Coming off its bye, Syracuse could easily have found itself 5-1. But as easy as it is to rue letting the Rutgers game literally slip through its fingers, Syracuse could also count itself lucky that it isn’t 0-6.
As it turns out, after a first half of the season that saw three overtime games and two other close calls, the Orange is 4-2, two wins shy of a bowl berth. Syracuse will attempt to get one win closer on Friday night against its highest ranked opponent of the season, West Virginia (#11/14).
“We’re probably playing the best team, at least since I’ve been here, coming into Syracuse in this West Virginia team,” head coach Doug Marrone said Monday at his game-week news conference. “When you look at an offense that’s 11th in the country and a defense that’s 16th in the country, they obviously pose a great challenge to our football team.”
WVU (5-1, 1-0) is led by junior quarterback Geno Smith, who commands an offense that ranks fourth nationally in passing (380.5 yards per game). In the Mountaineers’ lone defeat, which came at the hands of BCS-top-ranked LSU, Smith set a school record with 468 yards of offense.
But last year, when Syracuse played West Virginia in Morgantown, Smith played perhaps his worst game of his college career. He threw three interceptions and was sacked five times, as the Orange defeated the #20 Mountaineers 19-14 in a defensive battle.
Marrone doesn’t think it will be as easy to stop Smith this time around.
“I think I’d be naïve not to think that we might have gone into Morgantown and maybe caught them a little bit,” he said of last year’s game. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case this year.
“If you said, what’s the biggest difference between the teams, (I’d say) the quarterback play of Geno Smith has gotten much, much better. He’s much better than he was a year ago.”
Smith would agree. On Monday he Tweeted, “The only thing I been thinking about is playing a mistake free game this friday. I gotta start being more consistent, would you agree?”
On the other side, Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib has had a nice season. He has completed 64 percent of his passes for 1294 yards and 11 touchdowns. Of his four interceptions on the season, three game in SU’s loss to Rutgers.
A year ago against WVU, Nassib had his own struggles, which were overshadowed by Smith’s. He completed just 5 of 15 passes for 63 yards.
In that game, Syracuse’s defense bailed out the offense, but this year the Orange’s defense has been one of its biggest problems. Syracuse ranks last in the Big East in passing defense (293 yards per game), scoring defense (27.3 points per game) and total defense (397.3 yards per game).
Fortunately for the Orange, the defense will receive a boost as defensive end Chandler Jones and strong safety Olando Fisher return from injury. Neither has played since Syracuse’s Sept. 1 victory over Wake Forest in the season-opener. In addition, strong safety Shamarko Thomas will be back in the lineup after missing two games with an injured hamstring.
“Chandler’s back and has looked great in practice,” Marrone said of the second-team all-conference Jones. “Obviously there is a little rust there. Shamarko has a game under his belt. Olando is back, which will help us.”