), and as many scores (49). West Virginia has given up a touchdown for 39 of those 49 scores,

The team's best defense has been their offense, relying on driving the score up on offense to help offset their defensive blunders.

Special teams:

For the Mountaineers:

Austin, along with being a big factor in both the receiving and rushing attacks for West Virginia, is also their top performer on returns. He has the only kick return for a touchdown as well as the sole punt return for a score.

On kick returns, Austin averages a little under 30 yards per return, while his returns punts for an average of 11 yards per attempt.

Against opponents:

West Virginia allows an average of about 24 yards on kick returns by their opponents.

They have only given up one touchdown on kick returns in 12 games.

The Mountaineers have not allowed a punt return for a touchdown, giving up 7.5 yards on average per return.

Keys to the game:

West Virginia:

Challenge the secondary.

With Bailey and Austin, this game can be reminiscent of the USC match for Syracuse, where they had to account for two highly-active players in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

Along with being targeted for receptions, both receivers can also be used as decoys, throwing to the rest of the receiving core once Syracuse is forced to send their defense in the directions of Bailey and Austin.

Force Nassib out of the pocket.

Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib showed comfort in rolling out of the pocket moreso last season than in this campaign, so making him vacate the pocket could help to get him to make decisions he would normally not make.

If Nassib can return to form in moving horizontally and throwing well vertically, then the Mountaineers will be contested, but if they can make him force a few passes with pressure, they definitely have the players to make plays for interceptions.

Utilize Smith on the ground.

Though the Orange have improved against dual-threat quarterbacks, Smith should at least test the waters. His arm provides so much to the team, and with the talent of the receivers in the field, Syracuse will constantly have to watch the pass, meaning Smith may find his openings on the ground.

Syracuse:

Get after Geno Smith. Syracuse has played better as of late against running quarterbacks. Smith makes this team go, so forcing him to make quick decisions will be imperative for the Orange to have the opportunity to win. When Smith gets comfortable, there is no telling how many points the Mountaineers will rack up.

Minimize scoring. West Virginia wins more by outscoring opponents than in playing good defense. Instead of trying to match the Mountaineers, the Orange would better suited to silence drives, especially against a quarterback in Smith who has little problem getting comfortable on the field.

Condense the output of Bailey and Austin. Both receivers have shown how dangerous they are and have remained consistent throughout the season. Though they will be involved, the more Syracuse can break up their opportunities, the better opportunity they give themselves to win. Preventing the big plays through the air and on the ground, with Austin, are a must.

Establish the run. The Orange have two capable backs active for this game in Smith and Gulley. Both have shown that they can make plays between the tackles as well as in the open field.

Running on opponents helps to drain the clock and for Nassib, it helps to ease the pressure put on him to make completions if the run is moving the chains.

Syracuse has faltered when they go away from the run. Conversely, they have been more successful when functioning as a balanced offense.

Either of these players could start, and that talent cannot go underutilized.

Spread the ball out. Nassib has so many weapons in the field. If he targets numerous players, then the Mountaineers will have to account for everyone. This can take some pressure off of Lemon, who will, most likely, get more attention from the West Virginia secondary than any other Syracuse receiver.

Sales, West, Clark, Wales, Stevens, and Gulley have all made catches to move the chains, along with Lemon. Utilizing them can help free Lemon up and more importantly, give the receiving core as a whole single-coverage, which plays into Nassib's favor.

Prediction:

West Virginia will score first and then once again before Syracuse gets on the board. Down 14-7, the Orange will tie the game, but head into the half down 21-14.

The second half will below to Syracuse, although the pendulum will swing back and forth, with both teams having advantage before the Orange get the victory, 42-38.

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