SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- There's something about Syracuse that West Virginia just can't seem to figure out. For the second year in a row, the Mountaineers came into its game against the Orange as the clear favorite, only to be handed a disheartening upset loss.
Ryan Nassib threw for four touchdowns and the Syracuse defense kept star quarterback Geno Smith in check as the Orange stunned the 11th-ranked Mountaineers 49-23 on Friday night.
Syracuse (5-2, 1-1 Big East) hadn't beaten West Virginia (5-2, 1-1) at home in a decade and Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen didn't mince words to try and explain his team's futility against the Orange.
"It's quite simple," Holgorsen said. "We knew what we were getting ourselves into. Syracuse beat us physically on all three sides of the ball. They outplayed us and they outcoached us. It's as simple as that."
Smith was 24 of 41 for 338 yards and threw for two touchdowns. The No. 1 quarterback in the Big East never found a way to beat Syracuse's blitzes and overpowering defense.
"They played a great game," Smith said. "We didn't respond and play well. It's tough. It hurts. I'm bleeding right now. I just gotta move on, and I've just got to be a leader for this team."
Smith also threw two interceptions, including one by Orange cornerback Jeremi Wilkes right at the goal line in the second quarter that erased what could have been a crucial touchdown for the Mountaineers.
"I've been saying it all year, we're not a very efficient football team," Holgorsen said. "We're able to make some big plays, but we're not efficient."
Syracuse hadn't scored that many points in the series since a 45-0 win in 1960, and a crowd of 45,265, the largest in three years, roared its approval with thunderous cheers as third-year head coach Doug Marrone enjoyed the most significant win of his brief tenure.
It also was the highest-ranked opponent Syracuse has beaten since a 50-42 triple-overtime win over No. 8 Virginia Tech in 2002.
"We have a long way to go. Let's not confuse the issue," Marrone said. "We kept them off-balance. We made plays at the right time."
The Orange played a near flawless game to break the streak just as they did last year in a 19-14 upset of the Mountaineers in Morgantown. That victory stopped an eight-game losing streak to West Virginia, and this one was even more impressive.
The high-powered West Virginia offense was kept in check most of the game, only shining in fits and spurts. West Virginia entered the game averaging 40.8 points and 503.5 yards offensively and finished with 408.
Smith's interceptions came at critical junctures – the first at the Orange goal line and the second on the final play of the third quarter when the game was still within reach.
He was outplayed by Nassib, who was 24 of 32 for 229 yards, hit tight end Nick Provo for three touchdowns, and did not have a turnover. Nassib also hit David Stevens on a 29-yard scoring toss midway through the third quarter that gave Syracuse a 28-16 lead.
Both teams, off last week, had plenty of time to game plan and Syracuse devised a winning formula. The Orange also finished with 194 yards rushing and had zero lost yards on 41 carries, a sign of dominance up front.
"He (defensive coordinator Scott Shafer) took this bye week off to give us a good game plan, and it worked," said Orange defensive end Chandler Jones, who had two sacks and six solo tackles in his first start after missing five games with an injury. "We just did a good job of getting in that quarterback's head."
Smith entered the game ranked fifth nationally in passing yardage at 359.3 yards per game, nearly 26 yards more than the Orange as a team. On this night, a team that was averaging just 333.5 yards per game reeled off 443 against a highly touted defense.
Syracuse built a 12-point halftime lead and when West Virginia tried to rally in the second half, Syracuse had an answer and then some.
When Smith guided the Mountaineers 57 yards in 14 plays and Shawne Alston scored on a 1-yard run on the first possession of the third quarter, the Orange struck right back in just six plays.
Nassib thwarted a blitz by hitting Van Chew for 6 yards on a third-and-5 play and then hit a wide-open Stevens along the left side inside the Mountaineers 10 for a 29-yard score.
Provo caught a 10-yard scoring pass with 18 seconds left in the third and a 5-yarder early in the fourth after free safety Phillip Thomas intercepted Smith at the West Virginia 33.
Syracuse entered the game with an important goal – keep the ball as long as possible – and the strategy worked as the Orange held possession for nearly 36 minutes, converting an impressive 12 of 17 third downs.
The Mountaineers never found any kind of rhythm, and it showed on the scoreboard. Smith left the field at halftime with 215 yards passing and his team trailing 21-9, a 64-yard touchdown pass to Stedman Bailey one of the few bright spots. Bailey made a brilliant juggling catch, beating double coverage along the left side at the Syracuse 30 and scampering into the end zone.
It moved the Mountaineers within 14-9 and they seemed poised to take control. Then, just like that Syracuse dashed that hope when Dorian Graham returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.
"I just saw a hole you could drive a truck through," Graham said. "My coach just told me to take it straight up. It was a great momentum booster."
The Syracuse defense confounded Smith with an assortment of blitzes, batted down two of his passes, sacked him two straight times, and picked off one of his passes in the first half. And when Syracuse needed a break on offense deep in West Virginia territory, the Mountaineers obliged.
After a wide-open Provo dropped a pass in the end zone, putting Syracuse in a third-and-7 hole from the 13, defensive end Bruce Irvin was called for a personal foul when he got tangled with Syracuse offensive tackle Michael Hay and threw him to the ground. That gave the Orange a first down at the 6 and two plays later Nassib scored on a 1-yard keeper for a 14-3 lead with 10:13 left in the half.