Mountaineers failure to halt blitz decisive
West Virginia's Bruce Irvin looks on near the end of the fourth quarter in what finished as a 49-23 loss for No. 11 West Virginia Friday night in Syracuse, N.Y.
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Of all the problems exposed in the stunning loss Friday night to unranked Syracuse, the most troubling was how physically outplayed the West Virginia offense was at the line of scrimmage.
Knocked off his rhythm by blitz pressure and host Syracuse's pass rush, quarterback Geno Smith threw two untimely interceptions, but had to flee pursuing defenders all night.
"They blitzed almost every snap. Even when they didn't, their pass rush was better than our pass blocking. That's where it really exposes you," said coach Dana Holgorsen. "It was exposed by their D-line and linebackers just physically beating us up front.
"You flip it to the other side, and their offensive line mauled us. Up front is where it gets exposed when it's a physical game like this and one team is playing harder than the other. That's where it shows up."
The result was an offense that never truly gained its trademark tempo, a quarterback who threw two interceptions and a team likely to slide far down the polls Sunday.
Smith threw his first interception at the Orange goal line in the second quarter, when the game was well within reach, and the second late in the third quarter, when a score could have kept the game competitive.
"Basically, they just kinda threw us off," Smith said. "We knew they blitzed half the time. We just didn't execute to the best of our ability. That's something that's disappointing."
West Virginia got off 65 total plays, compared to 74 for Syracuse -- a stat the Mountaineers usually dominate.
Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones was responsible for a lot of the pressure. He sacked Smith twice for a loss of 19 yards, and amassed six total tackles.
Out with an injury since the opener, Jones returned Friday night with Smith on his brain.
"Geno Smith is a good quarterback. Actually, since I was out with my [injury] I knew I was going to make the West Virginia game, so I have been scouting him since then," Jones said. "At the end of the game, I walked up to him and told him he was a great player and I have a lot of respect for him. He is a great player, and his passion for the game is off the charts. We just game-planned and got a lot of pressure on Geno, so I am psyched for that."
The offense resorted to passes along the sideline and fade routes to attack the blitz, but was only marginally successful.
"Their corners got their hands on us way too much," Holgorsen said. "We've been stressing that. When teams do this, we have to be able to get their hands off and run a fade route."
A year ago, Syracuse was able to pull off a stunning upset with a similarly managed game. Smith was picked off three times then and, as a result, was well aware of the pressure the Orange could mount.
He said Friday was the worst loss of his career.
Smith tweeted Saturday morning: "I'm hurt dog ... I put my heart in this game and to get the effort we showed last night really makes me wonder."
Ultimately, he said his team, which had been striving to win out in the Big East Conference, will have to figure out a way to recover.
"We all have to buy in. We have to understand a loss is a loss and we can't dwell," he said.
Defensive tackle Julian Miller, one of the more well-spoken veterans on the team, offered a unique take.
"You don't want to say it, but maybe this needed to happen for us to realize that we can't think we can get through the rest of the season thinking we're playing special on the defensive side of the ball," he said. "We've got to learn from this."
First Published October 23, 2011 12:00 am