Syracuse Game Preview: Hokies Look For Fourth Straight Win

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The Carrier Dome has never been kind to the Hokies.
The Carrier Dome has never been kind to the Hokies.

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.

Credit OXVT for the Tale of the Tape. Click for a larger image.
Credit OXVT for the Tale of the Tape. Click for a larger image.

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…

Colgate: 81
Louisville: 93
South Florida: 105
UConn: 66
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
Sacks: #83
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.

Final Thoughts

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…

2015: 4-8
2014: 3-9
2013: 7-6
2012: 8-5
2011: 5-7
2010: 8-5
2009: 4-8
2008: 3-9
2007: 2-10
2006: 4-8
2005: 1-10
2004: 6-6
Total: 55-91

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.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 49, Syracuse 17

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41 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. One game at a time and this could be the first of many good years to come. Regardless of how we finish the season, I think Witt Babcock hired the best coaches in both football and basketball to bring Hokie Nation back into national prominence. I’m hoping for a 49-6 or better pasting of the Orange.

  2. Expect a dog fight. I think we get out of there with a W, but watch for injuries. We’ve never done well in domes.

  3. I’m thinking 56 – 7 Hokies in a cake walk, with 1 or 2 defensive or special teams scores.

    GO HOKIES!!!!

  4. Chris, been meaning to tell you… I really like the new game preview format. I like the higher level picture and themes… and not so much the player by player breakdown. So, great job and thanks.

    Now, 41-20, you’re just not quite bought in yet have you? I can understand, it’s been a while.

  5. While none of our players know of the Carrier Dome nor rivalry of old, rest assured Bud does.

    I don’t imagine Syr scoring 17 nor 20 on us.. USF held them to 20 after giving up 17 in the 1Q; Wake held them to 9 (bad weather). Still. We are 8-9 all time v Syr…time to right that ship. I sense a 1999 (62-0) or 2003(51-7) style smack down.

  6. Hokies squeeze all the juice out of the Orangemen. 58-22. Tech scores enough to win well before halftime.

    Horrible memories of 1996, 1998 and 2002 fall into the Memory Hole.

    Fuente/Foster 2016
    Make Hokie Football Great Again!

    1. Opposite effect of GT. Go quick, and if you turn it over or get stopped on 3rd down, especially a 3 and out, and you just put your defense back on the field after about a minute. By going fast and not having offensive success, more talented teams get more offensive possessions.

    2. Generally speaking, the longer a game goes on, the more it favors the better/more talented team.

      Think of it this way, imagine you are the coach of Directional Homecoming U and are playing a game against Alabama. Now imagine someone gave you the opportunity to run one play from the 3 yard line to decide who wins and who loses instead of playing a 60 minute football game. You would take that in a heartbeat because anything can happen in one play.

      Extend that analogy out, and a less talented team should want to play a game with 50-60 snaps, not a game with 70-80. More snaps are just more opportunities for those big plays that are usually what separate the great teams from the bad ones.

      For a less talented team, the goal is typically to shorten the game, keep it close, and try to squeak out a win in the end. For a more talented team, you want to drag the game out as long as possible to give your superiority enough time to shine.

    1. I think it’s going to be in the 50’s – Syracuse starts trying to run 100 plays and CJF has shown he doesn’t take the foot off the gas.

    2. I hope Ford sits out to insure that he is 100% healed for the Miami game. There is no need to risk him in this game if other receivers can cover down on him.

      Keep him safe! Get him healed! Don’t risk it!

  7. I will be making the trip to the Dome Saturday and hoping to enjoy high scoring tally by Hokies! I don’t see CJF letting the team read too many of their press clippings from last weekend either. What has struck me since the Tenn game is that the team appears to be very focused and disciplined the last 3 games and I don’t get the feeling they’ll be looking past the Orange. I think we notch another big win! Nice to know weather won’t be a factor and I can also enjoy a Dome beer or two in the seats!! Go Hokies!

