Like so many teams across the country in the college football landscape, the West Virginia Mountaineers had their sights set extremely high when the season began in September.
And who could blame them?
You figure, WVU was coming off a 70-point explosion in the Discover Orange Bowl win against Clemson and returned numerous key pieces from that team, including dymnaic playmakers like Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
Photo Courtesy/WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY
WEST VIRGINIA head coach Dana Holgorsen signals in a play Holgorsen led the Mountaineers to a 7-5 record in their first Big 12 season. Also pictured is Tavon Austin.
Unfortunately, the part of the equation that they didn't factor into their expectations was their move to the Big 12 and the legitimate step up in competition from the Big East, which WVU had basically owned.
After racing out of the gates to a 5-0 start, including a cherished road win at Texas in early October, the Mountaineers had climbed into the top five of the national polls. On top of winning, they were scoring points in bunches.
The following week, the Mountaineers loaded up a chartered flight back to Texas to face Texas Tech in windy Lubbock. The Mountaineers never got into the offensive groove that they'd found with regularity and were dealt a 49-14 setback.
The wheels began to fall off at that point. The Mountaineers eventually lost four more in a row, including three at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown before rallying past Iowa State the day after Thanksgiving and closing with a victory against Kansas.
The end result was a 7-5 record and an invitation to New York City to take part in the third annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
So, after moving to the Big 12, the Mountaineers will end their 2012 season with a date with a Big East counterpart. In this roller-coaster season for the Mountaineers, the 60th meeting all time against Syracuse seems only fitting.
West Virginia and the Orange will meet Saturday afternoon with kickoff slated for 3:15.
While the Mountaineers, who are appearing in a bowl game for the 11th straight season, will obviously be fired up and ready to play as they try to send a large senior class out with a victory, there's still a sense of bitterness and it's not because of the tough stretch of games that railroaded their season.
WVU - and in general football fans - had hoped the Pinstripe Bowl would invite Pittsburgh to take on the Mountaineers since the annual Backyard Brawl went by the boards because of the conference change. The bowl, however, elected to go with the Orange once again because their campus is just a few hours from NYC.
Once the Mountaineers got back to work on football and forgot the regular season letdown and the disappointment of not playing Pitt, it's been full steam ahead on the Orange, who enjoyed a 7-5 season under head coach Doug Marone.
The Orange had a slump of their own during the season. They started the season with losses in three of their first four. Their only win came against Stony Brook.
The Syracuse signature win came in early November when it handed Louisville a 45-26 setback. The Cardinals will play in the Sugar Bowl against Florida next week.
On top of their late-season success, Syracuse has also had West Virginia's number in their recent meetings. Overall, the series is 32-27 in favor of the Orange. On top of that, Syracuse has won the last two meetings.
In 2010, the Orange came to Morgantown and posted a 19-14 victory and then last season - on a Friday night on national television - Cuse stymied WVU and cruised to a 49-23 victory.
As has been the case in most WVU games this season, the Pinstripe Bowl could boil down to which team can get the most stops. There was a point in the season where WVU couldn't stop anyone.
Points were being scored in bunches on the Mountaineers' defense, which is young and inexperienced. However, they did improve and it was evident against Iowa State and Kansas.
Since the end of the regular season, Mountaineers' head coach Dana Holgorsen has adjusted his defensive staff to a degree. He fired his defensive backs coach and - for lack of a better term - demoted Joe DeForest, who came under scrutiny seemingly every week, in favor of Keith Patterson.
The Mountaineers' defense is allowing 38.1 points a game and more than 470 yards of total offense a week, including better than 325 yards through the air.
Mountaineer fans had better hope their team has prepared well because Syracuse passes for 301 yards per game. Syracuse's offense is led by veteran quarterback Ryan Nassib, who is catching the eye of many NFL scouts, has thrown every pass for his team except one. He's thrown for 3,619 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Nassib's favorite target this season has been Alec Lemon, who has caught 70 balls for 1,063 yards and seven touchdowns. Marcus Sales has hauled in 63 passes for 863 yards and eight touchdowns.
