In a year of ups and downs for the West Virginia Mountaineers, Saturday night's Pinstripe Bowl in New York City may prove to be the lowest point of the season. After entering the game favored against longtime Big East rival Syracuse, and sporting a two-game losing streak to boot, the Mountaineers dropped a third-straight to the Orange 38-14, to close out the 2012 campaign.
The game did not start off hot for the Mountaineers on offense. After a short kick return by Tavon Austin, the Mountaineers were held for a three-and-out by a stout Orange defense.
But a Syracuse miscue on special teams gave the offense new life early. Bringing a big rush against the West Virginia offensive, a group of Syracuse defenders would run into punter Tyler Bitancurt shortly after he booted the punt. The 15-yard personal foul penalty provided the Mountaineers with another chance to gain traction on offense.
It would be an inconsistent series for the West Virginia offense. Aided again by a Syracuse personal foul, the Mountaineers were able to drive deep into the Orange red zone on the back of a strong run by Andrew Buie.
Syracuse's defense, however, would hold strong with Geno Smith and company in the shadow of the end zone. The Mountaineers managed to complete only one pass and had three plays go for negative yardage in its first 11-play drive.
After failing to connect with Stedman Bailey on third-and-long, the Mountaineers would send out Tyler Bitancurt for a 36-yard field goal attempt. However, the senior kicker would boot a low attempt into the back of offensive lineman Nick Kindler resulting in no points for West Virginia.
In an attempt to draw momentum off the failed field goal, the Syracuse Orange would attack the struggling West Virginia defense through the air, with decent success.
Continuing the trend of terrible third down coverage for the Mountaineers, the Orange looked for a familiar target - their tight end. After torching the Mountaineers last season with constant strikes to former Syracuse tight end Nick Provo, the Orange went back to the old reliable, with Ryan Nassib connect with a wide open Beckett Wales on third-and-seven for a Syracuse first down.
Along with the strike, the Mountaineers would aid Syracuse with a Karl Joseph pass interference call, pushing the Orange into West Virginia territory.
But a number of miscues by the Orange would play into West Virginia's hand as Syracuse drove into the red zone. The Mountaineers held the Orange in the red zone, ending with a Ross Krautman 25-yard field goal to put Syracuse up 3-0.
The Mountaineers would fail to gain any traction on the ensuing drive, being forced to punt after a five-play series highlighted by a dropped Connor Arlia pass on third-and-long that would have given West Virginia the first down.
It was almost a mirror image for the Orange on their subsequent drive, as Syracuse was forced to punt the ball back to the Mountaineers after an uninspired drive. Like for the Mountaineers, the Orange found an open target in wideout Jarrod West on third-and-long, but the receiver would fail to make the catch, resulting in the punt.
West Virginia would finally display some of their coveted offense power as their third drive began, relying heavily on the ground game. An 18-yard rush by Austin and nine-yard rush by Buie provided fans with flashes of offensive success, but ultimately it would be all for naught.
The Mountaineers failed to convert on fourth-and-one at the Syracuse 42-yard line, placing the ball back into the hands of Nassib and the Orange.
After a less than stellar offensive series by the Orange, Syracuse punter Jonathan Fisher would pin the Mountaineers back to their own three-yard line. From here, the Mountaineers would fail yet again to gain any momentum, going three-and-out to the pesky Orange defense.
Gaining possession just past midfield, the Orange would attempt to finally break the game open, driving the ball 42 yards in 11 plays to the West Virginia one-yard line.
But the Mountaineer defense would step up against the power attack of the Orange. From the one-yard line, Syracuse would hand off to running back Jerome Smith on three consecutive plays, with no success. The big goal line stand stopped a consistent Syracuse drive at the one.
On the ensuing play, Syracuse would answer the Mountaineer's stand. With Smith dropping back from his own one-yard line for a pass, the quarterback would get swarmed by a slew of Orange defenders. A fumble by Smith and recovery from lineman Josh Jenkins in the end zone would give Syracuse an elusive safety, resulting in the ironic baseball-esque score of 5-0 Orange in Yankee Stadium.
Following the free kick, the Orange would attack the West Virginia defense yet again, putting together the first full scoring drive of the game. Syracuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley would run five times in a six play drive, ending with a 32-yard touchdown run to extend Syracuse's lead, 12-0.
