The Orange and Mountaineers will meet Friday in Orlando
Old Big East rivals renew acquaintances on Friday, as West Virginia and Syracuse meet in Orlando for the Camping World Bowl. While some may say bowl games are a meaningless exhibition, there should be no shortage of motivation for these two programs. With standout quarterback Will Grier sitting out this game, the Mountaineers will get an early look at the 2019 version of their offense. On the other sideline, the Orange are a victory away from earning their first double-digit win season since 2001.
With a Heisman Trophy candidate (Grier) leading the way on offense, along with a standout group of receivers, West Virginia was projected to be one of the Big 12’s top contenders in 2018. Coach Dana Holgorsen’s team started 5-0 but stumbled in Ames 30-14 to Iowa State to end their undefeated hopes. The Mountaineers rebounded with three consecutive wins, including a 42-41 thriller over Texas in Austin. However, Holgorsen’s team dropped back-to-back games to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma by a combined seven points to finish the regular season at 8-3 and fell just short of a trip to the Big 12 Championship. As mentioned previously, Grier won’t play in this game as he prepares for the 2019 NFL Draft. The Mountaineers will also be without standout receiver Gary Jennings and left tackle Yodny Cajuste due to NFL Draft preparation, so Holgorsen will get an early glimpse at his offense for next fall.
After back-to-back 4-8 records to open his Syracuse tenure, Dino Babers elevated the program to a 9-3 mark in 2018. The Orange also finished 6-2 in ACC play and ranked No. 20 in the final CFB Playoff rankings. Babers is one of college football’s top minds on offense, and Syracuse is clearly a program on the rise with the Hawaii native at the helm. The Orange opened the season with a 4-0 mark and suffered its first loss in Death Valley to Clemson (27-23) in a near upset. After losing to Pitt the following Saturday, Syracuse rallied with four straight wins before a 36-3 defeat at the hands of Notre Dame in Yankee Stadium. Babers’ team capped off the regular season with a 42-21 victory over Boston College, pushing the program to a 9-3 mark and the first bowl trip since 2013.
Syracuse holds a 33-27 series edge over West Virginia. The Orange have won three in a row over the Mountaineers, including a 2012 meeting in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Camping World Bowl: West Virginia (8-3) vs. Syracuse (9-3)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 28 at 5:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Syracuse -1.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A Different Look at QB and WR for West Virginia
As mentioned previously, the bowl game presents a good opportunity for Dana Holgorsen to get an early look at his 2019 offense. Additionally, with offensive coordinator Jake Spavital taking the head coach position at Texas State, Holgorsen will serve as the team’s play-caller for this matchup. West Virginia ranked second in the Big 12 in scoring offense (42.3 ppg), yards per play (7.2) and led the conference by averaging 358.1 passing yards a game. However, with Grier, Jennings and Cajuste sidelined, it’s no secret this offense will have a different look on Dec. 28.
Miami transfer Jack Allison is slated to start for Grier under center, but freshman Trey Lowe is also expected to see snaps. Allison played in six games this season, completing six of 10 passes for 75 yards and one touchdown. Lowe has yet to play this year and will be able to preserve his redshirt status with an appearance in this matchup. Allison is a pocket passer in the mold of Grier, while Lowe is more of a running threat. How Holgorsen will deploy the snaps between these two quarterbacks isn’t defined, giving Syracuse’s defense plenty to think about prior to kickoff.
With Cajuste also out for this game, the line will have a new look up front. According to West Virginia’s two-deep for the Camping World Bowl, Kelby Wickline will get the nod at left tackle in place of Cajuste, with Colton McKivitz anchoring the right side. Josh Sills and Isaiah Hardy will handle the guard spots, with Matt Jones at center. However, it's possible that starting group may look a little different by kickoff. This unit will be tested against a Syracuse front that has generated 38 sacks and 85 tackles for a loss. Alton Robinson paced the team with 10 sacks, while tackle Chris Slayton is a force on the interior. However, Syracuse announced on Monday that Robinson and tackle McKinley Williams will not play in this game due to personal reasons.
