Through the first half of the season, the West Virginia Mountaineers had impressed their fans and others throughout the nation winning five of six games, with their only loss to top-ranked LSU. Some weaknesses had been evident, but these had been overcome by a prolific offense scoring 40 points per game.
But in a 12-game season, opponents will find a way to exploit a team's vulnerabilities, and on Friday night an average but well prepared Syracuse squad exposed those weaknesses all in one night. Playing a mistake-free game with energy and enthusiasm, combined with a West Virginia squad flat and out of focus, the Orange not only achieved the upset but essentially ran the Mountaineers out of the building in a 49-23 humiliation.
West Virginia had problems both running the football and protecting the quarterback. As a result, the Mountaineers only were able to put up 23 points against a Syracuse defense that had yielded 27 points per game and tons of passing yardage against mostly mediocre competition.
Kickoff coverage was again atrocious. After scoring on a sensational catch and run by Stedman Bailey to close to a 14-9 deficit, WVU gave it all back in just 13 seconds by yielding a 98 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Early in the third quarter the Mountaineers had again scored to close within 5, but allowed a kickoff return to midfield, from where the Orange quickly responded with another score.
But the biggest failure of the night belonged to the defense. WVU fans recognized that a number of good players were lost from an excellent defense last season, but we never anticipated a performance like we saw in the Carrier Dome. The Mountaineers were soft against the run, could not pressure the quarterback, and treated Syracuse tight ends as if they were invisible. Three TD passes occurred when the defense simply made coverage mistakes allowing receivers to run free. It was the most points given up by a West Virginia team in 20 years (a 51-6 loss to Penn State in 1991)
The challenge now for this team and its coaches is to bounce back from this shocking loss. They know they are not as bad as they played Friday night, and they need to put this game in the rear view mirror and come back playing with confidence, focus and pride. But one concern was seeing a lot of heads hanging on the West Virginia sideline in the Carrier Dome before the third quarter had even ended. If that attitude carries over, a once promising season quickly could unravel.
This Saturday: What appeared to be just another game on the schedule now becomes the pivotal game of the 2011 season as the Mountaineers travel to play Rutgers, which has struggled on offense while playing good defense in achieving a 5-2 record. The Scarlet Knights have lost 16 straight to West Virginia and would like nothing better than to end that losing streak. The Mountaineers will need to be focused and ready to play to avoid another upset loss. West Virginia 30, Rutgers 21.