Showdown in the Bronx
NEW YORK - Keith Patterson faces quite the challenge in his first game as West Virginia's defensive coordinator.
Or at least it would seem that way on the surface.
West Virginia faces Syracuse today in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, a game scheduled to kick off at 3:15 p.m. and televised by ESPN. It features not only the Mountaineers' fast-paced, high-powered offense, but an Orange attack that is actually quite similar.
That's not something West Virginia is used to seeing from the Orange. The teams have played every year since 1955 and almost annually Syracuse trotted out either a pro-style offense or an option attack. Syracuse has never spread the field and quickened the pace like it is doing this season.
But if that's a major concern for Patterson, well, he's not letting on. And, really, it shouldn't be.
"If they can go faster than what we've seen over the course of the year from Baylor and Oklahoma and some of the tempo teams in the Big 12,'' Patterson said, "it might be illegal.''
Of course, facing a fast-tempo offense and stopping it are two different things. The Mountaineers proved that this season, which is why Joe DeForest was demoted from defensive coordinator and Patterson elevated to the spot at the end of the regular season. West Virginia faced those offenses and failed miserably to stop them, finishing 107th in the country in total defense, 114th in scoring defense and 119th in pass defense.
Whether or not Patterson has been able to address and correct some of those issues is, at least from West Virginia's standpoint, perhaps the most intriguing aspect of today's game.
"I think we've made some improvements there,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "But we won't know until we line up and play.''
That Syracuse offense revolves around fifth-year senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, who will be facing West Virginia for the fourth time. Last season he passed for four touchdowns and ran for a fifth as the Orange shocked WVU with a 49-23 win at the Carrier Dome.
Since then, though, Syracuse has dramatically changed its style of offense, running more of a fast-tempo attack in which Nassib averaged 37 passes a game. He threw for roughly 1,000 more yards this year than last and has 24 touchdowns against just nine interceptions.
Unlike West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, who makes pre-snap adjustments and changes on almost every play, Nassib doesn't necessarily do that, said SU offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett.
"He just calls it and goes,'' Hackett said. "In the past couple of years we did more of that - changing, checking, he was running the whole show. This year we just go as fast as we possibly can. Ryan has the play, calls it and runs it before [defenses] can adjust anything. Then it's just him adjusting on the fly, reacting to the defense [after the snap] and going.''
On the other side of the ball, West Virginia will be facing a Syracuse team that has given it fits in recent years. The Mountaineers won eight straight over the Orange while both teams were in the Big East, but Syracuse won the last two games. Not only that, the Orange held West Virginia to a combined 37 points in those two games.
Last year Syracuse did it by blitzing Smith and having success in either sacking him or forcing him to throw too soon. West Virginia will try to combat that today in part with better protection, but that became problematic when four-year starting center Joe Madsen was declared academically ineligible.
If the Mountaineers can contain that pass rush, it will be a chance for Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to go out with a bang. Those three hold virtually every significant passing and receiving record in school history and all will be playing their last college game.
Rather than count on big plays from those three, though, West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson would be happy with just getting first downs and moving the football. Because of that blitzing style, Syracuse is one of the best teams in the country at creating negative plays.
"The biggest thing for us is just to keep the ball in front of the chains,'' Dawson said. "They're 10th or 11th in the country in negative-yardage plays, which forces you to do things they know you have to do. We have to be in situations where we can keep them off balance. If they can get you in situations where it's a 100 percent passing down, we'll have no success.
"That's why they're so successful blitzing. They get you in second-and-15 or third-and-11 and they know what you have to do. Then they can bring all that pressure from all those angles and be successful.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.