West Virginia vs. Syracuse, 2012 Pinstripe Bowl preview: Endless weapons

US PRESSWIRE

West Virginia was one of September's best teams, and Syracuse was one of November's. Which team will bring its A-game to Yankee Stadium? And which star receiver will you miss the most? Dec. 29, 3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN.

5 Players To Watch

Tavon Austin (RB/WR, West Virginia, Sr.). 139 targets, 109 catches, 1,266 yards; 61 carries for 598 yards, 15 total touchdowns.
Stedman Bailey (WR, West Virginia, Jr.). 139 targets, 106 catches, 1,501 yards, 23 touchdowns.
Alec Lemon (WR, Syracuse, Sr.). 97 targets, 70 catches, 1,056 yards, seven touchdowns.
Marcus Sales (WR, Syracuse, Sr.). 101 targets, 62 catches, 851 yards, eight touchdowns.
J.D. Woods (WR, West Virginia, Sr.). 88 targets, 56 catches, 596 yards, four touchdowns.

Let's not mess around here. If you're watching this game -- and you really should -- you are doing so because of the skill position talent. It's not really because of the quarterbacks (though WVU's Geno Smith and Syracuse's Ryan Nassib are two of the best seniors in the country), and it's not because of the active-but-flawed defenses (Syracuse corner Keon Lyn, weakside missile Dyshawn Davis and end Brandon Sharpe are solid, as are WVU defenders like BUCK end Josh Francis, freshman safety Karl Joseph and linebacker Terence Garvin). It's because of these five guys, all of whom will be playing in at Yankee Stadium for their last collegiate games. (Four are seniors, and the junior, Bailey, has already announced his intentions to go pro.)

Really, the Pinstripe Bowl offers you a glimpse at five different ways to play the receiver position. Bailey and Sales are the prototypical downfield threats, Lemon will kill you with slants, Austin gets the ball in space (and typically close to the line of scrimmage) in a multitude of ways, and Woods is the dirty-work guy, taking big hits and making tough catches. Austin's move to running back in November (he carried 47 times for 495 yards against Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas) was both inspired and a season-saver for the Mountaineers, though Bailey's return to full health after nagging injuries certainly helped, too. Meanwhile, both Sales and Lemon alternated time as Syracuse's No. 1 guy. Sales caught 28 of 35 passes for 346 yards and five scores versus Northwestern, South Florida and USC, while Lemon caught 38 of 49 passes for 682 yards and five scores versus Minnesota, UConn, Louisville, and Missouri.

No single bowl game features as much receiver potential as this one. Any play that doesn't utilize one of these five players will feel like a waste of your time.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. The reading material. West Virginia won five in a row, then lost five in a row, and in both cases the Mountaineers were fascinating enough for SB Nation's Research & Analytics Intern, former Arizona State linebacker Mike Nixon, to spend much of his fall writing about head coach Dana Holgorsen's offense. Catch up now on whatever you may have missed.

2. The quarterbacks, too. Ryan Nassib threw for 3,619 yards and 24 touchdowns and was easily the less prolific of this game's two starting quarterbacks. Geno Smith fell into a weeks-long funk and still threw for 4,004 yards and 40 touchdowns (with just six interceptions). On a per-game basis, these two threw for 635 yards and completed two-thirds of their passes. The receivers get a lot of the credit here, but they still need someone to throw them the ball.

3. Young defenders. It is likely that both defenses will spend a lot of this game on their heels, but keep an eye on some exciting young players. Dyshawn Davis, a Syracuse sophomore, recorded 54.5 tackles, 13.0 tackles for loss and one sack and took two returns (one interception, one fumble) for a combined 80 yards and a touchdown. At 6'2, 212, he is basically a safety, but he's a good one however he is utilized. And considering the book on WVU -- rush four because if you either blitz Geno Smith or drop eight into coverage, he will inevitably find an open man -- it will be interesting to see just how he is utilized. Meanwhile, you could make the case that freshman free safety Karl Joseph is already WVU's best defensive player. He led WVU in tackles (84.0, not that it's a good thing when your free safety leads the way) and showed play-making abilities both near the line scrimmage (7.0 tackles for loss) and away from it (two interceptions, six passes broken up, three forced fumbles). He is a big hitter and a heady player, and he shined despite the atrocious production around him.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. Which version of which team? After six weeks, West Virginia was undefeated and residing in the AP Top 5 despite a defense that was almost every bit as bad as the offense was good. The Mountaineers were scoring 52 points per game and allowing 35, but they had survived a visit from Baylor and a trip to Texas and looked to be in control of the Big 12. Syracuse, meanwhile, was 2-3, possessing only uninspiring wins over Stony Brook (28-17) and Pittsburgh (14-13) and losses to Northwestern, USC and Minnesota. Dana Holgorsen was gearing up for another BCS bid, and it looked like the Doug Marrone era was stagnating in a terrible way.

Syracuse would move to 2-4 with a competitive loss to Rutgers on October 13, but for the rest of the season, the Orange might have been the Big East's best team. They whipped UConn, Temple and then-undefeated Louisville, they won at Missouri, and they lost only at Cincinnati. Meanwhile, West Virginia got destroyed by Texas Tech in Lubbock, returned home to get destroyed by Kansas State, lost to TCU in double-overtime, lost to both Oklahoma schools, and salvaged a 7-5 record only with a tight win over Iowa State and a pasting of Kansas. If these two teams had played on September 15, West Virginia probably would have won by 21. If they had played on November 10, Syracuse probably would have won by 21. The bowl break tends to kill momentum, good and bad, but what exactly will either of these teams have to offer in New York?

2. How well can you tackle, 'Cuse? West Virginia's offense is always dangerous, but it becomes debilitating when the horizontal and vertical are working. If the Mountaineers can turn one-yard passes into 10-yard gains, you're dead. But if you survive to make them play another down, you might be able to eventually stop the drive. Make Geno Smith beat you by throwing downfield; don't let him get away with the dink-and-dunk.

3. How does WVU stop Nassib? Believe it or not, WVU's defense has some strengths. The Mountaineers rank a solid 35th in Rushing S&P+, and an at least decent 51st on standard downs. Syracuse's run game is typically hit-or-miss, and WVU might be able to make the Orange one-dimensional. The problem is ... Syracuse is really good at that one dimension (20th in Passing S&P+) and West Virginia is very, very bad at it (106th). So, okay, you force Syracuse to pass. Can you get pressure on Nassib? WVU has only 21 sacks this season, and Syracuse has only allowed 14. If you blitz, Nassib will immediately make the right read and fire the ball before you can get to him. Do you rely on your defensive backs to cover Sales and Lemon for an extended period of time? Because that didn't work very well against Big 12 offenses.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Syracuse by 0.3.
Bill's Pick: WVU by 7. I have talked The 'Cuse up quite a bit in the past couple of months, but Tavon Austin at running back makes the difference for me. WVU regained a bit of its swagger when he moved into the backfield.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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