The Associated Press
The return of safety Shamarko Thomas helps the Syracuse defense.
MORGANTOWN - Dana Holgorsen wasn't around a year ago when Syracuse used a ball-control offense and an opportunistic defense to stymie West Virginia and beat the Mountaineers 19-14.He's seen the same game plan before, though.Connecticut came in with the same kind of plan a week ago and it didn't work. Despite that, Holgorsen expects much of the same Friday night from Syracuse and coach Doug Marrone."They present a bunch of challenges, much like UConn did, from the style of ball that they play,'' Holgorsen said. "Coach Marrone, with his NFL background and the pro-style offense, and what they did to West Virginia last year, controlling the clock keeping our defense on the field and trying to [use different personnel] was something they had some success with. We assume they're going to do some of the same stuff.''The teams meet Friday night at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. Both teams were off last week. West Virginia brings a 5-1 overall record and a 1-0 Big East mark into the 8 p.m. game that will be televised by ESPN. Syracuse is 4-2 and 0-1.And while Holgorsen expects much the same plan of attack from Syracuse as the Orange presented last season, Marrone, too, is pretty sure of what he's going to see from the Mountaineers. It's not exactly the same ol', same ol', but it's close.Oh, with one exception. Geno Smith, Marrone said, makes a huge difference with the way he's playing."Geno Smith's playing extremely well,'' Marrone said Monday. "I think that's been the biggest difference from last year to this year. Credit him. He looks very comfortable and he's done an outstanding job with this football team.''A year ago, Smith had his problems with the Orange. Smith threw just seven interceptions in 13 games as a sophomore, but three were against Syracuse. He completed 20-of-37 passes for just 178 yards and the Mountaineers did not score after the first quarter.
This year, Smith is on pace to shatter all of the school's passing records. He is sixth in the country in total offense and is averaging 359.8 yards passing with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions.Can the Orange get the same type of pressure on Smith this season in a new offensive scheme? Well, Marrone doesn't want to compare Holgorsen's scheme to that of former coach Bill Stewart. He just knows what he sees on tape and that's the play of Smith."The quarterback's been outstanding. Geno Smith has done an outstanding job,'' Marrone said. "He's much more mature, good in the pocket, knows where he's going with the football. You can see that his decision process is so much quicker now. I just look at that - not from this coach to that coach, because I don't know that - but I just see someone who has really matured in the system that they're running now."I still look at West Virginia's offense as explosive. With the players they have and spreading the field and putting that pressure on you defensively. But if someone was to ask me today, 'What's the difference?' I'd say Geno Smith. He's been outstanding.''Syracuse, meanwhile, has had a great deal of trouble defending the pass. The Orange ranks No. 112 in the nation in pass defense, allowing 293 yards per game. Four of SU's six opponents have thrown for at least 300 yards and a fifth was "held" to 297. The only team that didn't throw for a ton of yards against Syracuse was FCS member Rhode Island.That defense, though, should get a boost this week. Chandler Jones, a second-team All-Big East end, and strong safety Olando Fisher will return after both being sidelined since the opening game with leg injuries. Syracuse also got safety Shamarko Thomas back a week ago for a 37-34 win at Tulane after he'd missed two games with a hamstring injury.
Marrone said both Jones and Fisher did a good job of staying in games on the sidelines, but there should be a difference with both on the field."I think they bring a certain type of leadership on the field that will benefit our defense,'' Marrone said. "Do I think that all of a sudden that gives us an edge? Absolutely not. But are we going to be better because of those two players being on the field? Absolutely.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org