Syracuse exited the Big East in style.
In its final football game representing the conference, the Orange manhandled former Big East rival West Virginia, 38-14, in the third annual Pinstripe Bowl, in front of an announced crowd of 39,098 at Yankee Stadium.
Snow was falling for most of the game, and the temperature hovered around the freezing mark. But the Orange got red-hot in the second half, scoring 26 of their 38 points after intermission to turn the game into a blowout.
Both teams came in averaging over 300 yards passing per game, but the wintry conditions made it more difficult to move the ball in the air. Syracuse adjusted better, to say the least. The Orange rushed for 369 yards, while the Mountaineers had just 285 yards total, 88 on the ground.
“It’s discouraging,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “There were some times out there I thought we were playing pretty good defense. It wasn’t tricky -- they ran split-zone over and over and over again, and we run the same play and we didn’t have the same success that they did.”
Syracuse ran the ball 65 times, averaging nearly six yards per carry. West Virginia ran it 37 times, for an average of just 2.4.
“We kept running, and just kept trying to hit a couple different things, made a couple of adjustments, and hit some big runs,” said Syracuse coach Doug Marrone.
Leading 12-7 at halftime, the Orange took the second-half kickoff and marched 80 yards down the field for a touchdown.
The key sequence of the game came a few minutes later. The quarterbacks turned the ball over on back-to-back plays -- an interception thrown by Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, followed by a fumble by West Virginia’s Geno Smith. On the very next play, Syracuse running back Prince-Tyson Gulley took the ball 67 yards to the house to make it 26-7, and the rout was on.
Gulley, a junior, rushed for 212 yards on 25 carries, scored three touchdowns, and was named the game’s most valuable player. Fellow junior Jerome Smith carried it 30 times for 157 yards.
“Our linemen came out to play,” Gulley said. “They opened up a lot of good holes, and it made it very easy for us to pick where we were going.”
West Virginia entered the game ranked fifth in the country in passing yards per game (340.9), and eighth in total yards (518.5). But Smith was just 16-for-24 for 197 yards on the day.
“The surface was not good. It was sloppy out there, it was wet,” said Holgorsen. “You can’t just sit there and pinpoint Geno. Our O-line had a hard time of sitting down, and receivers had a hard time running routes. So it didn’t look very good. So the team with the best running game was gonna win, and they clearly had the better running game.”
“People want to make things about the field, but it’s football, for both teams,” said Marrone.
West Virginia finishes the season 7-6, going 4-5 in its first year in the Big 12 conference. The Mountaineers opened 5-0, and were ranked as high as No. 5 in the country, but lost five straight from there, and six of their last eight.
“We are going to learn a lot more about what happened in the Big 12 this year,” Holgorsen said. “Moving on from here, it’s a little bit more about that than this bowl game playing against Syracuse.
“We have to re-evaluate a lot of things in our program to see what we have to do to get better to compete in the Big 12.”
When Holgorsen was pressed further, he declined to go into specifics, instead choosing to thank his seniors for their contributions to the program.
Syracuse, on the other hand, rebounded from a 2-4 start to win its final four games and six of its last seven, finishing 8-5. The Orange were one of four co-champions in the Big East with a 5-2 conference record, and won the Pinstripe Bowl for the second time in three years.
“It’s very special to me,” said Marrone, who was born and raised in the Bronx. “But for me to talk about what’s special for me today would really not put into perspective how I feel about this team. But I think it was special for our team. We have a lot of players from this area.
“Winning the second one, it’s become a special place for all of us.”
Next season Syracuse moves into the Atlantic Coast Conference -- a stronger football league, to be sure. But since the Pinstripe Bowl currently pits a Big East team against a Big 12 team, Syracuse may not be back here anytime soon.
A small disappointment, on a day of great celebration.