West Virginia was one of the nation’s top teams and fielded one of college football’s best offenses this season, but both those declarations will be in question, in a big way, when the No. 16 Mountaineers battle No. 20 Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Friday.
The Mountaineers will be without record-setting star quarterback Will Grier, who has chosen to sit out the bowl game on his way to being one of the top quarterbacks available for the upcoming NFL draft.
That leaves West Virginia (8-3) with two available quarterbacks, Jack Allison and Trey Lowe III.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen told the media this week that his playbook will be wide open for both quarterbacks in the Camping World Bowl. Both are expected to see action.
“We just didn’t add them to our team yesterday,” Holgorsen said. “I know what those guys can do. Guys get into a backup mode, and they just plateau for a while and then once they’re no longer a backup quarterback, those guys elevate pretty quickly.”
Allison’s college experience consists of six games, and his most extensive playing time came in the Mountaineers’ 58-14 victory over Baylor on Oct. 25. He played most of the fourth quarter and completed all four of his pass attempts for 43 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown pass.
Lowe enrolled last January and went through spring football practice, so his knowledge of the Mountaineers’ offense is pretty extensive for a freshman. The new redshirt rule passed last year means Lowe can play against Syracuse and not lose a season of eligibility for the 2019 season and beyond.
Wide receiver Gary Jennings. Jr., who played the last six weeks of the season with a high ankle sprain, and offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste are also going to skip the Camping World Bowl.
West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said his group is much healthier than it was at the end of the season in losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, but he is still dealing with depth issues at linebacker.
One of the issues the defense encountered at the end of the season was the total number of plays it faced against Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. West Virginia was forced to defend 154 plays that resulted in 1,272 total yards
Syracuse is among the best in the country at getting off plays, averaging more than 82 plays per game this season.
“It’s what we’ve seen all year long in the Big 12,” Gibson said. “They’re Oklahoma State. They’re Oklahoma. They’re Texas Tech. That’s the style they like to play.”
The Orange (9-3) head to Orlando for their first bowl appearance since 2013 and on the heels of a second-place finish in the ACC Atlantic Division – after being picked to finished last in the division during the preseason. Syracuse ended the regular season with a 42-21 win at Boston College.
“I just have to make sure it’s not like the first day of school where they’re so excited by the new surroundings that they don’t forget that they do have a fantastic West Virginia football team to get ready for,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said.
“This is an exciting season for us, bouncing back from a period of losing in our football family as a winner.”
Syracuse seemed ready to take advantage of West Virginia’s missing key players in the Camping World Bowl until it was announced on Christmas Eve that defensive end Alton Robinson and defensive tackle McKinley Williams did not make the team flight to Orlando for “personal reasons.”
Both starters have been integral to the Orange defensive success this season, with Robinson racking up 10 sacks. The two combined for 13 quarterback hurries and 56 tackles on the year.
The Orange will also be without defensive back Antwan Cordy for the bowl game. Cordy missed the last two games of the regular season as he continues to deal with a personal situation.
The 2018 Camping World Bowl marks the 61st meeting between Syracuse and West Virginia, including the second time the teams have squared off in the postseason. The Orange own a 33-27 advantage in the all-time series and have won the last three matchups, most recently claiming a 38-14 victory in the 2012 New Era Pinstripe Bowl.