Aaaand we’re back. Coming off a bye week, SU looks to defend their home turf against the best team in the Big East, the West Virginia Mountaineers.
Not a lot of people are giving the Orange a chance in this one: WVU has a dominant quarterback in Geno Smith, and SU’s secondary has spent the entire year making opposing QBs look extra awesome. But coming off a bye week, the Orange defense is finally healthy—Chandler Jones is suiting up for the first time since week one, and Olando Fisher and Shamarko Thomas are back. And maybe, just maybe, the extra time off let the team sort out what went wrong in the disaster against Rutgers and near-meltdown against Tulane.
West Virginia might be the better team—and they are—but that doesn’t mean Syracuse can’t win this one.
15 minutes to kickoff: A great moment pregame: the Dome plays a video message an overseas soldier recorded for his family, who’ve been brought out onto the field—and then the soldier himself appears. His two young kids absolutely sprint thirty yards to be reunited with him. Like I said, a great moment.
2 minutes to kickoff: This already looks like the best crowd so far this year. Usually it takes a little while for people to trickle in, but not tonight. Worth noting that there’s a decent contingent of WVU fans in the opponent section, as well as yellow shirts scattered throughout the rest of the crowd. Although to be fair the event staff all wear shirts that are an identical yellow; don’t they have alternates they can wear? This seems like an oversight.
12:22 The Orange receive to start the game, but don’t get much going and are forced to punt. Notably, though, there’s some jawing and shoving after several plays.
11:02 Well, the defense came to play. SU puts on an honest-to-god pass rush and forces a 3-and-out. Deon Goggins blocked a pass at the line of scrimmage, and Chandler Jones, making his presence felt early, had a great shoestring tackle from behind to stifle a potentially big run by Shawne Alston.
9:40 Jarrod West gets into it, trading shoves with his defender after the play’s dead. The play before there was some trash talk going on, too. I like the fire but SU has to be careful. Can’t give a team like the Mountaineers free yards.
6:55 Alec Lemon comes back on an underthrown pass to deflect a potential interception—then bobbles it, then makes the catch. On the next play, Jeremiah Kobena gets a first down on a reverse. The Orange are really mixing up the play calls early on; earlier in the drive they broke out a flea flicker, but Nassib overthrew a streaking Lemon, probably a good thing since he was triple-covered.
5:13 Dorian Graham with a great play down the sideline, spinning after making the catch as a hapless WVU defender dives past him. He takes it 27 yards to the 7 yard line, setting up first and goal.
4:15 We’re on the board! Another great play call, and Nassib lobs it to Nick Provo all alone in the middle of the endzone on play action.
Syracuse 7-West Virginia 0
4:15 By the way, West Virginia looks huge across the board. The Orange have some big guys, but on average the Mountaineers just look bigger and stronger. Tiny Ross Krautman looks even tinier than usual as he follows the SU special teams down on the kickoff. I feel like he’d get obliterated if he actually had to try and make a tackle. There’s some more shoving after the kickoff, too, which went out of bounds. Whoops!
2:15 I feel like I haven’t talked about the crowd enough yet; they are LOUD. With WVU driving and Geno Smith looking good, they cause the first penalty of the game, a false start at the SU 18. Unfortunately the Mountaineers get a first down the next play, but still, credit where it’s due.
1:10 Geno Smith, meet Shamarko Thomas. In his first game back since USC, Thomas chases Smith down and knocks him over as he’s releasing on third down. The pass falls incomplete and WVU settles for a field goal.
Syracuse 7-West Virginia 3
Once again, SU’s defense manages to buckle down near the end zone. I don’t know if the stats actually bear this out but it seems like the Orange have been very good at getting red zone stops all year, or at least in the games I’ve been to. I’d guess this has to do with the shortened field masking some of the holes in our secondary.
It’s clear, too, that the return of Jones, Thomas, and Fisher have really sparked this defense. They’re playing with an edge I don’t think I’ve seen from them all year. In that respect, as long as they don’t take any dumb penalties, I think all of the jawing and the little shoving matches after the ball’s dead bode well for this team. It’s clear that they’re amped up for this game, and the defense seems to be riding that emotion.
14:54 Graham has another good spin move to break free down the sideline. This one’s for 12 yards and a first down. At the end of the play Graham gets clobbered by about four defenders and is shaken up. But he pops up after a moment and jogs to the sideline.
