MORGANTOWN-If there is one thing-other than the disappointment which follows a loss-that WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff and players can agree upon it's the physical nature of the game the No. 11 Mountaineers (5-1, 1-0 Big East) are expecting to encounter when they take on Syracuse (4-2, 0-1 Big East) at 8 p.m. in the Carrier Dome.
"It's pretty obvious what they want to do," explained Holgorsen. "Coach Doug Marrone has had some pretty good quarterbacks. A couple of years ago, he had a pretty good one. They want to control the game. They want to get in the huddle and run pro-style stuff.
"They want to beat you with formations, grind the clock down and get first downs. That's what they have had success with. I think they had about 260 yards last year, converted some big third downs and ate some clock up."
And, in accomplishing that feat, kept WVU's high-powered offense off of the field for more than 28 minutes. The Mountaineers actually won the time of possession battle by a 31:48-to-28:12 margin, but much of that came in an opening quarter where the old gold and blue jumped out to a 14-10 advantage.
The Orange also won the turnover battle-converting three Geno Smith interceptions into 13 first half points-and harassed the Mountaineers' signal-caller into numerous quick throws and sacked him on a trio of occasions.
"I watched the game, but I didn't study it," continued the coach. "Every year, a team is different, which is why I don't go back unless you absolutely have to. They were good defensively last year. They have the potential to be really good this year.
No. 11 West Virginia (5-1) at Syracuse (4-2)
Game time: 8 p.m. Friday Spread: WVU by 14.
Series History: Syracuse leads 31-27.
TV/Radio: ESPN - (Joe Tessitore - play-by-play, Rod Gilmore - analyst). Radio: Mountaineer Sports Network - (Tony Caridi - play-by-play, Dwight Wallace - analyst, Hoppy Kercheval - host, Jed Drenning - sideline). Twitter Updates - Twitter.com/WVUSportsScores; Twitter.com/WVUSportsBuzz
Notes: The winner of the annual game is awarded the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy in honor of the former WVU letterman and Syracuse coaching legend. ... West Virginia had won eight straight in the series from 2002-09, before dropping last year's contest, 19-14, in Morgantown. WVU won the last meeting in Syracuse, 34-13, on Oct. 10, 2009, and has won four straight at the Dome. Syracuse coach Doug Marrone is 1-1 against West Virginia. ... WVU quarterback Geno Smith has thrown a touchdown pass in nine straight games.
"It's not the same team. It's the same scheme, the same coordinator, the same what's trying to be accomplished, but what they want to do is pressure you."
Something West Virginia's previous six opponents attempted to accomplish, but with mixed results. Opponents have gotten to Smith seven times for minus-53 yards on offense and the junior quarterback has tossed three interceptions-backup Paul Millard has one-but the two-year starter has also made teams pay for not getting to him by completing 165-of-258 attempts for 2,159 yards and 16 touchdowns. Numbers that allow the Florida-native to be ranked No. 6 nationally.
The two areas given the most credit for Smith's rise revolves around the play of his offensive line and his own decision making.
"Geno Smith is playing extremely well," said Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone. "And, that's the biggest difference from last year to this year. They (WVU) likes to spread you out which makes it very difficult to take a player out."
And, that is where the Mountaineers' front five come into play.
"You have to adjust to what they're doing and just handle it," WVU's coach explained. "To say they're not going to pressure is the same as saying that we're not going to pass the ball. It's what they do, and they're good at it.
"When they bring it, we'll have to be able to recognize it and block the guys that are coming. Geno will have to recognize it and know when he has to get rid of it or when he can hang on to it."
Providing the bulk of that protection will be a group headlined by seniors Don Barclay and Tyler Rader, juniors Jeff Braun and Joe Madsen and freshman Pat Eger. Barclay (6-4, 310) will line up at left tackle with Braun (6-4, 322) at left guard. The center slot again will be manned by Madsen (6-4, 301) while the right side will see Rader (6-3, 296) at guard and Eger (6-6, 301) at tackle.
Redshirt freshman Quinton Spain (6-5, 338) could also see plenty of action.
"He (Spain) could go right guard or right tackle," said Holgorsen. "We'll keep him on the right side, because that's where he's been practicing since camp started. We could possibly move him to left tackle. He's played at left guard, but that's not fair to do to a young kid. We'll do what we have to, to get the best players out there."
Holgorsen could also elect to provide more protection in the backfield by playing one, two or even three of the team's fullbacks-junior Ryan Clarke (6-0, 228), senior Ricky Kovatch (6-1, 235) or junior Matt Lindamood (6-0, 236), who appears to be recovered from a leg injury that has sidelined the Parkersburg-native for the past month.
"We've seen pretty much everything (Syracuse does)," said the coach. "I think we have a fairly good idea of what they're going to do. If they come out and do something different, then that's why coaches are paid to do their job. They figure out what they're doing and try to adjust and take advantage of what their plan was coming into the game."