Scott Shafer's coaching career has had its share of twists and turns before he landed at Syracuse, but Shafer's defense retains the same trademarks it did several years ago in the eyes of Cincinnati coach Butch Jones.
Jones called the defense the "camera club," with all of Syracuse's defenders finding their way in the frame at the end of a play - as in, near the ball. Jones expects to see more of the same from Syracuse's defense Saturday.
"You see guys running to the football," Jones said. "You see a physical presence. You see different variations, and mixing zone coverage and man coverage. You see an edge about them."
Jones and Shafer have crossed paths before, in the MAC, when Jones was offensive coordinator at Central Michigan and Shafer was defensive coordinator at Northern Illinois from 2001-03. Northern Illinois won all three meetings.
Cincinnati leads the Big East in total yards, passing yards and scoring, but Syracuse's defense, for the first time in several years, has the attention of the conference. Syracuse intercepted West Virginia's Geno Smith three times and sacked him five times last week. And Syracuse is doing it with some of the same players who were on one of the worst defenses in the country two years ago.
The Orange has transformed itself into a top-20 defense by morphing into an attacking, aggressive unit. Throughout the season, opposing coaches have complimented Syracuse's intensity and physical play. As evidence of Syracuse's attack-from-all angles defense: CB Mike Holmes is second on the team in sacks with three.
"The biggest thing we want to be when we turn on the tape is fun to watch," Shafer said. "We want people to say, 'That defense is fun to watch' because we fly around and make plays."
In coach Greg Robinson's final season in 2008, the Orange ranked 101st in the nation in each of the following categories: scoring defense, total defense, rush defense and pass efficiency defense. Syracuse was 100th in sacks and 104th in tackles for loss.
The biggest task Shafer faced was pushing a unit used to losing to play with a high energy level. He learned right away that his defense needed to be pushed harder. Starting S Max Suter, for example, fell behind academically during the spring. Shafer remembered "getting on him a little bit." Suter told him it was the kind of push he needed - and that the team needed.
"A lot of them were hungry to be coached hard," Shafer said. "Kids naturally gravitate toward discipline. They act like they don't want it but they do."
Now, Shafer is enjoying something he hasn't had in several years - continuity. After leaving Western Michigan in 2006 after a three-season stint, he had one-season runs at Stanford and Michigan. Jim Harbaugh plucked him away from Western Michigan solely after looking at the stat sheet; Shafer's defense had led the nation in sacks that season. Shafer moved on to Michigan for the 2008 season but had a falling out with Rich Rodriguez. (Ironically, Rodriguez replaced Shafer with Robinson.)
For the first time since 2005-06, Shafer has spent consecutive seasons on the same campus.
"The second year is always a lot better than the first year," Shafer said. "You know the kids better, and more important than that, they know me better, too. You appreciate the fact that they work off of you. They've started to take ownership."
Syracuse still is seeking consistency. The Orange didn't allow USF to score a touchdown on Oct. 9. Last week, West Virginia scored two first-quarter touchdowns, but Syracuse shut the Mountaineers out for the remainder of the game.
Yet in-between those games was a 45-14 loss at Pittsburgh. Pitt had 305 yards of offense, but 171 came on three plays. Shafer said the issues were the same on all three big plays: poor leverage and not taking a shot at the ballcarrier.
"It's one of those things where we all know the formula," Shafer said. "But we've got to work the formula to get things right."
Key matchup: Louisville RB Bilal Powell vs. Pittsburgh's rush defense. Pittsburgh hasn't faced a team that runs the ball as effectively as Louisville since the opener against Utah. Louisville averages 211.0 rushing yards per game, led by Powell's 143.3. The Panthers are ninth in the nation in run defense and limited Syracuse's Delone Carter to 38 yards two weeks ago.
