The Mountaineers showed what they can be in the first half of Saturday's victory at Syracuse: Unstoppable on offense, and dominating on defense. In the second half, the Mountaineers put it on cruise control, and could have had one more touchdown had they not—wait for it—coughed up a fumble, this one by fullback Ryan Clarke. But that was WVU's only lost fumble. Things bounced so well for the Mountaineers that their first fumble—by backup lineman, Josh Taylor, after picking off an inexplicable pass by quarterback Greg Paulus—was recovered by one of their own, linebacker Pat Lazear, who showed why he was a high school football, advancing it 50 yards to set up WVU's first score.
Granted, all this came against Syracuse, which is one of the two worst teams in the Big East. But, they won't be for long. I'm no Dan Hawkins, but mark this down: Syracuse will win seven, or eight games next season. Coach Doug Marrone has them going in the right direction. They're playing with much more enthusiasm this year than last, but don't have the athletes yet that they need to compete in the league. But, they will. And Syracuse's improvement in coming years is a good thing for the league as a whole.
And here's a head-snapper: This season marks the first that WVU has opened with five straight games in which it scored at least 30 years. No, none of those high-powered Pat White/Steve Slaton teams accomplished that. So all you Jeff Mullen haters can take that to the bank.
Back to Saturday's game.
Syracuse, a solid run defense, did a good job keeping Noel Devine in check, if you can call 91 yards and a touchdown "in check." Still, Devine's longest run was only 15 yards, and Syracuse did a good job of shutting down the Mountaineers' big plays. Brandon Hogan returned a punt for 49 yards, but WVU's longest play from scrimmage was a pretty 33-yard pass play from Jarrett Brown to H-back Will Johnson.
But Syracuse couldn't stop WVU's drives, and couldn't stop WVU's medium-range passing game. Brown tested the secondary deep a couple of times, but the Orange secondary had that covered. They couldn't stop the short outs in the flat, or 15-yard passes across the middle. Brown completed passes to nine different receivers. Jock Sanders caught nine passes. Brown was an impressive 22 for 30, for 244 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions.
On defense, WVU held Syracuse to 222 yards total offense, and only 72 yards rushing. They made Paulus so ineffective, he was benched in the second half for backup Ryan Nassib, who ended up throwing two touchdown passes, and probably will end up starting by the end of the season. Paulus is a nice story, but he's not a Division One quarterback, not after so much time away from the game.
WVU held Syracuse receiver Mike Williams, probably the best wideout in the league, to only one catch for five yards in the first half. In the second half, he got behind the secondary for a pretty 50-yard touchdown, but that's going to happen with Williams.
Areas where WVU still needs improvement
Yes, kickoff returns. Syracuse averaged 28 yards per kickoff return, with a long of 44. Imagine that's Mardy Gilyard of Cincinnati returning kickoffs.
Closing the deal. WVU's second-half drives went like this: fumble, punt, punt, punt, rushing touchdown, punt, turnover on downs, end of game. WVU should have had at least one more touchdown in this game.
All told, however, this game was the first this season when WVU showed what it can do if it keeps it (relatively) clean. WVU also had only four penalties for 26 yards.
At nearly the halfway point in this season (boy, it hurts to write that), WVU is 4-1, and looks like it's getting the mistakes ironed out.