13:41 Nassib is looking very, very sharp right now. The offensive line is giving him all the time in the world, he’s using his mobility well whenever anyone breaks through, and he’s patiently picking apart a highly regarded West Virginia defense. Here, he hits Nick Provo over the middle for 10 yards and a first down.
11:53 Bailey’s working hard. Just absolutely going at it. He hasn’t broken out for anything big, but he’s getting three or four yards on every run. He stumbles to a first down on third and two, and SU is down to the WVU 16.
10:56 Week One Nick Provo returns, and so does his woeful hand/eye coordination: a pass over the middle goes right through his hands. There’s no excuse for that. If the Orange don’t score a TD here, that’ll be a big missed opportunity.
10:52 Remember when I said it was great that the Orange are so fired up but they need to avoid taking any penalties because of it? Well, West Virginia didn’t get that memo. OT Michael Hay draws a personal foul, somehow managing to get a Mountaineer’s hand stuck inside his collar. Solid work!
10:13 Nassib decides, hey, if people aren’t catching his passes he might as well do everything himself. With Bailey as his lead blocker, Nassib takes it through a huge hole, and SU’s up 14-3.
Syracuse 14-West Virginia 3
That was SU’s second long drive in a row, 14 plays and almost six minutes. Between the two drives they converted six third downs (well, five plus a penalty) on a good mix of running and passing. The offense is looking gooood so far. And so’s the defense. Has that happened yet this season?
9:22 On the ensuing drive, Smith hits someone named “Willi Milhouse” on the sideline, where Shamarko and Kevyn Scott promptly sandwich him after a gain of three. Man, it’s nice to have an entire defense for a change.
8:42 Scott follows that up with a hilariously inept sequence. Smith underthrows it down the left sideline to Stedman Bailey, who makes a sick grab over Scott, who can’t find the ball. So far not good, but not terrible either; but in the process of falling down, Scott wipes out his own teammate, who’s in position for the tackle; and in a pretty stunning display of athleticism Bailey manages to tiptoe down the sideline, somehow staying inbounds before getting his balance and taking it in for an easy touchdown. And just like that it’s 14-10.
8:42 Just kidding! Tyle Bitancurt doinks the PAT off the left upright and the Orange’s lead is actually 14-9.
Syracuse 14-West Virginia 9
8:28 WHAT. Dorian Graham takes it to the house! He goes 98 yards on the kickoff return and the Orange are back up 21-9. Deep breaths, everyone. Holy cow.
You know that moment in a kickoff return—and it doesn’t always come, sometimes you can tell from the start the play’s dead in the water—that moment near the beginning where you can see just the tiniest bit of daylight, like you can see how maybe everything on the field might magically align so the returner can break through? And at that moment the entire crowd gasps in unison and holds their breath and then the play kind of crescendoes, and then everyone gasps again as Dorian Graham makes a dirty, dirty cutback and suddenly there’s literally nobody between him and the endzone and 40,000 people are screaming as he sprints as hard as he possibly can down the right side of the field, so hard it looks like he’s going to lose control of his body?
That moment is awesome.
Syracuse 21-West Virginia 9
8:24 We get a long, rousing rendition of the Hey Song. As usual the drum breakdown’s left out, but they repeat the rest three or four times, with, yes, the “YOU SUCK,” which pretty much everyone yells. I have to imagine there’s something fairly demoralizing about an entire stadium of people screaming “you suck” in unison, multiple times. It’s gotta be hard to block that out.
7:03 Chandler Jones sure has a bounce in his step. He is absolutely everywhere on West Virginia’s next drive. Observation from the dude next to me: “They look a little rattled. Like they know they’re going to get killed every time they get the ball.”
5:50 Right on cue, Jones sacks Smith for a loss of 12. Credit where it’s due, Jeremi Wilkes tripped Smith up initially; Smith managed to stay on his feet but it gave Jones time to come in and clobber him. This sets up third and 22.
5:06 Chandler Jones, guys. Chandler Jones. He just absolutely bulls through Don Barclay’s feeble attempts to block him and wraps up Smith with one arm for his second sack in a row. Have I mentioned how nice it is to have him back?
5:06 With the ball back and the offense humming, it’d be nice to put some more daylight between us and the Mountaineers.
2:56 Never mind, three and out works too.
