WVU gets Big Apple-tunity in Pinstripe Bowl
NEW YORK — This has been a season like no other for West Virginia's 7-5 football team.
The Mountaineers, who will face Syracuse (7-5) in the Pinstripe Bowl on Saturday at Yankee Stadium, will never play another inaugural year in the Big 12.
WVU might never again start a more talented trio of players than quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Smith, who produced back-to-back 4,000-yard seasons, is WVU's career leader in nearly every major passing category. He's expected to be the first quarterback selected in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Austin, who should be among the first receivers drafted, is the Mountaineers' all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and all-purpose yards.
Bailey, who will enter the draft a year early, is the Mountaineers' career leader in touchdown receptions. His 23 TD catches this year is the third-best single-season total in FBS history.
Despite the efforts of Smith, Austin and Bailey, WVU's porous defense — ranked 107th out of 120 teams — couldn't keep pace with its record-setting offense. As a result, Smith's Heisman Trophy candidacy took a tumble and the Mountaineers went 2-5 down the stretch.
“Trying to explain to everybody what the Big 12 is all about is difficult,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said Friday. “It will probably take two years to explain what the Big 12 is all about. Next year it's going to be the same thing — it's going to be challenging. There's a whole bunch of parity in college football.”
A win over a dangerous Syracuse team that defeated the Mountaineers in each of their final two seasons in the Big East would make for a better ending, junior linebacker Doug Rigg said.
“An 8-5 record is better than 7-6,” said Rigg, who is sixth on the team in tackles and returned a fumble 51 yards for a touchdown.
Furthermore, a strong performance by Smith in his final collegiate game will help remove some of the sting from this season as he prepares for the next stage in his career.
Smith isn't expected to play in the Senior Bowl, so this will be the last time he performs in front of pro scouts until the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
“Every game I try to put on a show,” he said. “Not only for myself and my teammates to try to win the game, but I feel like I have a lot to prove to everyone as far as the draft. A lot of guys kind of underrate my game for whatever reason.”
Some of Smith's frustration stems not from an offense that ranks No. 7 nationally in scoring but from a defense that couldn't hold leads.
In one-point home losses to TCU (39-38) and Oklahoma (50-49), WVU appeared to score enough points to win but was betrayed late by the defense.
“We've had our ups and downs defensively,” said Holgorsen, who recently promoted Keith Patterson to defensive coordinator. “It's a combination of a lot of things. We played some pretty good offenses as well.”
Add Syracuse's offense, led by senior quarterback Ryan Nassib, to the list.
Syracuse defeated the Mountaineers, 49-23, in 2011. This year, the Orange are averaging 29.3 points and have scored at least 40 points in three games.
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.