The first half of this year’s Camping World Bowl featured several moments that reminded fans just how much the West Virginia Mountaineers and Syracuse Orange hate each other. Both schools have blue-collar histories and play with a chip on their shoulders. So that was no surprise. What was surprising is this: the two teams combined for less than 350 yards and 26 points in the first half. But Syracuse broke away in the fourth quarter to prevail over the Mountaineers 34-18.
In so doing, Dino Babers’ team completed a Syracuse revival over 15 years in the making, as the Orange finished with their first ten-win season since 2001. And the same Mountaineers that started their season 8-1 and in prime position to reach the Big XII Championship, ended by losing their third straight.
Mountaineers’ Defense Controls the First Half
Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson had his unit ready to fight in the first half. The Mountaineers held Syracuse to only 144 yards and 14 points through the first two quarters of play. Both figures were well below the Orange’s season averages. They did so by dialing up pressure relentlessly. Gibson’s unit had five sacks and forced two turnovers in that time.
While the defense was dominant, the Mountaineers’ offense behind first-time starter Jack Allison struggled as the half wore on. Going into the locker room, it looked like the Mountaineers might put a few things together and carry momentum into the second half.
Syracuse Breaks Away
West Virginia, however, could not turn any offensive momentum it gained into touchdowns. Instead, they settled for two field goals despite sustaining two solid drives in the third quarter. Because the defense held strong through most of the frame, West Virginia held an 18-17 lead going into the final quarter.
But Syracuse broke away in the fourth after opening with a touchdown. Then, on the first play of the ensuing drive, Allison overlooked a wide-open David Sills for a screen to the bottom of the field. Instead, Allison forced an errant pass into traffic for his first (and only) turnover of the game.
The play was a good representation of the Mountaineers’ offensive woes. Simply, whether by design or otherwise, the veteran Sills was often overlooked despite receiving single coverage most of the game. At one point, 5’5” walk-on freshman Kwincy Hall had more receiving yards than Sills. Either way, the Mountaineer offense looked stagnant. The defense did all it could to preserve the Mountaineers’ chances to win, but the Orange held strongest when it mattered most.
After the turnover, Syracuse capitalized with a field goal and extended their lead to 27-18. On the next drive, Syracuse dialed up its own pressure resulting in a quick three and out. The Mountaineer defense was ready to respond until a scrambling Eric Dungey turned what was easily a 15-yard loss into a 42-yard gain. Syracuse scored on the next play.
Orange Extend Their Streak
The Orange held on for a 34-18 win and extended their streak against the Mountaineers to four. Syracuse improved to 10-3 on the year after four straight losing seasons. West Virginia fell to 8-4 and are now 2-5 in bowls under Head Coach Dana Holgorsen. Next year, both schools will look to rebuild key parts of their offense after losing their star quarterbacks. But both will return significant contributors in all three phases.