“It’s round one,” said Mountaineer head coach Bill Stewart during his weekly press conference, held Tuesday afternoon at the Milan Puskar Center.
“The seven most important games are soon to be upon us. That starts Saturday in Syracuse. That’s how we’re approaching it.”
The Orange are a surprising 2-3 after only winning three games all of last season. That was the last go-round for then-coach Greg Robinson, who was fired and ultimately replaced with SU alum Doug Marrone.
Stewart is intimately familiar with the transitional period Marrone is going through, having done so himself only one season ago after taking over for former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez.
Even the most optimistic of Syracuse fans likely didn’t expect things to go so well in the early part of this season.
Marrone and company took a solid Minnesota team to overtime in the season-opener and have earned wins over Northwestern and Maine. This past Saturday, the Orange were competitive for much of their game with South Florida before ultimately falling 34-20.
“It’s all attitude,” Stewart said of the difference between the SU team of last season and the one WVU will face Saturday. “That’s what I saw on film against Minnesota, Northwestern, Maine and really every game they’ve played.”
The second-year Mountaineer coach compared the change to that of a shift in the lineup of a baseball team. Much like a good hitter in the clean-up spot can make the No. 3 and No. 5 batters play a lot better than they would otherwise, Syracuse has raised its level of play since the change at the top of the program.
“It changes the whole complexity of the operation,” said Stewart.
“I see young men (on film) that are straining, playing hard, running to the ball, staying on blocks. I don’t know how many holding calls I saw Maine acquire trying to block them on special teams. That’s when I know people are straining. Our guys need to see that as well.”
Offensively, the Orange attack begins with the one-two punch of quarterback Greg Paulus and wide receiver Mike Williams.
The former has famously taken over in the huddle for SU this season despite arriving at the school after four years of playing basketball under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke (and not playing a down of football during the same time frame).
Still, Paulus was a highly-sought after quarterback as a high school player in upstate New York and wasted little time in earning the starting job for Marrone during preseason camp.
“He’s a tenacious player,” Stewart said of Paulus. “He thinks he can get it done, and every quarterback has to feel that way. Greg is doing a good job. I see a guy that’s a four-year player for Duke basketball, and that’s pretty special. There’s not a pass he doesn’t like, the same way (WVU quarterback) Jarrett Brown is.”
“I hope they put something in his eggs up there on Saturday morning. How do you stop a playmaker? You don’t. You try to defend those around him. I don’t know how you defend a Michael Jordan or whomever. How do you stop Ted Williams batting? You get the guys out before him and the guys out after him. He’s going to get his licks.”
In Paulus’ case, many of those “licks” will likely come in the form of passes to the aforementioned Williams, who has quickly become the signal-caller’s favorite target. The 6-foot-2, 211 pound receiver ranks third nationally in total receiving yards (623) and fifth in average receiving yards with 124.6 per contest.
“I know a lot of teams across the country would like to have him,” Stewart said of Syracuse’s senior receiver. “I don’t know how we’re going to stop him, but I hope we can contain him. We might have to use some double help and things like that and try to disrupt the quarterback.”
On the other side of the ball, the Orange have hung their proverbial hat on stopping the run, ranking just behind WVU at No. 15 nationally in that department. SU opponents average only 91.4 yards per game on the ground.
With Mountaineer running back Noel Devine coming off a career-high 220 yard performance against Colorado, that battle may prove to be the biggest key to Saturday afternoon’s game.
“They play a lot of that two-gap, like the great Iowa and Penn State teams, and then they blitz you,” Stewart said. “You’ve got to be ready anything. This is going to be a real challenge for our guys.”
“They attack you. They bend sometimes but don’t break, then sometimes they come after you. Sometimes they’ve gotten there and won the battle, and sometimes they haven’t gotten there and have gotten burnt.”
In essence, that is why Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen stuck to their guns a season ago when it came to changing around the offense.
While there was criticism at the time from some who didn’t see the point of trying to fix something that wasn’t necessarily broken, the versatility of the attack WVU now has at its disposal is what has allowed it to find so much offensive success this season.
No matter what Syracuse will ultimately do defensively on Saturday, the Mountaineers will, at least in theory, have an answer.
“We’re not going to change,” Stewart said. “We are who we are. I like what we’re doing. We’re trying to establish our identity. We’re not there yet, but we’re close. When people play the Mountaineers, I want them to say they have to defend 100 yards of turf. When we live that way, we’re going to be a pretty good football team.”
“We’re tough to defend when we’re in sync.”
Stewart said he expects defensive lineman Scooter Berry to be ready to play by Saturday’s game.
“We’re healthy,” the head coach said. “I think Scooter Berry will be able to go this week. We’re counting on that. Reed Williams ran very fleetfully Sunday. Jarrett Brown is doing well.”
“We have some bumps and bruises as everyone in America does when you’ve played four football games, but we’re healthy and that’s good. We need to be healthy.”