Safety Shamarko Thomas and Syracuse face an explosive West Virginia passing attack.
That is of particular importance to Syracuse as the Orange prepare to host No. 15 West Virginia on Friday night at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
Syracuse has struggled against the pass this season, allowing four teams to go over 300 yards passing. Rutgers was three yards away from 300, so clearly this is an area of concern.
Especially when you consider West Virginia has the No. 4 passing offense and has thrown for more than 400 yards in three games this season.
What makes West Virginia different than the other opponents Syracuse has faced is its ability to stretch the field with a variety of go-to players. Against USC, for example, the Orange could focus on Robert Woods. Against Rutgers, they could focus on Mohamed Sanu.
"Each week, we play against great receivers and now we're playing against multiple great receivers, so we have more players out there that we have to be alert for," coach Doug Marrone said. "If you commit to try and take one of those players away, which we've tried to do against some of those other teams, and force the quarterback to throw to those other receivers, well, this quarterback has thrown to those other receivers. That's the challenge of what goes on with this team, but from a schematic standpoint, it's much more difficult to take these guys out of the game because they are all over and they are spread out across the field."
Bailey leads the team with 634 yards receiving and five touchdowns on 32 receptions. Austin leads the team with 42 receptions for 564 yards and two touchdowns. McCartney has 34 catches for 455 yards and three touchdwons.
Twelve different receivers have at least one catch, and seven of
those receivers have scored a touchdown. Seven also have double-figure receptions.
Syracuse has been banged up on defense, particularly in the secondary. Shamarko Thomas, Keon Lyn, Ri'Shard Anderson and Olando Fisher all have nursed injuries. That has left some young, inexperienced players in the back end.
But Marrone says this is the healthiest his team has been all season, and it is imperative his unit slows down Smith the way it did last season.
"Geno Smith is a good quarterback and if you allow him to sit back and pick your defense apart, that is something he will do," said Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones, who returns this week. "He has a lot of guys who complement him like Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, guys in the open field who can make big plays. Our job is not to let Geno Smith sit in the pocket and pick us apart."
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen worried that his team would lose rhythm during the bye, but his concerns were alleviated when he saw his team practice. The timing is there, McCartney says. Now West Virginia has to start as fast as it finishes games.
"Most of our numbers come in the second half," McCartney said. "If we were to put together a full game like we do in the second half, I believe we can put 100 points up on the board."