Player on the spot: West Virginia QB Geno Smith. In his first season as the starter, Smith was efficient in his first six starts, throwing 14 touchdowns and only two interceptions. But Smith struggled last season. He threw three interceptions and was sacked five times last week by Syracuse. Smith's opponent this week, Connecticut, leads the Big East in interceptions with nine, but that may be a mirage. The Huskies have no interceptions in league play; they had four picks against Buffalo, three against Texas Southern and two against Vanderbilt.
Numbers game: West Virginia is the best team in the country in third-down defense. Opponents are converting only 23-of-96 attempts (24 percent). Big East opponents are 5-of-25 (20 percent) on third down against the Mountaineers.
What they're saying
"It hurt. It hurts us all, anyone associated with the school. It's very difficult because when you're on the outside, you become very emotional because you can't actually do anything to help or change it. You feel very helpless. I feel fortunate where I put myself into a position where I'm able to make that change. I actually have less frustration now." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, on formerly watching his alma mater struggle from afar
"I don't know if emotionally we had enough in the tank to compete in the game that was going to take every bit of emotional, physical and mental strength to win." - Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, on last week's loss to Pittsburgh
"Even when I was struggling, I had confidence. I knew it would come sooner or later. It was just a matter of time. I was bottled up early. I kept staying patient, knowing something good would happen. Every week, I'm getting closer. I'm going to keep staying confident and try to make plays for my team." - Pittsburgh RB Dion Lewis, to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Lewis rushed for a season-high 130 yards against Rutgers
"He doesn't need to have any ballads written about him right now because that stuff started early in the year, with the comeback at Marshall. We're finding out it takes more than one guy to win a football game. He knew that. He'll be just fine." - West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, on Geno Smith
"Really, the people that I have to worry about are these players and the people here at the university because I didn't get dumb overnight. I didn't get stupid overnight. Some years, you have pieces for the puzzle, some years you don't. You just try to work each and every day to try to make these kids the best you can in their life, especially on the football field." - Connecticut coach Randy Edsall
Etc.: The status of Cincinnati QB Zach Collaros remains unclear. He was sidelined for the Bearcats' final possession against Louisville last week with a knee injury. ... Connecticut QB Michael Box (concussion) will not play against West Virginia. Zach Frazer, who started the first four games of the season, will replace Box. ... The New Jersey Nets donated $75,000 to the "Eric LeGrand Believe Fund" to honor Rutgers' lineman who is paralyzed after suffering a spinal cord injury against Army. ... Pittsburgh is third in the nation in net punting at 41.6 yards per kick. Pitt P/K Dan Hutchins also leads the Big East with 12 field goals. ... Rutgers QBs Chas Dodd and Tom Savage are preparing as starters for the USF, which is next Wednesday. Greg Schiano has not announced who will take the first snaps. Dodd has started the past two games. ... Cincinnati's 38-30 loss to USF on Friday ended a 14-game winning streak at Nippert Stadium and a 13-game Big East winning streak. ... Louisville's 26-0 win over Connecticut was the Cardinals' first Big East shutout. ... West Virginia has won all six meetings with Connecticut, by an average margin of 23.5 points. Connecticut lost 28-24 last season, the only time the game was decided by fewer than 12 points. ... West Virginia RB Noel Devine is fourth on the Big East rushing list at 4,007 career yards. He's behind West Virginia's Avon Cobourne, Rutgers' Ray Rice and West Virginia's Pat White on the career list. ... Syracuse's win over West Virginia knocked the Mountaineers out of the polls, leaving the Big East without a ranked team for the second time this season. West Virginia and Syracuse received votes in the coaches', Harris and AP polls. Pitt received one vote in the Harris poll. ... Connecticut starting CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson had surgery on his hand during the off week and returned against Louisville to record six tackles. ... USF starting DE Craig Marshall (broken foot) is out indefinitely but could return by the end of the season. ... Syracuse will play in its fourth consecutive homecoming game when it visits Cincinnati. The Orange beat USF and West Virginia in those teams' homecoming games, but Syracuse lost its own to Pittsburgh.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.