Barber, the Mountaineers’ Will linebacker, said WVU wasn’t focused against the Orange in a 49-23 defeat last year, and collectively assumed they could simply show up and win. Syracuse, which finished just 5-7, played physically and showcased superior grit and desire in beating WVU for just the second time in the past 10 series meetings.
“It was effort and mentality,” Barber said. “They wanted it more than we did. They came out fired up and we thought we could show up and beat them. The past two years, that hasn’t been true. We have to want to play football, play hard and enjoy being with each other on the field. If we do that, we’ll be all right.”
Barber’s insight has proven true time and again this season. West Virginia was incredibly dialed in for games against Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma , and it played well in most phases in winning two of the three. The 48-45 victory at then-No. 9 Texas was a season highlight, but the big-game hangover showcased a team-wide issue in that the Mountaineers figured other wins would come easily after beating a marquee program on the road at night in front of more than 100,000 fans.
Stedman Bailey said after the Texas game that the victory certainly propelled West Virginia into national title contention. Geno Smith was being awarded he Heisman Trophy by multiple media pundits. The Mountaineers were suddenly not a dark horse, but the shining star for the Big 12 in its quest for a national championship. Then the Mountaineers went on the road against Texas Tech and were lambasted. Mental approach issues were exposed in the light of the defeat. Even play-by-play announcer Tony Caridi said the team lost the game not on the field, but on the plane ride to Lubbock.
There was lack of focus. Lack of a proper mental approach and respect for the opponent. And that, more than anything, led to breakdowns in the passing game, on defense, in tackling, on special teams, in ball security, in coaching. In every area, West Virginia performed poorly in losses to Tech and Kansas State. The two blowouts served a two-fold purpose: They exposed flaws, physical and mental, and they took eased vast amounts of pressure and expectation that began to bury WVU.
That’s not what one wants, obviously. The ideal is to have a team that handles each game effectively, one that has a healthy respect, but no fear, for all foes. West Virginia appears to be back to that style of play and game preparation for the Pinstripe Bowl. The offense has played well and is utilizing its top weapon, Tavon Austin, in every way imaginable. Any ideas of a blowout have been tempered by the loss of center Joe Madsen. The lack of a key cog along the line has made others up their game, and it has served as a bit of a unifying force.
The defense is bothered by predictions of a shootout. Said nose tackle Shaq Rowell: “Yeah, I have a problem with them saying that it’s going to be a shootout, because they’re really just saying the defense sucks.” Point taken. The special teams has had enough to fix that it’s been a constant issue. So there’s really not even the consideration of overconfidence. If anything, a Syracuse team that has won five of six should be the one plying the holier-than-thou mindset.
“They do everything well,” Barber said. “They are a solid football team all around. They have great running backs. The top ones, they run real hard. The quarterback is a big, tough kid with a big arm. And the two kids, #5 and #15, on the edge. They are a tough team.” All the right thoughts there.
So it would seem, by all exterior clues, that the West Virginia team peaking in time for the Pinstripe is seeming more to resemble the one that delivered the Texas-sized blow, and not the one that got canvassed twice via knockout. The confidence, via two wins, has been restored – but not to the degree of a walk-in-and-win delusion. This team seems right-minded at the right time.
“We have a really close group of guys,” Barber said. “It’s something special. I’ve been around and talked to other kids at other colleges, and we are close. We have a really good, talented team. We want to send these seniors out on a good note.”
Note: Barber said West Virginia has been increasingly alternating between a two- and three-deep look in the secondary under coordinator Keith Patterson. The Mountaineers are also expected to attempt tighter coverage on the corners and a few more varying front looks. But, Barber said, WVU must continue to do what has made it successful in recent games, and he didn’t note a significant difference in other aspects of coaching between Patterson and Joe DeForest.