When teams coached by Dino Babers and Dana Holgorsen take the field, all eyes are on the offenses. And rightfully so: both guys are innovators who have engineered high-powered, high-octane systems. This is the fourth matchup across the nation this season that pits two top-12 scoring offenses against each other (WVU ranks 9th at 42.3; SU is 12th at 40.8).
But that wasn’t the focus when the coaches sat next to each other and answered questions the day before their teams locked horns in Orlando. Here are three of the most interesting nuggets from the always-gregarious Babers.
West Virginia’s defense is… unique
You might read that and think “unique” is a charitable way to describe a unit that has been much maligned, especially lately. If not for an utter collapse on defense, WVU might be gearing up for the College Football Playoff instead of the Camping World Bowl right now.
The Mountaineers entered the home stretch of the regular season as a one-loss, top-10 team, then proceeded to hang 41 and 56 points in their last two games — but they lost to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, both by one possession. Even respectable defensive performances would have given them wins, a spot in the Big 12 Championship, and a shot at the playoff.
Instead, West Virginia hemorrhaged 104 points over two weeks and tumbled from the top 10. But Babers doesn’t expect his team to move like a hot knife through butter, considering that WVU’s defense truly is… unique (in a good way).
“They can bring their blitzes from all over the place. The quarterback has to keep his head on a swivel. Last time I checked, they’re not an iguana — they can’t see out the side of the heads. So those guys are coming from everywhere and we need to be really on top of what we’re doing, crossing our Ts and dotting our Is if we’re going to have an opportunity to have some success against it.”
Of course, take this with a grain of salt because it’s not only coachspeak, but he also wasn’t going to roast a team whose coach was sitting a few feet away.
At the same time, Babers is right when he says West Virginia attacks from a lot of different angles. The Mountaineers run a 3-3-5 stack and employ not one, but two swiss army knife positions on the back line. The bandit is essentially a free safety with a little extra freedom to roam and potentially blitz, while the spur is a linebacker-safety hybrid who looms around the line of scrimmage. Watch out for No. 3 and No. 6 in blue and gold: bandit Toyous Avery Jr. and spur Dravon Askew-Henry, who, barring injury or lineup tinkering, will break a program by making his 51st career start Friday.
This isn’t just an exhibition
The words “participation trophy” in the sports world are kind of like the word “Voldemort” in the Harry Potter world — you don’t say it unless you want someone to attack you. Dino Babers doesn’t seem to like participation trophies, either, based on what he said Thursday.
“I like playing for a trophy. I like that there’s something to win and that everybody doesn’t get one. There’s not two trophies, right? There’s just one. We can handle that, right? So whoever wins gets the trophy, and I think that’s really cool. That’s old school and that’s what I enjoy.”
Just like the participation trophy, bowl season has come under fire in recent years. The flood of seemingly irrelevant games — which sometimes feature teams with losing records — may dilute the overall field and somewhat delegitimize other solid matchups.
But Syracuse hasn’t played in one of these things in half a decade. Holgorsen would never say it, but this game seems to mean more to the Orange than the Mountaineers.
Expect a slow start — from both teams
At the same time, don’t expect the same level of intensity or quality of play that you would see in a major conference game. Bowls exist in a weird limbo between season and offseason — these teams slam the gas pedal through the end of the league slate and are certainly ready to rest by the end of November. Then, a month (usually more) passes and you play one more time before you’re done.
Holgorsen said he gave his guys “a couple weeks off” after the brutal loss to OU in the regular season finale. As for Babers, he described his team’s rout of Boston College as a hard-fought, physical game against a rival — he’s adamant about that part — after which his team deserved and needed a little break.
Then came time to prepare for the bowl game. Babers insinuated that these December practices haven’t matched the intensity of those from earlier in the season.
“Now, we got to do some things and we stayed on our feet, but we really did not tackle and take people to the ground as much as I would like. And, you know, it’s probably going to hurt us early and hopefully it doesn’t hurt us late, but it’s going to take some time for them to get their game legs back in. They haven’t played for a very, very long time. So it will be interesting, not only on who starts fast, but who adjusts very quickly so that they can get back in the game mode.”
Both teams may look lethargic out of the gates. Hopefully, not as lethargic as TCU and Cal did in the Cheez-It Bowl, but rusty nonetheless. That trophy Babers so desperately wants may go to the team that wakes up first.