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Saturday’s matchup between #17 Virginia Tech and Syracuse is not the first time that head coaches Justin Fuente and Dino Babers have met. Fuente’s Memphis team defeated Bowling Green 44-41 in a shootout last season, and both coaches departed for greener pastures in the offseason. They’ll meet again on Saturday afternoon in the dreaded Carrier Dome.
The building might be the same as the one the Hokies lost in so often during the Big East era, but the opponent certainly is not. Syracuse is 2-4 on the season. Their two wins are unimpressive, and all their losses have come in blowout fashion.
33-7 W over Colgate
62-28 L to Louisville
45-20 L to South Florida
31-24 W over UConn
50-33 L to Notre Dame
28-9 L to Wake Forest
The fewest amount of points they’ve held an FBS team to is 28. Assuming the Hokies reach 28 points (which of course they will), that means Syracuse will have to score at least 29 points against Bud Foster’s defense to have a chance to win the game. That’s a tall order.
That being said, Syracuse does have some weapons on offense that make them dangerous, and they operate at a very fast pace.
Fast Paced Offense
As Justin Fuente alluded to in his weekly press conference, the Syracuse offense is from the Baylor tree of offense. Dino Babers was the Baylor wide receiver coach from 2008 through 2011. He’s also coached against the Hokies two other times, as the OC/QB coach at Texas A&M in 2002 and the Pitt RB coach in 2003.
Syracuse has run a whopping 499 plays this season. That’s third in the country, behind only Houston (514) and East Carolina (500). Here’s their game-by-game total…
South Florida: 105
Notre Dame: 88
Wake Forest: 66
The Orange like to operate at a very fast pace, which they were able to do against Louisville, South Florida and Notre Dame. However, they lost all three of those games. In fact, they ran 105 plays to South Florida’s 64 and still lost 45-20.
Personally I think that strategy is bad for a team with the talent level of Syracuse. They have less talent than teams like South Florida, Louisville and Notre Dame. By running more plays and extending the game, Syracuse is simply playing into the hands of their most talented opponents. If we have a fast paced game on Saturday afternoon, that will favor the Hokies, in my opinion.
The Offense, By the Numbers
The Syracuse offense is impressive in some ways, and unimpressive in other ways. Let’s go through the stats…
Rushing Offense: #111
Yards per Carry: #120
Passing Offense: #12
Passing Efficiency: #54
Total Offense: #36
Scoring Offense: #91
Rushing S&P+: #120
Though Syracuse throws for a lot of yards, their overall passing efficiency rating is only slightly above average, and the Orange can’t run the football at all. They throw for a lot of yards, but their #91 ranked scoring offense indicates that they don’t score a lot of points.
The two critical players in their offensive attack are WR Amba Etta-Tawo and QB Eric Dungey.
Dungey and Etta-Tawo
Virginia Tech fans probably don’t recognize the name Amba Etta-Tawo (6-2, 202, r-Sr.), and they certainly can’t pronounce it. But the Hokies have faced him before, and he’s had success. He caught four passes for 69 yards against the Hokies in Blacksburg back in 2013 when he played for the Maryland Terrapins.
However, Etta-Tawo’s career went downhill as a sophomore and junior. He left College Park with the Maryland coaching change, and his decision to transfer to Syracuse has been a major boost to his career.
2013: 31 catches, 500 yards, 2 TDs
2014: 10 passes, 222 yards
2015: 20 passes, 216 yards
2016: 51 catches, 876 yards, 17.2 ypc, 6 TDs
Etta-Tawo has dominated every team he has faced, with the exception of Wake Forest last week (a game that was played in close to the same weather the Hokies were facing in Chapel Hill). He’ll face his greatest challenge of the season on Saturday when he plays the #1 pass efficiency defense in the country.
Quarterback Eric Dungey (6-3, 207, So.) will also face his greatest challenge of the season. He started seven games as a true freshman last season, and he’s taken the reins in the Dino Babers offense and put up big numbers so far this season. He’s 164-of-255 (64.3) with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. Those are impressive numbers, but as a reminder, against the Hokies opposing quarterbacks are 58-of-142 (40.8%) for 661 yards, with five touchdowns and seven interceptions. Only one quarterback has broken the 100 yard passing mark against Bud’s defense, ECU’s Philip Nelson.
