NCF Nation: Olando Fisher

The question comes up every time an opponent faces West Virginia.

How do you stop Geno Smith and the offense?

[+] EnlargeShamarko Thomas
Chuck Cook/US PresswireSafety 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.

But West Virginia has Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin and Ivan McCartney, who each rank in the Top 4 in the league in receiving yards per game and receptions per game.

"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."

Predictions: Big East Week 8

October, 20, 2011
I now see why picking games in the Big East is so hard. You really never know what is going to happen. I was 2-2 thanks to Pitt and USF losses, bringing my season total to 35-10. What does Week 8 hold in store?

Rutgers (5-1) at Louisville (2-4), 8 p.m., Friday, ESPN2. This one is setting up to be a low-scoring game, featuring two teams with solid defenses but so-so offenses. The difference here for Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights should be able to put major pressure on the quarterback against a shaky offensive line. They also are the best in the league at creating turnovers, while Louisville is at minus-4 in turnover margin this season. True freshman Gary Nova has gone on the road and won already for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights become bowl eligible in a slight upset (Louisville is favored by 2). Rutgers 20, Louisville 17.

No. 15 West Virginia (5-1) at Syracuse (4-2), 8 p.m., Friday, ESPN. You know the Mountaineers are going to be looking for a measure of redemption after losing to Syracuse last season. The Orange pass defense has been shaky all season, and now it faces one of the most prolific offenses in the nation. The Orange should get help from the return of Olando Fisher, and the general health of the defense -- coach Doug Marrone says this is the healthiest his team has been all season. Geno Smith is much better in this offense, and he and his teammates are finding a good rhythm, so it is going to be much harder to rattle him into making mistakes. This is my pick for Big East game of the week, so stay tuned for my video analysis later this afternoon. West Virginia 38, Syracuse 20.

Cincinnati (5-1) at USF (4-2), noon, Saturday, Big East Network. The Bulls are in desperate need of a win, and now they face one of the most improved teams in the Big East. But I think USF has a shot here for a few reasons: (1) This is one of the best offensive lines the Bearcats have faced this season, so they are going to have a harder time putting pressure on the quarterback (USF has given up only seven sacks all season); (2) USF has been much better running the ball (No. 1 in the league), and that will provide a huge challenge for the No. 1 run defense in the Big East. Darrell Scott is a load to take down, and averages 6.2 yards a carry. Playing at home, coupled with the increased sense of urgency, also helps. An astute USF reader pointed out I have been terrible with my USF picks (3-3), so we will see how this one turns out. USF 27, Cincinnati 24.

Syracuse to get a history lesson

October, 4, 2011
Syracuse coach Doug Marrone was still smarting over his team's loss to Rutgers on Monday, because he felt his team simply gave the game away.

Turnovers and special teams mistakes really did the Orange in. But his main focus headed into Saturday's game against Tulane is to make sure one loss doesn't turn into two. So he is going to give his team a little history lesson this week, complete with examples from famous people who perfected the art of perseverance.

"People like Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and all the failure they've had in their past and how they succeeded by working hard, keeping their level of focus," Marrone said. "[We'll] give them some more stuff they can relate to a little bit more with the NFL and players that might have been undrafted that became starters in the league, or teams that didn't perform well to a certain point then all of a sudden the level of focus went up. So basically trying to work on making sure our kids' minds are in the right place and to work extremely hard with a high level of focus."

Opening the pages of a history book might help, but the loss itself could serve as motivation as well. After the game, quarterback Ryan Nassib said the offense was humbled because of the way Rutgers forced them out of their comfort zone. Antwon Bailey ended up fumbling in overtime to give Rutgers the win. During his postgame news conference, the entire offensive line stood behind him as a sign of solidarity.

"Our kids are out there trying," Marrone said. "They're not trying to make mistakes. It goes to show you the type of communication and the type of accountability that they have and how we rely on one another."

If there was one bright spot in the loss, it was the defense. Despite missing several veterans and starters, Syracuse's defense played its best game of the season, forcing four turnovers and giving up 302 yards of total offense. Dyshawn Davis had an incredible game, with two sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble. Marrone also spoke highly of Cameron Lynch and Siriki Diabate. He also is hopeful starting safety Shamarko Thomas and backup Olando Fisher will be back this week. Defensive end Chandler Jones has been cleared for limited practice, but won't play this week.

"Defensively, we played well enough to win the game," Marrone said. "We had some younger kids that were playing and stepped up, made some good decisions on packages for the players. ... It feels good to know the younger players are getting better. Were playing faster, that's the one thing you see. Defensively, that's what you want."

Rutgers WR Mohamed Sanu turns it up

September, 30, 2011
Hard as it may seem, Mohamed Sanu went into the season a little bit overshadowed.

Mark Harrison had a standout season last year. Brandon Coleman was the talk of the spring. Tim Wright got some buzz as he returned from a knee injury.

Sanu? Just a part of a talented receiving corps.

Then the games kicked off. Now we know Sanu is not just a part of the group -- he is the best player in the group. And it's not even close.

[+] EnlargeMohamed Sanu
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireMohamed Sanu has had a phenomenal start to the season, catching 36 passess for 363 yards and four touchdowns.
Sanu goes into Saturday's conference opener against Syracuse off the most productive game in league history. Sanu caught a league-record 16 passes against Ohio last week, following up on his 13-reception game at North Carolina.

He has 36 receptions for 363 yards on the season -- nearly half of Rutgers' team total of 62. He leads the nation in receptions per game and is No. 8 in receiving yards per game (121). And he has four of Rutgers' seven receiving touchdowns.

Two major factors have contributed to his early success: He is completely healthy and completely focused on receiver.

"Everybody has a guy that has special talents. That's Mohamed," coach Greg Schiano said. "Because of that, we needed to use him in the Wildcat because we felt that was the only way to run the football effectively. This year, he's back at his natural position and he's doing a fine job."

Sanu said he has focused on his technique and trusted his training so far this year. But he did not really set any goals for himself for this season.

"I just came into the season open minded," Sanu said. "I wasn’t sure what I was going to do or how I was going to do it. I'm just trying to play well each and every game."

Asked for his thoughts on leading the NCAA in receptions, Sanu said, "I don’t really pay attention to any of that stuff. I'm just trying to help my team win. If that’s how we’ve got to do it, I’m just going to embrace my role and continue to play at a high level."

Certainly Schiano would like some of his other receivers to step up. Fullback Joe Martinek is the next closest to Sanu with five receptions. Harrison and Coleman have three each. Wright has four.

They could get an opportunity against the Orange, who have had their share of struggles against the pass. Syracuse has given up 10 passing touchdowns -- second worst in the nation. The Orange rank No. 91 in pass efficiency defense and No. 106 in passing defense.

Both Wake Forest and USC threw for over 300 yards against Syracuse. Two receivers -- Chris Givens of Wake Forest (seven catches, 170 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Eric Page of Toledo (13 catches, 148 yards) -- notched 100-yard games this season as well. Syracuse also had to defend USC receiver Robert Woods.

But Syracuse has been dealing with injuries to several of its top players in the secondary. Keon Lyn, Ri'Shard Anderson, Olando Fisher and Shamarko Thomas all have been hobbled. Coach Doug Marrone closed practice this week, and it is unknown who will be able to go on defense.

You can bet whoever is out there will be focused on Sanu.

"He's one of the better athletes -- if not the best athlete on the field," Marrone said. "He can make every catch, he can run all the different routes -- short game, intermediate, down the field. The line does a great job of protecting. This has been a recurring theme for us. We had Woods, we had Page. Now we have Sanu."