The West Virginia Mountaineers (7-5) arrive in Yankee Stadium this week for Saturday's New Era Pinstripe Bowl matchup against Syracuse (7-5) with confidence from playing a tough Big 12 schedule, but remembering that Syracuse beat them twice before they left the conference.
West Virginia had a remarkable basketball score-like win early in the season against No. 25 Baylor, 70-63, a game in which QB Geno Smith threw eight touchdown passes. The two teams combined for 1,507 yards of offense with Smith completing 45 of 51 yards for 656 yards in the air. The following week, they traveled to Austin and pulled off a 48-45 win over No. 11 Longhorns in front of 101,851 fans.
Certainly the defense felt the effects of playing in the Big 12, giving up an average of 51 points per game in the first seven conference games. After that initial success in the Big 12, the Mountaineers lost five straight, including one-point home losses to TCU and No. 13 Oklahoma. At the end of the regular season, wins at Iowa State and in Morgantown over Kansas righted the ship.
The Mountaineer offense offense was high-octane all year led by Smith. The senior from Miami completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 4,004 yards and 40 touchdowns. Wide out junior Stedman Bailey, also from Miami, caught 106 passes on the season for 1,501 yards and 23 touchdowns. Senior Tavon Austin from Baltimore caught 110 passes for 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns.
At the Pinstripe Bowl press conference, I asked senior Geno Smith.
about the difference between playing in the Big 12 and playing in the Big East. He talked about the fast-paced offense he found in WVU's new conference.
"That conference is filled with offensive guys," he said. "The defensive coordinators run base defenses. When I was in the Big East, they typically blitz because they run the ball more and the weather is bad."
Smith had but six interceptions compared to 350 completions, providing a 164 rating. About avoiding interceptions, Smith said:
"I try not to throw interceptions, I try to throw completions. Every single completion stresses out the defense. The game is about managing the ball and managing situations. That is the strength of my game, I don't turn the ball over a lot, I do try to take advantage of plays when they are there."
About the impending cold and snow forecast for Friday, Smith, a Florida native, said it should not bother him because he's played several games in bad weather.
"Played in the worst possible weather in my career," he said. "A monsoon at Bowling Green, last year snow at Rutgers, this year played at Iowa State when it was minus-two. Weather should not be a factor."
About preparing for the Syracuse defense, Smith said, "They throw a lot of different things at you. The best thing we have done is to prepare for everything. No matter what they throw at us, we will have answers."
Syracuse defeated West Virginia in Morgantown, 19-14, during the 2012 season and 49-23 last season at the Carrier Dome. Losing twice in a row to the Orange is a motivating factor to Stedman Bailey.
"Syracuse is a pretty good team," he said. "We definitely don't take those guys for granted. They beat us twice in the two previous years when we were in the Big East. We are really extra motivated to play these guys."
About the change in playing in the Big 12 this season, Stedman said, "We played in a lot of shootouts this year. There is a lot of scoring that goes on in the Big 12 compared to how it was in the Big East. It was fun though."
On the defensive side of the ball, junior Will Clarke from Pittsburgh made 12 tackles on the season; 6.5 were for losses. The 6'7", 271-pound defensive end described his first priority as "always stopping the run first."
The five starting Syracuse offensive lineman average 289 pounds, not huge by contemporary standards, but Clarke said the challenge on the defensive line is stopping the run. His overall evaluation of Syracuse is:
"They run the ball, throw deep, they have a great quarterback and two good backs, and a good offensive line."
So West Virginia goes into Yankee Stadium in Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl remembering two losses to Syracuse before leaving the Big East and wanting to prove that the competition they faced in the Big 12 has improved the level of their game.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football during the season for WVOX in New Rochelle and Sons of the American Legion Radio.