By Cam Huffman
While the eyes of the nation are likely to be on West Virginia’s big stars — Tavon Austin, Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey — Saturday when the Mountaineers (7-5) take on old Big East rival Syracuse (7-5) in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, WVU fans will keep at least part of their focus on another area.
Few would argue that the main reason the Mountaineers are spending their late-December days in New York City — instead of a warm weather location like Florida, Arizona or Texas — is the play of a defense that ranked 107th out of 120 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams in total defense, giving up nearly 470 yards per game.
The Mountaineers allowed a school record 457 points in 12 games, largely because of a pass defense that came in ahead of only Louisiana Tech, allowing more than 327 yards per game through the skies.
Those numbers were enough to convince head coach Dana Holgorsen to make a switch, moving defensive coordinator Joe DeForest to co-defensive coordinator, while moving co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson into the defensive coordinator role.
Although the shuffling was more than confusing when it came to titles, the final result was simple. Patterson — who spent time as a defensive coordinator at Pitt and Tulsa earlier in his coaching career — is now the lone coach calling the plays and taking full responsibility for the defense.
The new title gave Patterson some added prestige, but it also moved him to the front of the line to face Mountaineer fans demanding something different.
Holgorsen said he’s confident that’s just what they’ll get.
“I’m looking forward to seeing our defense out there to see if we made some improvements,” he admitted. “I think we have. I like the direction we’re going. Coach Patterson’s done a great job of getting them lined up, motivating them and making sure they’re ready to play.”
But his task won’t be easy.
Syracuse will bring with it to Yankee Stadium an offense that averaged 29 points per game and led the Big East with 473.4 yards per contest.
The bulk of that production came through the air, where quarterback Ryan Nassib threw for more than 300 yards per game — bad news for a shaky WVU secondary.
“They’ve got a great offense,” said Holgorsen. “That’s been talked about a lot. They’re more similar to us than what I remembered a year ago. They’ve got a quality quarterback that gets his guys playing hard, a veteran offensive line, quality backs and good receivers.”
Holgorsen said the Orange are probably better than they were last year. That’s not what Patterson wanted to hear, considering Syracuse put up 49 points in a convincing win over WVU last October.
“They were pretty impressive a year ago, obviously,” he said. “The difference you’re going to see is the run game. They’re much more effective at running the football. The second thing you’re going to see is a quarterback who is in complete control. He’s an operator. He’s in a groove and has confidence in his receivers.”
According to junior defensive lineman Will Clarke, SU is also playing with a greater sense of urgency when it has the football.
“This year, they incorporated a tempo to their offense,” said the Pittsburgh, Pa., native. “From what I’ve seen, it works out really well for them. They’re still pretty much the same team, but the tempo has really worked out for them.”
Preparation for the Orange has been more limited than expected. After a week of team drills — resembling a spring practice — and a week of preparation for Syracuse in Morgantown, Holgorsen gave the players three full days off before they met in New York City.
Wednesday’s practice was move inside the team hotel because of bad weather in the area, severely limiting what the coaching staff was able to do, and when the Mountaineers hit the practice field on Thursday, it had been almost a week since they had been in that position.
But Patterson said the schedule shouldn’t be a problem.
“A long time ago, I was a track coach,” he said. “We did all of our preparation 10 days prior to the state track meet. The week of the state track meet, we did absolutely nothing, except work up a little sweat. It’s all about trying to peak at the right time.
“We went extremely hard last week with some physical practices. Now it becomes more mental. That’s where you see teams lose it when they come to a bowl game.”
Clarke echoed his coach’s belief.
“We practiced a lot back in Morgantown,” he said. “We put in a lot of hard work. When we left, we were ready to play the game. From here on, it’s just refreshing your mind on the film of Syracuse.
“Honestly, I don’t really think it effects us much. Physically, I feel like we’re ready to go.”
And the changes Patterson has made aren’t so drastic that any confusion should be expected.
“Everyone is comfortable,” said Clarke. “There hasn’t been any major changes — nothing that would have us running around like chickens with our heads cut off. So I feel like we’ll be prepared.”
Although the New Era Pinstripe Bowl wasn’t the desired destination for many Mountaineer players and fans, ticket sales have gone well.
Bowl officials have indicated they expect a record crowd of more than 40,000 fans for Saturday’s games. Both schools sold their required allotment of tickets.
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