West Virginia would finally get on the board during the subsequent drive, going 69 yards in six plays, ending with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Stedman Bailey off a middle screen. The Mountaineers attacked the Orange through the air more aggressively for the first time in the game, catching Syracuse off guard with the Bailey completely.
After the catch, the junior Bailey, in his final career game at West Virginia after announcing his intentions to forego his senior season and enter next year's NFL draft, would shake two Orange defenders on his way to the end zone. The score would close the gap to five, with Syracuse still leading 12-7.
Momentum would continue to swing in West Virginia's favor as Terrance Garvin, also playing in his final game for the Mountaineers, would strip the ball from Syracuse's Gulley, landing on it at midfield for the turnover.
With just over two minutes remaining in the half, the Mountaineers would try to tempo the Orange defense, racking off three quick plays to take the Orange defense off guard.
But a 15-yard dead ball personal foul against the Mountaineers pushed the West Virginia into a long yardage situation from which they could not recover. The Mountaineers would punt the ball off to Syracuse with just under one minute remaining in the half, where the Orange would try but fail to score before the half closed. Syracuse would take a 12-7 lead into the half.
Coming out of the locker room, Syracuse would receive the ball first and quickly attack the West Virginia defense on the ground. On the first three plays of the half, the Orange would rely on the efforts of Jerome Smith. The running back would gain 31 yards combined to push the offense into West Virginia territory.
From here, the Orange would methodically move the ball, hindered only by a Terrance Garvin sack, his second of the game. On third-and-long from the West Virginia 10, Nassib would drop back and target tight end Beckett Wales open in the end zone. The pass would be tipped by West Virginia's Isaiah Bruce, but the ball would still fall into Wales' hands for the touchdown.
The score extended Syracuse's lead, 19-7.
It looked like the Mountaineers would answer the Orange's touchdown quickly, marching the ball down the field with relative ease. On the first play of the series, Smith connected with Bailey in the flat, who proceed to rack off a 59-yard run after the catch deep into Syracuse territory.
The West Virginia drive would stall at the Syracuse 28-yard line, leaving West Virginia to go for the conversion on fourth down. Smith would hand the ball off to Buie who would rush 28-yards into the end zone for an apparent touchdown.
But the touchdown would be called back due to a controversial holding call, pushing the Mountaineers back 10 yards and forcing a punt.
It would not take long, however, for the Mountaineers to have another go on offense. On the first play of their drive, Syracuse's Nassib would throw an errant pass right into the arms of West Virginia's Isaiah Bruce for the interception.
But West Virginia would not hang on to the ball for long. On the next play, Syracuse would force a Geno Smith fumble, recovering the ball at their own 33-yard line. The Orange would follow this up on the ensuing play, handing the ball off to Gulley off the right tackle for a 67-yard touchdown run. The score pushed the lead for Syracuse to 19, with a score of 26-7.
However, the Mountaineers would not go down without a fight. On the next series, West Virginia would attack the Syracuse through the air, connecting on a 29-yard touchdown pass to Bailey, his second of the game and 25th of the season. The score closed the gap for West Virginia, 26-14.
While West Virginia was still celebrating the score, the Orange continued to build off their offensive momentum. Running their offense through Gulley, the Orange tore apart the Mountaineer defense by throwing short, connecting on screen passes to the running back for big gains; the second of which going nine yards for the touchdown, extending Syracuse's lead, 33-14.
And it would not get any better for the Mountaineers. Starting the following drive in the shadow of their own end zone, Smith roll out of the pocket on a third-and-long desperation play. The result - intentional ground in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
The two points for Syracuse pushed their lead, 35-14.
After Syracuse added three more point to the total with a field goal, West Virginia would receive the ball with time quickly running out. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers continued to shoot themselves in the foot from inconsistent play and penalties. Going for it on fourth-and-one, the snap to Smith was fumbled, resulting in another turnover on downs for the Mountaineers.
Both teams would swap series for the remainder of the game, but it would ultimately be futile. West Virginia would stop the Orange on a fourth-and-one deep inside Mountaineer territory, but fail to capitalize, putting an exclamation point on the 2012 football season.
Final score: Syracuse 38, West Virginia 14.