Dungey is obviously going to pass for 100 yards (if he doesn’t, go ahead and book reservations for Orlando for the weekend of December 3). He’s a good player with a great receiver in an offense that wants to run a lot of plays, plus the game will be indoors. However, Dungey and Etta-Tawo won’t be able to go wild against the Tech defense as they’ve done against past defenses.
Favor the Run, or Favor the Pass?
Syracuse has passed the ball 266 times this year, and they’ve run it 233. By contrast, the Hokies have carried the ball 254 times and thrown it only 136. The Tech offense hasn’t run at the pace many expected, though that’s partly because they’ve been blowing out just about everyone by halftime.
I’ll be interested to see how Syracuse game plans against the Tech defense. Their strength is throwing the football, but Virginia Tech’s strength has most definitely been stopping the pass. (The Hokies are #1 in the nation in pass efficiency defense.) If Syracuse throws the ball a lot, and they have a lot of incompletions, that means the clock isn’t running, and the Hokies are going to be able to run a lot of plays against a defense that is allowing a whopping 6.5 yards per play. Here’s more on that defense…
Youth, Youth, and More Youth
Let me point out the youth of the Syracuse defensive line…
Starting ends: Josh Black (6-3, 257, Fr.), Kendall Coleman (6-3, 252, Fr.)
Starting tackles: Steven Clark (6-2, 287, So.), Chris Slayton (6-4, 296, r-So.)
The oldest Syracuse starter up front is a r-sophomore. The two starting defensive ends are true freshmen. It’s not just that they are young; the talent is questionable as well. Coleman chose Syracuse over Ball State, Miami (OH), and Western Michigan. Black’s other offers were from Ball State, Bowling Green, Illinois, Lafayette, South Dakota, Southern Illinois and Toledo. It’s very questionable as to whether or not those guys should be playing at the ACC level, much less starting as true freshmen.
Now, here are the backups…
Backup ends: Jake Pickard (6-5, 256, r-Fr.), De’Jon Wilson (6-3, 250, r-Sr.)
Backup tackles: McKinley Williams (6-4, 253, Fr.), Anthony Giudice (6-1, 273, So.)
That’s two more freshmen, including one undersized true freshman defensive tackle in McKinley Williams. I wouldn’t mind seeing a one-on-one battle between him and Wyatt Teller.
The Syracuse defensive does feature three junior linebackers in Parris Bennett (6-0, 208, Jr.), Zaire Franklin (6-0, 230, Jr.) and Jonathan Thomas (6-1, 209, Jr.), but in the secondary there is more youth.
CB Cory Winfield (6-1, 191, r-Jr.)
FS Rodney Williams (5-10, 186, r-So.)
SS Kielan Whitner (6-0, 197, So.) or Daivon Ellison (5-8, 177, So.)
CB Cordell Hudson (5-11, 183, r-So.)
That’s a ton of sophomores playing in the secondary to go along with a ton of freshmen and sophomores playing on the defensive line. That’s generally not a good combination, and that’s why the Syracuse defense has been porous throughout the season.
The Syracuse Defense, By The Numbers
Here’s how the Syracuse defense stands in the national rankings…
Rushing Defense: #99
Passing Defense: #106
Total Defense: #113
Scoring Defense: #107
Tackles for Loss: #99
Third Downs: #50
Plays allowed, 20+ yards: #124
Plays allowed, 30+ yards: #117
Plays allowed, 40+ yards: #118
5.40 points allowed per trip inside the 40 (#105 nationally)
#118 in explosive plays
Syracuse is ranked outside the top 100 in nearly every major defensive category. They aren’t as bad as the Tulsa defense that the Hokies faced in the Independence Bowl, but it is most certainly the worst defense in the ACC this season. They haven’t been able to stop the run or the pass. They have been relatively successful on third downs, but opponents have been able to gash the Orange for big plays on the ground and through the air.
Special Teams Comparison
The S&P+ special teams ratings for Virginia Tech are as follows…
Special Teams S&P: #22
FG Value: #66
Punt Success Rate: #34
Kickoff Success Rate: #1
Punt Return Success Rate: #84
Kick Return Success Rate: #26
Here’s how Syracuse compares…
Special Teams S&P: #71
FG Value: #59
Punt Success Rate: #38
Kickoff Success Rate: #106
Punt Return Success Rate: #16
Kick Return Success Rate: #114
According to the S&P+ numbers, the Hokies hold a substantial advantage on special teams. Special teams have played a big role in each of Tech’s last two victories, and if the Orange want a chance to pull the upset they need to at least break even on Saturday.