2:42 Uh oh. Smith makes another big play, a 43-yard completion to Milhouse down the right sideline to the SU 27, putting the Mountaineers in field goal range. He may be having an off night so far but man, he’s dangerous. I don’t like where this is going.
1:34 Smith attempts about his 10th sideline fade of the game, but Keon Lyn breaks it up. WVU has tried a ton of these in the endzone but Smith hasn’t connected on any of them yet. Still, he’s done almost all his damage on the sidelines. Not a lot going on over the middle.
1:26 Again with the red zone stops! Jeremi Wilkes jumps a route in the middle and picks it off. Bad choice by Smith, there was a ton of traffic there.
0:00 Some bizarre clock management—Nassib threw on third down when they could have just run the clock down, and WVU had time to run a couple plays, but fortunately came up empty. SU takes a 21-9 lead into half.
The university honors Ernie Davis at the half, which is pretty cool, although it’s virtually impossible to hear or tell what’s going on from the press box.
‘Cuse has a little bit of breathing room, but if this year has taught us anything, it’s that no lead is safe. Especially against an offense as potent as the Mountaineers’. But SU is playing about as well as they have all year, with offense, defense, and special teams all coming out swinging. The question is whether they can maintain it; they haven’t played two good halves yet this season.
14:55 Brad Starks gets things going for WVU with a 31 yard return. Remember that moment in kickoffs I talked about earlier, when it looks like just maybe the returner will bust it out? Yeah, not so fun when your team’s kicking.
14:01 OH GOOD, Phil Thomas is down, after a holding call wipes out a big gainer down the sideline. (Naturally, Jones drew the penalty.) After a moment Thomas is up, looking just a little gimpy. Word on the street is it’s cramps.
13:07 West Virginia is driving, getting things going on the ground. Dustin Garrison has a bunch of nice runs, and just like that the Mountaineers are all the way down at the SU 9.
10:29 Time for that red zone D again. On third and 8, Shawne Alston breaks through the middle—Phil Thomas makes a stop just short of the goal line, bringing up fourth and inches. He’s slow to get up again, and heads off the field.
10:16 Just for a moment it looks like SU has yet another red zone stop. Alston takes it over the middle and gets stuffed short of the endzone… but not short of the first down. WVU has four downs to go less than a foot, and Alston takes it in on the next play. This time the extra point is good, and SU’s lead has shrunk to five.
Syracuse 21-West Virginia 16
9:59 Unsurprisingly, the Mountaineers send the kick as far away from Graham as they possibly can. It comes so, so close to backfiring: Jeremiah Kobena goes blazing down the near sideline past the first line of blockers, and he only has a couple men to beat—but then he runs out of field, and tumbles OB at the 49, after a 47 yard return. I’m pretty sure the Dome would literally have exploded if he’d pulled that off.
7:52 Man, Nassib is killing it tonight. After hitting Van Chew for only the second time all game, he manages to find Graham for nine yards while running for his life. It’s a 9-yard gain and a first down on the WVU 29.
7:21 Foot on the gas! Nassib hits a wide open David Stevens on the left side, who moseys untouched into the endzone. Pro tip: you should try and cover every receiver, not just some of them. It’s 28-16. But it feels like a close 28-16.
Syracuse 28-West Virginia 16
7:21 The crowd is doing The Wave. In other news, the Dome is full enough for the crowd to do The Wave.
7:14 Lordy, another return that looks like it’s going somewhere; fortunately Devon Brown runs into the back of his own blocker, and Kyle Foster makes the tackle.
6:16 From my notes: “Sack. DEAFENING.”
That would be Siriki Diabate and Jay Bromley teaming up to clobber Geno Smith once again. The Dome is absurdly loud right now.
4:00 Another stop, and SU is driving once again. Weirdly, in spite of the two-possession lead, this feels like a must-score drive. West Virginia has a ton of time left, and Smith has proven he can get things done fast. Can’t give them any space to breathe.
Jarrod West makes a ludicrous catch, somehow snagging a bullet while tumbling through the air after tripping over his defender. He gets up looking surprised, having gained 13 yards. By the way, that was yet another third down conversion. Keeps the drive alive on the SU 43.
1:24 On the WVU 39, Nassib and Bailey do a great job of faking a handoff on play action, or possibly Antwon thought the ball was really going to him, because it looks like Nassib has to physically rip the ball out of his hands so he can throw it to Provo over the middle for 24 yards and another first down.