While Jennings will be missed at receiver, the cupboard isn’t bare at the skill positions. David Sills was among the top receivers in the nation in 2018, catching 61 passes for 896 yards and 15 touchdowns. Marcus Simms (46 catches), T.J. Simmons (22) and tight end Trevon Wesco (24) will be heavily involved versus Syracuse, while freshmen Sam James and Bryce Wheaton could see snaps. Kennedy McKoy (729 yards), Martell Pettaway (562) and Leddie Brown (433) will handle the work in the backfield for Holgorsen.
It’s no secret Grier, Jennings and Cajuste are going to be missed. However, Allison has the entire bowl practice session to work as the starter, so he should be prepared for this game. How will this unit perform with new faces at key spots?
2. Syracuse’s High-Powered Offense
Syracuse wasn’t far behind West Virginia on the stat sheet this season, as Babers’ offense averaged 40.8 points a game, 5.7 yards a play and ranked fourth in the ACC by averaging 261.5 passing yards a contest.
Senior quarterback Eric Dungey is the catalyst for this group and will be looking to close out the 2018 season on a high note. After battling injuries in the month of November for each of the last three years, Dungey started all 12 games for the Orange and earned second-team All-ACC honors by Athlon Sports. The senior connected on 60.1 percent of his passes for 2,565 yards and 17 touchdowns to just seven picks and added 732 yards and 15 scores on the ground.
After losing Steve Ishmael and Ervin Phillips from last year’s unit, Syracuse’s receiving corps went into 2018 with new faces stepping into primary roles. However, this unit was solid by the end of the year. Jamal Custis led the team with 826 yards and six receiving scores, with Sean Riley pacing the offense with 63 catches. Nykeim Johnson (39), Taj Harris (36) and tight end Ravian Pierce (16) round out the other key targets for Dungey. With West Virginia’s secondary ranking sixth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense, Dungey and his receivers should find plenty of favorable matchups.
While Dungey’s play is clearly the driving force for Babers’ up-tempo attack, an improved ground game only added to the effectiveness for this group. After ranking ninth in the ACC by averaging 161.5 rushing yards a game in 2017, the Orange improved that total to 207.3 in ’18. Moe Neal led the offense with 827 yards, with Dungey ranking second with 732 yards. Dontae Strickland (571) and Jarveon Howard (311) will also see time in this matchup.
When this game kicks off on Dec. 28, it will be over a month since Syracuse last played. How long will it take Dungey and his supporting cast to knock off the rust and get back in rhythm? The Orange scored at least 40 points in five out of its last six games, and with Dungey looking to cap his college career on a high note, hitting that total once again is certainly within reach.
3. Which Defense Steps Up?
With two teams bringing high-powered offenses to Orlando, a couple of defensive stops could be the difference in this matchup.
Statistically, these two teams aren’t far apart in points allowed. Syracuse is giving up 27.8 points a contest, with West Virginia allowing 26.5. Additionally, both teams are allowing exactly 5.84 yards per play.
Babers’ defense has been better at creating havoc, ranking 13th nationally with 38 sacks generated, while West Virginia has accumulated 23 over 11 games. The Orange also hold a slight edge in turnover margin, sporting a plus-14 to the Mountaineers’ plus-six.
Syracuse has an edge in two areas: Third down and red zone defense. The Orange finished sixth nationally in third-down defense and ranked 30th in red zone stops. That’s compared to 86th in red zone defense for West Virginia, with coordinator Tony Gibson’s unit ranking 37th in third-down defense.
Both teams are certainly vulnerable on this side of the ball. Whichever unit does a better job of forcing offenses to take three points instead of touchdowns and generates havoc plays is likely to swing this game in their team’s favor.
Even though West Virginia won’t have a couple of its stars from the regular season, this game should have plenty of fireworks. And in terms of motivation, there should be plenty on both sidelines. The Mountaineers can get an early look at next year’s quarterback situation and cap off a solid season with a ninth victory. On the other sideline, Syracuse can win its 10th game and send quarterback Eric Dungey out on a high note. Both defenses are going to give up their share of yards and points in this one. However, the difference will be Dungey, as he delivers a huge performance to close out his career with the Orange.