Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib has been facing lots of long-yardage situations this season.
MORGANTOWN - Doug Marrone is pretty much like every other football coach on the planet when it comes to what he likes to see in terms of down-and-distance situations for his offense.
If every down could be first or second and the yardage always manageable, well, the Syracuse coach would be thrilled. He would run the ball, use some play-action passes and occasionally take a few shots down the field.
That's not always the way it's been for the Orange this season, though. Syracuse has shot itself in the foot far too often with penalties or sacks or just plain bad plays that have created way too many second-and-15s or third-and-20s.
"It's been very difficult for us to get out of that hole,'' Marrone said. "Talking to our players about the attention to detail and the focus [to avoid those situations] has been one of the things we've talked about.''
It would behoove the Orange to have made some progress along those lines by the time Friday night rolls around. That's when Syracuse (4-2, 0-1 Big East) hosts No. 11 West Virginia (5-1, 1-0) at the Carrier Dome.
It is also when Syracuse will face a West Virginia defense that appears to be hitting its stride. After some struggles early while replacing seven starters from last season, the Mountaineers have quietly risen to No. 16 in the country in total defense.
"They've been in the same system a long time and they all know how to play it and they play it well,'' Marrone said. "That's why I'm not surprised, even though they have a lot of new starters, that they're still ranked 16th in the country.''
To counter that defense, Syracuse comes into Friday's game with just the 96th-ranked offense in the country. The Orange hasn't been able to run the ball (99th in the country) or throw it (71st) with much success.
But as Syracuse proved a year ago, having a high-powered offense isn't always necessary. The Orange won eight games and went to a bowl for the first time in six years with the No. 73 offense in the country. More significantly to WVU fans, Syracuse beat the Mountaineers without an offense, too, winning 19-14 in Morgantown.
Dana Holgorsen wasn't around for that one, but the first-year West Virginia coach still knows what Syracuse is all about.
"It's pretty obvious what they want to do,'' Holgorsen said. "They want to control the game. They want to get in the huddle and run pro-style stuff and beat you with formations. They want to grind the clock out and get first downs. That's what they did last year and they had some success with it.''
Well, they had a little bit of success. Syracuse actually gained just 246 yards a year ago against West Virginia and controlled the ball for less than half the game. The Orange did manage 183 yards rushing - more than any other team against a WVU run defense that finished second in the country - but converted on just four of 14 third downs.
Syracuse won the game with a defense that shut out West Virginia after the first quarter and forced Geno Smith into three interceptions and sacked him five times. But that still doesn't mean Holgorsen can overlook the Syracuse offense.
"Whatever defense you're running or whatever offense they're running, on third down you still have to get off the field,'' Holgorsen said. "We have to do a good job when we're put in third-down situations of getting off the field and creating turnovers. If they want to grind it and run the ball on third-and-3 then we need to be able to stop them.''
It would also help if West Virginia could put the Orange into some of those bad down-and-distance situations Marrone was talking about. Syracuse isn't well equipped to handle things when big plays are needed, and that includes long-distance downs or playing from behind.
"If they're behind or in a two-minute situation, they're capable of doing it,'' Holgorsen said. "But [grinding it out is] really what they want to do. So our job is to get up on them and get them out of rhythm. And then if they do happen to be in a two-minute situation like UConn was at the end of the half, then we have to be able to stop them.''
West Virginia's defense seems to be peaking at just the right time as Big East play begins. A team that gave up 477 yards to Maryland improved to 366 a week later against No. 1 LSU and then 217 against Bowling Green. Connecticut gained just 275 yards.
"It's really starting to mesh, which is not surprising,'' Holgorsen said. "Coach [Jeff] Casteel and the defensive guys have been doing the same thing around here for years. They're recruited players to fit the system, but if you lose six or seven guys to the NFL it's going to be a challenge getting those [new] guys ready to play that quick. It's just inexperienced people, much like inexperienced players on offense playing in a new system. It just takes a little bit of time to get it together.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org