NEW YORK -- There are those on the West Virginia side of the rivalry who remember Syracuse's line of Hall of Fame running backs, later the triple option offense and the style influenced by Coach Doug Marrone's pedigree as an offensive coordinator in the NFL.Then there are those who will be surprised what they see when Syracuse (7-5) takes on West Virginia (7-5) in Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. It will be new, but also familiar.The 3:15 p.m. game will be televised by ESPN."Syracuse has a great offense," WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "That's been talked about a lot, but they're a lot more similar to us than what I remember a year ago."
Both the Mountaineers and the Orange would be happy to establish the run and play with the luxuries that threat provides, but both offenses as just as happy, and probably more dangerous, passing the ball. Both spread the field and aim at two receivers more than others.Both even play an up-tempo style, which is something the Orange added this season. WVU snapped the ball 940 times in 12 games. Syracuse snapped the ball 939 times in 12 games.Truth be told, what Syracuse has done on offense to set a number of school records is similar to what WVU's opponents have done in the Big 12 this season, right down to following the lead of the its quarterback, Ryan Nassib."It is to a certain extent, but for us, I think the quarterback progression is a little bit different," Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said."From what I can tell watching (WVU's) defense against the Big 12, Ryan has the ability to get the ball out very fast. He doesn't stand back there and hold the ball like, 'Let's see if something happens.'"Versus West Virginia, there were some guys running for their lives and throwing it down the field. We're trying to get the ball out a lot faster. We don't want to hang out back there too long."That difference actually binds these teams even closer. The greatest similarity is that each team trusts a quarterback to control the offense on the field and play independent of the play call."A lot of times, it's about me making decisions," Nassib said. "Coach Hackett tries to put us in the best position to make plays, so when the play comes in, it's my job to get the ball in the right guy's hands and to make plays. Decision-making is key in the offense. One decision can be a big play and another one can be a big loss. It's something that takes work, but that's the fun part of it. I feel like we have the controls."The feeling is the same on the other sideline. WVU's Geno Smith can check out of one play and into another before every snap and his coaches always trust and rarely ever disagree with his decisions. Nassib conducts his no-huddle style similarly and has even impressed his counterpart on the way to 3,619 yards, 24 touchdowns and second-team all-Big East honors this season."I'm not surprised because that guy has a terrific arm and has a lot of zip on the ball when it comes out," Smith said. "He seems to be a very smart player when I see him out there making checks and making calls and handling the system really well. I'm not surprised by it. I'm surprised people were shocked to see him do so well."The Orange changed its offense two weeks before the start of the season and Hackett adopted his variation of the K-Gun offense he witnessed as a quality control assistant with the Buffalo Bills. Syracuse did away with two-back sets as well as huddles. Hackett thinned out the playbook to get rid of things the offense didn't do very well or very often and accentuated the things the Orange were good at and did do often.
The Orange have thrived with the comfort of familiarity."The quarterback just keeps getting better and better and he's worked his way up, much like Geno has worked his way up, to where he's going to be a top draft pick and play at the next level," Holgorsen said.It's very much like what Holgorsen has done at WVU, where he installs the offense in three days and limits the number of plays his team practices during the week and uses during the game. WVU does much more before the play to adapt its call to what the defense is showing. Syracuse typically sticks with the play and lets Nassib make decisions after the snap - and he's only thrown nine interceptions."He understands the different weaknesses and understands the things he has to do when he sees those weaknesses instead of just getting out of a play," Hackett said. "He has a great understanding of the plays and where the plays can go. It was just a matter of taking the little bit he had coming into the season and really mastering it in a short period of time."Smith, who has 4,001 yards passing, 40 touchdowns and just six interceptions, has had more time to master the system and is going to be a higher draft pick, but he can thank Syracuse for that. Something both he and Holgorsen point to as a developmental point for the offense at WVU was last season's 49-23 loss to the Orange at the Carrier Dome.Syracuse pressured Smith constantly with different looks. The Mountaineers were confronted with a way to stop the offense they'd never seen and were forced to find a fix.
"It helped me out a lot," Smith said. "That was actually the first time in this system that a team had done that to us. Obviously, there are different nuances in every offense to counter that, but we weren't aware of those things. We had no idea they'd come out and do what they did that game and it kind of caught us off guard, but we took that as a learning experience moving forward and it helped us out a lot."