0:18 Once again, the West Virginia secondary forgets to cover the tight end, and Nick Provo makes an easy catch for his second TD of the game. He’s having a monster game—the Orange are really trying to feature him on offense, and they’re getting results.
Syracuse 35-West Virginia 16
0:00 Geno Smith just straight-up panicked, or maybe he’s tired of getting hit. I guess he could have forgotten what team he’s playing for, too. Anyway: under pressure, he throws off-balance, like he’s almost jumping, directly to Phil Thomas, who basically doesn’t even have to move in order to haul in what has to be the easiest interception of his life. The closest receiver was tightly covered at least ten yards away. Thomas makes up for the nonchalant catch on the return, weaving across the field to the near sideline and finally going out of bounds after 24 yards. SU will start in the fourth with the ball on the WVU 35.
12:53 After moving it relatively easily on the ground, SU takes only their second penalty of the night, a 15-yarder for unnecessary roughness that sets up a second and 18. That’s a small part of the larger story here: West Virginia’s been hit with 5 penalties so far, including a huge one in the first half after the Orange failed to convert on third down; that one directly contributed to an SU touchdown.
12:45 SU keeps up the creative play calls: on 2nd and 18 they run a halfback option, and Bailey lobs it down the right side to Lemon, who makes a ridiculous skying catch for a first down.
11:29 Oh look, Nick Provo just scored another touchdown. Yawn. This one goes up for review for some reason: the ball came out when he hit the ground, but he took three or four steps after the catch and clearly had possession. It’s ruled incomplete initially, but the call’s overturned and it’s a TD. Not sure how it got called incomplete in the first place, it was obvious from here and from every replay that it was a catch.
Syracuse 42-West Virginia 16
11:29 Okay, so it’s 42-16. Again, no lead is safe. There’s plenty of time. But Smith looks rattled. That was a big mental error on the interception. Also, 26 points is a lot. Possibly too large a lead even for this team to blow.
11:23 Announced attendance: 45,265. This one actually seems plausible. It’s not at capacity but it’s pretty packed here. Very few empty seats
9:38 I’m still nervous. Smith finally connects with a great throw to the back left corner of the endzone, hitting Brad Starks for 25 yards. Smith went 4-4 on that drive. I don’t like that. Like I said: still nervous.
7:00 It’s Antwon Bailey time! He’s been grinding all game and he finally busts out a long run, hitting the hole with a nifty stutter step and then making a great cutback about ten yards out. He takes it all the way down to the WVU 10 yard line and if SU can score here, we might actually be able to relax, maybe, just a little bit, although not too much because anything can happen.
5:26 All of Bailey’s hard work gets rewarded: he pinballs into the endzone from 3 yards out, and it’s a 49-23 lead with just over five to play.
Syracuse 49-West Virginia 23
4:43 The crowd is breaking out a loud, and prolonged, O-VER-RA-TED chant. Ouch.
3:37 It may be garbage time but the defense isn’t letting up. Geno Smith is sacked by a pile of SU linebackers and the ball pops out. A WVU player recovers but that pretty much sums up his night right there. He’s been under constant pressure, and the second half saw it really wear him down. A couple plays later and it’s a turnover on downs.
2:34 SU is content to run out the clock. Annoyingly, the crowd is quickly thinning out. Come on, guys, really? You stayed this late, you might as well be in it for the long haul.
0:40 With the clock running down, what’s left of the crowd gives a standing ovation. This would be way better if 2/3 of the fans hadn’t left already.
0:00 Let’s exhale, everyone! This was pretty much the perfect type of win: close enough to be dramatic, even worrying at times, but never out of Syracuse’s control. Just a great game all around, with about five different guys who you could single out as player of the game: Nassib played just about perfect, Nick Provo was completely unstoppable, Chandler Jones made it his personal mission to wreck Geno Smith’s night, Dorian Graham had that return in addition to a quietly stellar receiving game, and Antwon Bailey had another excellent game, scoring the dagger touchdown at the end. And so many other players came up big at different times, it’s impossible to name them all.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the Syracuse Orange team we’ve been waiting for all season. They won’t play this well every week. But they’ve finally shown us what they can do, and boy was it fun.
Final: Syracuse 49-West Virginia 23