I fully concede that this is a trap game. The Hokies are coming off a road win over a ranked team, and the game after Syracuse will be a home Thursday night game against a ranked rival. Not one single player on Tech’s team knows anything about the Carrier Dome or Virginia Tech’s history of playing there. In fact, I’d wager that most guys on the team don’t even know what the Big East was, or the major rivalries between the Hokies, Syracuse, Miami, West Virginia, etc.
Not to mention that Syracuse is 2-4. The Orange have victories over Colgate and UConn. They were easily handled by Wake Forest last weekend, and everybody they have played with a pulse has beaten them by at least 17 points. It would be natural for the Hokies to overlook an opponent like this in a week between two huge Coastal Division showdowns.
This doesn’t have the look or the feel of a team that’s going to struggle with Syracuse, though. The Hokies don’t have to play their best game and they can still win by double digits. Donovan McNabb isn’t walking into that building anytime soon, and neither are any of those other great players they used to put on the field against the Hokies, like Dwight Freeney.
Here’s a look at the most recent seasons for the Orange, ever since the Hokies and Miami left them to wither on the vine in the Big East…
Syracuse just isn’t very good, and that’s the bottom line. They are looking at another 3-4 win season as well, as their remaining schedule is Virginia Tech, BC, Clemson, NC State, Florida State and Pitt. They’ll probably beat BC, but those other games don’t look promising. As an old-school Virginia Tech fan from the 1990s, the current status of the Syracuse program is surprising. I understand the factors that have gone into their decline, but the nostalgia of those 1990s showdowns still make it a little hard to believe.
For the Orange to win this game, absolutely everything would have to fall into their favor, and I don’t see that happening. Here’s how the Syracuse defense has looked game-by-game…
Colgate: 143 yards
Louisville: 845 yards
South Florida: 454 yards
UConn: 425 yards
Notre Dame: 654 yards
Wake Forest: 330 yards
With Virginia Tech’s offensive coaching, and the confidence with which the Hokies should be playing right now, there’s no reason the VT offense shouldn’t be able to put up some big yards and a lot of points on Saturday.
Prediction: Virginia Tech 41, Syracuse 20
Will Stewart’s Take: I’ve got a book on my desk that I refer to occasionally, titled Seduced by Success, and subtitled “How the Best Companies Survive the 9 Traps of Winning.”
If you run a business or any sort of organization, the book is a scary read. It will convince you that no matter how great things are going, disaster is just around the corner.
Trap #7 of 9 is “Lethargy: Getting Lulled Into a Culture of Comfort, Casualness, and Confidence.” That’s what the Hokies need to guard against this week. They’ve had everyone, including me in Monday Thoughts this week, telling them how great they are. And even if they closed out the outside world and all its huzzahs, the numbers 137-20 are still there. That’s the scoring margin in Tech’s last three games, all wins.
Confidence and lack of focus is one thing. Sometimes people lose their edge. It’s human nature. But when the Hokies step into the Carrier Dome Saturday, they might be facing something else that will make it difficult to be aggressive: a half-empty dome. As I detailed in Monday Thoughts, the Carrier Dome isn’t what it used to be. Syracuse used to fill the Dome to capacity (49,250) back in the halcyon Big East days, but in the last few years, they have averaged far fewer fans:
- 2011: 40,504
- 2012: 37,953
- 2013: 38,227
- 2014: 40,447
- 2015: 32,102
- 2016: 31,936 (three games)
As this article from 2013 notes, when Syracuse reports 35,000 fans for a game, actual butts in the seats are more like 25,000, tops.
I call it the Temple Effect. They used to play in front of about 10,000 fans in cavernous Veterans Stadium. When there aren’t any fans at a game, it takes the edge off the intensity, and it’s almost like you’re scrimmaging. No one is watching, so do the results really count? It’s easy to get lulled to sleep, and the Hokies have to guard against this, in addition to everything else.
(Now, watch: 50,000 foaming-at-the-mouth Syracuse fans will show up.)
We’ve found out a lot about Justin Fuente’s Hokies so far this season, but this Saturday, we’re going to find out how they handle success, higher expectations, and the challenge of playing an opponent they’re expected to pound into the turf. I’m going to assume they can handle it, until they prove otherwise.