Strip away the fact that they're the West Virginia Mountaineers and we're the Syracuse Orange and we don't like each other very much, the last decade or so of West Virginia football has been a pretty interesting saga. From the retirement of Don Nehlen to the RichRod Era and its subsequent fallout, the rise and fall of Bill Stewart and the arrival of Dana Holgorson as the Big East era ended, it's like a Shakespearean play down there in Morgantown. Only instead of burning passions of the heart, they're just burning couches.
Charleston Daily Mail reporter Mike Casazza recently penned a book called Waiting for the Fall: A Decade of Dreams, Drama and West Virginia University Football and it covers what might very well be the most interesting, if not important, era in WVU football history.
Now why am I telling you, Syracuse fan, about all of this? Because as you might imagine, Syracuse factors in pretty heavily into the ebb and flow of Mountaineer football. Legendary coach Don Nehlen announced his retirement following a loss to SU. Rich Rodriguez' dominance over the Orange won't soon be forgotten. Nor will the fact that Bill Stewart was often seen as the Greg Robinson of West Virginia. And while the 2011 season was a letdown for the Orange, the 49-23 dismantling of the eventual Orange Bowl-bound 'Eers remains as puzzling as it was thrilling.
Not many people will remember the Syracuse - West Virginia rivalry outside of the two fanbases. But it was worthy of recognition in college football history. They will likely join Colgate now in the frozen stasis of our yearly football opponents past. They are the school we've played fourth-most, all-time after Penn State, Pittsburgh and the Raiders and, along with Pitt, the longest-running ongoing yearly opponent (every year since 1955). Barring some kind of weird bowl match-up, the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy will remain in Syracuse for many years to come.
As we remember the good times (and block out the bad) from the rivalry, let's read a passage from Waiting for the Fall. Naturally, I went with one that makes Syracuse look really good. Let's travel back to 2010 and when the wheels finally came off the Bill Stewart train.
WVU was 5-1 overall and 1-0 in the Big East with the conference’s best defense, best quarterback, and most explosive assembly of players on offense. Games would follow against Syracuse, which had lost eight straight in the series, and Connecticut, which was 0-6 all-time against WVU. Surely the Orange, who had just lost 45–14 at home against Pitt, would capitulate, and the Huskies, who had never really even been competitive against the Mountaineers, would bow down once again. Suddenly, WVU looked as though it was ready to put itself in
a very good position—ideal for the team still perceived to be the elite outfit in the Big East, but that hadn’t had first place all to itself since the end of the 2007 season. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 19 in the coaches’ poll and No. 20 in the Associated Press poll and the BCS, and no one else in the Big East was even close.
Then Sanders put a stamp on the season without ever knowing it. "Twenty points, we win. It’s in the book. Book it," he said after the USF game. It was a ringing endorsement for the defense, but anything but a vote of confidence for the offense, which just couldn’t click without Devine. He was hurting and he wasn’t explosive or threatening. Devine
had just four runs of 20 yards or more to that point in the season. He had 34 in his first three seasons. Devine averaged a 20-yard run once every 16.5 attempts his first three years. He was getting one every 25.9 carries after six games in 2010. Devine’s injury robbed WVU of the only way it could score on any snap.
The Mountaineers promptly lost to Syracuse and Connecticut in succession. The losses certainly couldn’t be blamed on the defense: the Orange completed only five passes. They made it inside WVU’s 16 four times and kicked four field goals. They did hardly anything to win on the road against a team like WVU, but they won nonetheless. Smith threw three interceptions, one in the end zone, and WVU scored just twice in four red zone possessions. It was a 19–14 loss.
Mickey Furfari, the longtime, resourceful writer who’s been around the program for a generation and doesn’t really hide the fact he’s a fan, called it "one of the most pitiful performances … a guy in his 65th year of covering the Mountaineers can recall." After seven games— and really, this was 33 games into Stewart’s tenure now—this was an offense with nothing to lean on, with no identity, with no way to rescue itself from itself, not even with two chances late to either kick two field goals or score one touchdown to win the game. "I disagree with that," Stewart said. "It’s been short passing, deep passes. We were 5-1. We were passing the ball and putting a lot on our skill guys because our running back is hurt. That’s your opinion and that’s my opinion. I’m not going to debate you on that."
Short passes. Deep passes. Running game; despite the fact the star back was hurt, Devine carried 24 times that day for 122 yards. Unfortunately, 66 of those yards came on three carries. The other 21 gained 56 yards, and six carries either lost yards or gained no yards. It was clear Devine didn’t trust his body like he once did.
Clarke, the rugged fullback who could have helped on a day WVU was admittedly outmuscled, carried four times for eight yards. Stewart said he kept using Devine because he thought Devine would make someone miss and break a long run, that a kid who hadn’t been right for weeks would turn a handoff into a horse race. This was an offense
that was trying to do so many things, but wasn’t really good at any one thing. "I see a lot of good we’re doing; I just don’t see consistency," Stewart said. "That’s as calm and as honest as I can answer that question. Are we masters of any one thing? No."