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Much like Mountaineers, No. 18 Syracuse was on verge of disappo

by Greg Talkington

SPORTS WRITER

MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez hopes his team can get onto a roll, much like this week's opponent, Syracuse, did after losing its first two games of the season.

The Orangemen were in danger of a down year after falling to Georgia Tech, 13-7, in the Kickoff Classic and at Tennessee, 33-9.

But a 21-10 victory over Central Florida got the team pointed in the right direction Sept. 8. Coming off an 80-7 rout of Rutgers last Saturday, Rodriguez hopes his team can use that game as a springboard to the same kind of success.

"I think we started having more fun on the field," Rodriguez said. "Hopefully, it will become contagious and we can keep it up."

Syracuse played well from the beginning of the season in two phases.

"We've played great defense from day one," SU coach Paul Pasqualoni said. "Our special teams were also good at the beginning of the season.

"It just took our offense some time to catch up."

The Syracuse offense finally got going when Pasqualoni benched junior quarterback Troy Nunes in favor of sophomore R.J. Anderson (6-2, 235).

Although he's completed just 38 of 88 passes (43.2 percent), he's averaging a whopping 19 yards per completion. It's been that big play ability and his ability to protect the football (only one interception) that have endeared him to the coaching staff.

"First of all, he's not turned the ball over much," Rodriguez said. "And he's shown the ability to get the ball down the field to some big, physical wide receivers."

Junior wideout David Tyree (6-2, 198) is the leading pass catcher with 16 receptions for 205 yards, but he has yet to cross the goal line. Sophomore wide receivers Johnnie Durant (6-5, 221) and Jamel Riddle (5-7, 173) have been the big play men. Durant, who Rodriguez tried to recruit to Clemson, has hauled in 14 receptions for 342 yards and two scores while Riddle shows 12 catches for 285 yards and a touchdown.

Riddle is also a punt return threat, averaging 14.8 yards per return with a 53-yard touchdown to his credit.

Syracuse's most potent offensive weapon has been senior running back James Mungro (5-10, 212). Thus far, he's rushed for 859 yards on 178 carries with nine touchdowns.

Senior tackle P.J. Alexander (6-4, 290) and senior guard Sean O'Connor (6-4, 299) lead a veteran offensive line.

While their offensive struggled early in the season, the Orangemen were strong defensively from the start.

Led by All-American and Heisman candidate Dwight Freeney, Syracuse is giving up just 16 points and 331 yards per game.

Freeney, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound defensive end, leads the nation in sacks with 14.5. He also has recorded 22 tackles for loss. Freeney combines quickness (4.5 in the 40) with strength (500-pound bench press) to explode past would-be blockers.

"You have to identify where he's at all the time," said Rodriguez. "They move him all over the place. Sometime they put him at middle linebacker and bring him right up the gut.

"He's a dominant player and you have to account for him."

Senior free safety Quentin Harris (6-1, 214) is also having a banner season. He leads the team with 92 total tackles and four interceptions. He's defended 11 passes, recovered two fumbles and forced three more.

Sophomore tackle Christian Ferrara (6-4, 297) has been solid in the middle. He's second on the team in tackles for loss with 10 and has four quarterback sacks to boot.

West Virginia will test that defense with the nation's 10th leading rusher, Avon Cobourne. Last Saturday, Cobourne topped the 1,000-yard mark for the third consecutive season.

He shows 1,023 yards on 204 carries with nine touchdowns.

Quarterback Brad Lewis enjoyed one of his better days of the season Saturday against Rutgers, hitting nine of 11 passes for 175 yards. For the season, he's completed 115 of 198 passes for 1,220 yards with seven touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Redshirt freshman Rasheed Marshall is expected to spell Lewis at least one series a half, or more if warranted.

Whoever's running the offense won't have leading receiver Phil Braxton, who's caught 26 passes for 282 yards and two touchdowns. Braxton broke a toe late in the Rutgers game on a kick return and will likely miss the remainder of the season.

Under-used Antonio Brown (23-255-1), and fellow wideouts Shawn Terry (21-212-0) and A.J. Nastasi (20-163-1) are reliable targets.

Defensively, West Virginia boasts the top pass defense in the nation (131.38 yards per game), headed by cornerback Richard Bryant and safety Rick Sherrod.

Bryant leads the team with four interceptions while Sherrod is the nation's leading tackler at 17 per game. Linebacker Kyle Kayden is also among the nation's leaders at 14.8 tackles a game.

End James Davis leads the team with six sacks and 11 tackles for loss while middle guard David Upchurch shows 47 tackles, 11 for loss.

Kickoff for Saturday's game is set for noon. The game will be shown live as the Big East Game of the Week on WVFX, Clarksburg.

Sports writer Greg Talkington can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at gtalkington@exponent-telegram.com

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