West Virginia, a charter member of the Big East football conference, left this season to play its first year in the Big 12. And Syracuse, an original member of the basketball-centric Big East, will leave next year to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference, ending an era rich in tradition.
"When I played, we were not in the Big East. We were a major independent and we played pretty much the same teams every year," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said of his team's swan song. "We haven't really talked about it as much as a team. We are going into a conference that's competitive, not only athletically in all men's and women's sports, but also very competitive educationally and academically."
And if the last few months are any indication, Syracuse may have regained its footing as a football power. The Orange closed out the 2012 campaign with victories in six of their final seven games, and can boast of tying for the conference championship and taking a resounding Bowl win.
Syracuse has now been crowned Pinstripe Bowl champion for the second time in three years, and Marrone joked that he'd do well to schedule more games in the Bronx.
Syracuse rushed for 369 yards on the snow-capped field against the Mountaineers, with Gulley going for 212 yards on 25 carries and front-line back Jerome Smith springing for 157 yards of his own. West Virginia, by contrast, rushed for just 88 yards on 37 carries and couldn't make up the difference in the air.
"Those are some real men in the trenches," said Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. "They really took over that game, because with the conditions, you have to be able to run the ball if you want to win that game. We came on the sidelines and said, 'Hey, if we're going to win, it's going to be behind our O-line and running backs.' They came in and did what they had to do. They killed it out there."
Indeed, the Syracuse line paved some huge holes for their running backs to plow through. The Orange used an early field goal and a sack of quarterback Geno Smith for a safety to take a 5-0 lead, then went ahead 12-0 on a 33-yard touchdown scamper by Gulley.
The junior halfback later broke the game open with a 67-yard run off right tackle, and he scored his third touchdown on a 10-yard swing pattern late in the third quarter. Gulley was named Most Valuable Player, and Marrone was thrilled by his back's performance.
"Prince has been a player that worked really hard, played with injury [and] has really come a long way in our program," Marrone said. "I couldn't be prouder of him sitting next to me."
Syracuse, primarily a passing team this season, took advantage of the conditions on Saturday in crafting its gameplan. The Orange ran the ball 65 times -- 31 in the first half and 34 in the second -- and managed to keep the ball away from the high-octane Mountaineers offense.
West Virginia came into the game as the seventh-highest scoring team in the country (41.6 points per game), but it had trouble finding its own comfort zone. The Mountaineers' two All-Conference receivers -- Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey -- were held to four catches for 43 yards in the first half.
Bailey finished with seven catches for 126 yards and two touchdowns, but one of them came with his team already trailing 26-7 in the third quarter. Smith, a second-team All-Big 12 selection, finished 16-for-25 for 197 yards and two touchdowns, but it wasn't enough for coach Dana Holgorsen.
"The team with the best running game is going to win, and they clearly had the better running game," Holgorsen said. "The one thing about what we have been able to do all year defensively is be able to control the line of scrimmage. Our pass defense was bad, but our run defense was OK. A game like this is where you have to rely on your run defense to win, and when you're not able to do it, it's pretty frustrating."
Syracuse, protecting a 19-7 lead in the third quarter, gave the ball back to West Virginia on an interception at their own 30-yard-line. But Smith was sacked and fumbled on the next play and Gulley followed with a run off tackle and up the sideline, sprinting 67 yards to give the Orange a 26-7 lead.
Syracuse became the first team since 2008 to register two safeties in a Bowl game, and exceeded 300 rushing yards for the first time since running for 348 yards against Buffalo in 2005. Perhaps most importantly, the Orange improved to 33-27 all-time against West Virginia.
"Over the four years, it hasn't been easy playing for Syracuse," Nassib said. "We've had some success and we've had a lot of ups and downs, but we've had a lot of fun doing it. Anything that happened to my career, I wouldn't have it any other way. It made me a better player. It made me a better man."