The Syracuse Orange (7-5) have a considerable challenge at Yankee Stadium Saturday in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl trying to slow down the high-powered West Virginia (7-5) passing game.
West Virginia averages 518 yards per game on offense and 42 points per game. Gino Smith completes over 71 percent of his passes and has thrown 40 touchdowns with just six interceptions in 2012. As a team, the Mountaineers are motivated by having lost the past two years to Syracuse before leaving the Big East for the flat plains of the Big 12. Last year in the Orange Bowl, Smith and team got hot in the second quarter demolishing Clemson.
Syracuse's defense is led by Shamarko Thomas at safety and Siriki Diabate at linebacker. They will need to stop the potent West Virginia passing game, which has produced numbers resembling basketball scores. Thomas is the leading tackler on the team with 84 of which 60 were solos. Some coaches will say this is a concern when a player in the secondary is the leading tackler on defense. Diabate is tied with weak-side linebacker Dyshawn Davis with 67 tackles on the season.
Head coach Doug Marrone's offensive team have their own answer at quarterback with senior Ryan Nassib, who has led Syracuse to a school record of 5,681 yards gained in 2012. This is shy of WVU's 6,222 yards gained on the season, but 473 average yards gained per game is an impressive offense. Like their opponent, Syracuse likes to throw the ball, with Nassib completing 63 percent of his throws for a school season record 24 touchdowns. The West Chester, Pa., native has set Syracuse records for most passing yards in a season this year with 3,619, most passing yards in a career with 9,060 and most completions in a career with 780 so far; that's 232 yards more than Donovan McNabb.
At the press conference Wednesday, the Syracuse players were excited about the opportunity to play at Yankee Stadium in New York, where they are expected to draw strong support from alumni and fellow students.
Quarterback Ryan Nassib commented (video) about the importance of the game to the Orange seniors. "Personally, it is my last game with the Orange so I want to make sure I go out on the right note, and for all the other seniors, and the all the other guys, and for the younger guys, to leave them a good basis for next year. This is the game you are going to remember."
Nassib had just nine interceptions this year while completing 283 passes. I asked about how he avoids turnovers: "A lot of it is has to do with decision making, making throws, hitting my spots and not forcing balls. Earlier in the season, I had a tendency to force balls, wish I had back, smarter decision-making."
The key for Syracuse against West Virginia according to Nassib is "To play our game."
Shamarko Thomas (video) has a lot of responsibility in the Orange defense. In our talk at the press conversation, the All-Big East player described the strongest part of his game: "Making tackles, attacking the ball, making big time hits. As a safety, you like to stop the run, come up with the big hits, but I like to make plays on the ball."
Thomas, who seems bigger than his program size of 5'10" and 206 pounds, commented on how Syracuse was able to turn the season around, winning five of their last six games including wins over Louisville and Missouri.
"Just trying to be a leader. We had a lot of young cats on defense. If I showed him how to make plays and go out and have fun, they will do the same."
About playing West Virginia, a team Syracuse has beaten the past two season, Thomas said the key for his defensive team is "consistency on tackles. They are the type of offense that tries to dump off screens and make you miss tackles, so just being consistent on tackles."
Imagine if you grew up in the Bronx and your last collegiate game will be in your backyard at the new Yankee Stadium. That's the thrill that Diabate described (video), having the opportunity to play in the Pinstripe Bowl. "I am still living a dream, getting a chance to play in Yankee Stadium. I am going to be the happiest kid."
Diabate added thoughts on preparing for West Virginia and Gino Smith: "We need to work our game plan and keep on doing what we did during the season—the little things that got us to this point, running to the ball, making good tackles."
The Syracuse defense is not big, with just nose tackle Jay Bromley at 290 pounds and defensive end Deon Goggins at 274 pounds. Diabate is a playmaker at 5'10" and 216 pounds—a player who depends on quickness and heart. He commented about the challenge of playing West Virginia coming off an impressive offensive season:
We love that challenge. This is what you play the game for. You want to play the best. We want to take out the top person. That is what we are here to do—focus on our game plan. We give them all the respect, but if we play our best game, we will be fine.
This game has the potential to end up with a score resembling the Big East basketball games these two used to play at the Carrier Dome, Morgantown and Madison Square Garden 20 minutes down the subway line from Yankee Stadium. The key is for the Syracuse defense to keep their team in the game long enough for Nassib to do his magic.
This game will be won by the team with a defense left standing on the field borrowed from Jeter, A-Rod, Cano, Sabathia, Rivera and all the legendary Yankees.
Ken Kraetzer covers Army football during the season for WVOX in New Rochelle, N.Y., and Sons of the American Legion Radio.