Orange up to challenge, plow by Mountaineers in snowy Pinstripe Bowl
"Three strikes and you're out," Marrone and defensive coordinator Scott Shafer emphasized to the players.
Syracuse beat West Virginia in 2010 and 2011 when the two were Big East rivals, and now they were playing in a bowl game with the Mountaineers now representing the Big 12. West Virginia was favored for the third straight year, so Marrone challenged his players to end the chatter for good.
The Orange got that strike.
"Those guys were ready to go out of the hotel room last night," Shafer said afterward. "They could barely wait to get on the bus to the stadium."
With 386 rushing yards, four touchdowns and two safeties, the Orange ended their 56-year relationship with the Mountaineers as champions -- even if they were never favored to do so. Anchored by running backs Prince-Tyson Gulley and Jerome Smith, the Orange steamrolled the Mountaineers 38-14 in a snowy Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Saturday evening. Marrone's squad ends the season winners of four straight and six of their last seven.
Gulley and Smith knew they would get touches as the temperature continued to drop and the snow flurried in the pregame warm-ups. The centers had trouble snapping the ball out of the shotgun and the quarterbacks struggled throwing it. The only way to move the ball in these conditions was to hand it off and hold on tight.
The Orange's rushing attack was ranked 53rd in the nation coming into the game, but it looked like one of the nation's best. Both Gulley and Smith amassed career highs of 208 and 158 yards, respectively, and exhausted a notoriously terrible Mountaineer defense differently than most teams had. Gulley was named game MVP after touchdown runs of 67 and 33 yards as well as a 10-yard touchdown catch.
"With the system that we run we have the flexibility to go either way," Marrone said. "We felt very comfortable, we've done this before, you can't look at us and say we shifted gears, it was a part of the game that we used to take over and was very successful for us, everybody knows that by the end of the year we became more balanced and that helped us out."
It was the first time Gulley had rushed for over 100 yards in his career and the fifth time Smith had done it in the last seven games.
"Our linemen came out to play and they opened up a lot of holes," Gulley said. "It made it very easy for Jerome and me to pick out where we were going."
A former offensive line coach, Marrone wanted to go to the ground even though West Virginia's pass defense was ranked 123rd in the nation. His aggressiveness appeared to cost him initially, but ended up giving the Orange a two-score edge it never surrendered.
Up 3-0 early in the second quarter, Syracuse faced a fourth and goal from the 1-yard line. Marrone opted to go for the touchdown instead of the chip shot field goal, and Smith was subsequently stuffed at the goal line.
Syracuse actually benefited from the situation -- sacking Mountaineers' quarterback Geno Smith for a safety on the next play and then getting a 33-yard touchdown run from Gulley eight plays later.
West Virginia pulled to within five at halftime, but a series of ill-timed penalties kept them it from taking the lead. Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib was a manager for most of the game, but commandeered an impressive drive to open the second half and capped it with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Beckett Wales to push the lead to 19-7. The senior quarterback finished his final college game 12-of-24 for 134 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
West Virginia appeared to draw within five with 8:05 left in the third quarter when Andrew Buie rushed 28 yards for a touchdown, but the score was negated by a hold on fullback Cody Clay. Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen furiously launched his hat in disgust, and would not discuss the penalty after the game.
"It all falls into one category. You get behind the chains and calls go against you, but you have to keep playing," Holgorsen said. "We did a poor job overcoming some things."
After the teams traded turnovers on consecutive plays, Gulley scampered for a 67-yard touchdown that put the game at 26-7 and away for good.
The loss is a bitter end to a frustrating season for the Mountaineers. They were once ranked No. 5 with a potential Heisman candidate in Smith, but Holgorsen's squad went into complete free fall and culminated with a blowout loss to an 8-5 Big East team.
"We'll evaluate everything and see where we are at," Holgorsen said. "We're in a new position. The Big 12 is new to us. We are going to learn a whole lot more moving on from here. It's a lot more than this specific bowl game."
As for the Orange, it's a nice propeller forward as they transition into the ACC next season. The defense held the usually prolific Smith to 197 yards passing and the Mountaineers to 0-for-12 on third and fourth down. The offense -- which may have a budding star in Gulley -- scored six times in a game that looked destined for a low score.
A former player and Bronx native, Marrone glowed in the postgame and warmly patted Gulley on the back.
"I don't know if I could put it into words, but it's all about these players," Marrone said. "Out of all the teams that I coached, this was the closest team I coached."