  8. I think the offensive guys are itching to have some fun in ideal, fast conditions after being hamstrung by the weather last week
    Hokies 59 Cuse 21 with late TD or 2

  9. I’d like to think we’ll win by 20+, But I’ve been around Tech football more than 60 years (yes, I’m an old —-) and I’ve learned not to get over hyper. So I’ll take a win by whatever margin it is.

  10. In the 1996 game, Syracuse totally dominated VT and won big as enumerated by Will Stewart above. This was VT’s only loss in a 10-1 season, and VT played Nebraska tough in the Orange Bowl until their depth simply wore us out. I counted almost a 100 red uniforms trotting out of the tunnel at that game- talk about depth!! Nebraska pulled away in the 4th Q. McNabb was only a Freshman in the Syracuse game, but they had other excellent players. So, let’s hope the curse of the Carrier Dome is finally over.

    1. Was at the 98 game. The dome really increased the volume artificially. Back then they had a lot of fans though. Obnoxious ones.

      1. Oh, these days the noise is 100% artificial! Although we have season tickets at VT and live in the greater Syracuse area, we attend one game a year depending on VT’s schedule. The students, if they show for the game, are mostly gone by halftime. My coworkers would rather tailgate than watch the game.

  11. I haven’t been able to find anything but highlights of Syracuse’s past games this season, so I can’t get a pulse on how their drives went. But Dungey’s numbers and the fact that I didn’t see many plays for a TD in the highlights makes me think everyone has played them in schemes built for “bend, don’t break”. Thus Dungey & Co can move the ball well outside the RZ, but don’t often succeed in scoring. Since Foster & Co play in schemes built for “make the other team break”, I think we will keep them to their fewest yards/points yet. I hope the D-line gets hungrier the higher the opposing QB’s stats are. Should be another good game for the Hokies, and another step out of bowl contention for Syracuse.

    1. I can sorta’ understand that opinion of Cuse winning with the NATTs around and the Hokies’ awful history in the “jiffy pop dome of horrors,” albeit a curse against far better Cuse teams back in the day.

      However, I would like someone to explain to me how any sane person can bother to vote in a poll and choose “no opinion.” Why even take the time to vote!!??

      Go Hokies!!

  12. VT 55
    Cuse 17

    I wanted to really say 60+, but that is ambitious and we will run and put Motley in to stop that.

    1. Which is wrong- they should let Motley open it up and score beyond Hand offs and QB runs. It’s no fault of Motleys- he is just executing.

  13. OK, with the Orange D front 4 young and small; forget anything fancy, just straight ahead run blocking gaining 5 yards per clip followed up with a nice play action pass to 85. Then straight ahead run blocking for more punishment to their D-line with a jet sweep with CJ; gotta love the speed.

    I was in the dome for a game back around ’96. Don’t even remember who won. Was McNabb QB back then?? Anyway, I could use some OJ, so come on HOKIES and run over those Orangemen.

    GO HOKIES BEAT ‘cuse!!!

    1. If you were in the dome for a game back in the day, and Michael Vick was not the QB, the Hokies lost!!

      Go Hokies!!

  14. As long as Evans stays cool and focused, as he has been, we will be fine. But, if he goes in thinking of the hype and starts pressing, we could be in for a battle. This is when coaches earn their pay.

  15. on top of the youth, isn’t one of those DE’s suspended for the first half after a targeting ejection last game? and I read somewhere that 3 of their preseason projected starting O-linemen are injured, 2 of which will not be back at all.

    1. 41 was the 1st half VT score. Cheerleaders are brought in for the 2nd half to finish up the game. 😆

  16. We should know in the first two series whether we brought our game. It is very easy to let up at this stage against this opponent.

  17. I know what you mean by “trap game,” but this team has a whole different feel this year. The “one game at a time” philosophy seems to be entrenched in these guys. This coaching staff seems to know exactly what to do and say to get ready for each and every game.

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