Jarrod West has also been reliable with 42 catches for 571 yards and two touchdowns.
While Nassib is getting a lot of attention for his possible pro career, the Orange are a balanced team. They've ran for 2,062 yards and 19 touchdowns. The leader is Jerome Smith with 1,019 yards and three touchdowns on 198 carries.
Prince-Tyson Gulley has ran for 642 yards and seven touchdowns, which is a team high.
The WVU defense is led by true freshman Karl Joseph, who roams in the secondary. He recorded 95 tackles, including seven for loss. He had two interceptions and forced three fumbles.
Isaiah Bruce is the Mountaineers' second-leading tackler with 86 tackles. Terence Garvin had 69 tackles and Darwin Cook has made 64 stops. Josh Francis is the WVU leader in tackles for loss with 15.
Also getting quality action and playing extremely well of late is Steubenville High product Shaq Petteway. The linebacker played in all 12 games and made 40 tackles and had 1.5 sacks.
There's a good chance there are going to be a lot of points scored and much of that is because that's what Holgorsen-coached offenses do and what this Mountaineers' squad has done all season.
Smith was the unquestioned Heisman Trophy winner throughout the month of September. Well, the senior came back to Earth in terms of the gaudy numbers, but the numbers were still highly impressive.
Smith led the entire country with 40 touchdown passes. He completed 350-of-490 passes for 4,004 yards and six picks.
While throwing for that many yards and touchdowns is difficult regardless of how good you are, the fact that Bailey and Austin were on the perimeter eased the burden somewhat.
Bailey, who has already announced he's foregoing his senior season to head to the NFL Draft, was a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award and it shocked many when he didn't win. He caught 106 passes for 1,501 yards and 23 touchdowns.
For his career, Bailey has caught 202 passes for 3,097 yards and 39 touchdowns.
Austin actually led the team in catches with 110. Those resulted in 1,259 yards and 12 touchdowns.
It was the entire Austin package that made so many jaws drop around the country. If you remember, against Oklahoma, he shifted to running back and nearly re-wrote the NCAA record book with 572 all-purpose yards.
As a wide receiver, which is where Austin projects at the next level, he;s caught 284 passes for 3,383 yards and 29 touchdowns in his career.
J.D. Woods is the third option in the passing game with 56 catches for 596 yards and four touchowns.
The Mountaineers, who have struggled at times to get their ground game going, expect to have a fully healthy complement of backs on Saturday. Andrew Buie is the leading rusher with 817 yards and seven touchdowns. Austin ran for 598 yards.
Shawne Alston and Dustin Garrison, both of whom battled their fair share of injuries, ran for 578 yards combined.
Madonna High School product Connor Arlia had a couple of big catches in games when Bailey was banged up and the wide receiving corp was thinned because of defections. He caught 7 passes for 43 yards.
The Orange defense is led by Shamarko Thomas with 84 tackles. Sirki Diabate and Dyshawn Davis each had 67 tackles during the regular season.
The Orange pass defense produced nine interceptions with Brandon Sharpe leading the way with six of those.
Both teams have dealt with their share of distractions during the month of December. Marone suspended Adonis Ameen-Moore and back-up tight end Max Beaulieu for violation of team rules.
West Virginia, meanwhile, announced on Wednesday that veteran starting center Joe Madsen - a fifth-year senior - had been declared academically ineligible. That will thrust John Bassler into the starting lineup.
THE GAME will be called by Chris Fowler, Jesse Palmer and Tom Rinaldi will work the sidelines for ESPN.
THE TEAMS arrived in New York City Christmas afternoon. They've worked out twice and have taken part in a wide array of activities. Smith - the Mountaineers' quarterback - rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street Thursday. The Syrcause players rang the bell Wednesday. Thursday evening, both teams toured the World Trade Center site at Ground Zero.
THERE WILL be 17 players from the state of Ohio in the Pinstripe Bowl.