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Game Analysis: Syracuse
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 10/29/01

Click here for TSL's Game Recap

There are a large number of obvious reasons why the Hokies lost this game, and if you take a look under the hood and tinker with some statistics, you can find some not-so-obvious ones, too.

The blame for this loss, if it must be assigned, is nearly all-inclusive for the Hokies. Their offense was stuffed, their defense missed chances to make critical third-down stops in the second half, their special teams committed numerous mistakes, and their coaching staff mismanaged the clock at the end of the first half and made very few adjustments to try to mount a comeback, particularly on offense.

But blame is not necessary, particularly when there's so much of it to go around. The Hokies and their fans would be better off realizing that Tech didn't come to play, Syracuse did, and the Orangemen walked out with a well-deserved victory. They took care of the ball and executed in the clutch, and teams that do that earn the win.

Let's take a look inside this loss, first at the obvious reasons and then at some of the not-so-obvious reasons. Then we'll try to figure out what it means and where the Hokies go from here.

The Obvious Stuff

By now, the numerous critical plays and calls that led to the Hokie loss have been well-documented. Here's a list (probably not all-inclusive):

  • SU returns first VT punt 51 yards for a TD. 7-0, Syracuse.
  • Kevin Jones drops a pitch, fails to recover it, and SU turns it into a 17-yard TD drive. 14-0, Syracuse.
  • Andre Davis returns a Syracuse punt to the Syracuse 17 yard line, but a block in the back brings it out to the SU 42. VT doesn't score.
  • Davis fumbles on an end-around at the VT 40, Syracuse recovers.
  • Syracuse pins the Hokies at the one-yard line with 58 seconds to go first half. The Hokies try to drive, and on 4th and 6 with 12 seconds to go, Tech punter Vinnie Burns drops the snap. Syracuse immediately turns it into a 26-yard field goal, making it 17-0.
  • After VT scores to make it 17-7, a questionable pass interference call on Ronyell Whitaker on an uncatchable ball on 3rd and 20 gives Syracuse new life. The Orangemen convert 3 third downs, including a play where Tech had SU QB R.J. Anderson dead to rights in the backfield, only to have Anderson get away and complete a pass. SU kicks a field goal, making it 20-7.
  • On fourth down from the Syracuse 19, Tech QB Grant Noel delivers a pass to Browning Wynn, who drops it under tight coverage by a Syracuse defender.
  • After Tech makes it 20-14, Syracuse completes a pass short of the first down on 3rd and 7. Tech safety Willie Pile misses the tackle, and the receiver picks up a critical first down.
  • Syracuse pins Tech at their 4 yard line with a 48-yard punt.
  • Under pressure from Syracuse, Noel folds up in the end zone and takes the sack. 22-14, Syracuse.

If you're looking for a recounting of blown calls by the refs or a discussion of whether Ronyell Whitaker made a mistake by hitting the receiver on the interference when the ball clearly wasn't catchable, you won't get it here.

I also won't dwell on the question of Grant Noel's play, and whether or not it was satisfactory (I thought he did fairly well and delivered some clutch throws in the third and fourth quarters, but then again, he didn't escape a sack all day, and he didn't turn nothing into something all day).

Those topics are popular among Hokie fans right now, so there's plenty of discussion about it (some of it very volatile) going on. I'd rather highlight some different things that go towards explaining how Tech lost this game, and how Syracuse won it.

Under the Hood

If you look beyond the horror show of plays listed above, you can find a lot of other reasons why Syracuse won this game.

Number one, the Orangemen controlled the line of scrimmage. They beat the Hokies in the trenches, and the best way to point this out is to compare what the teams did on second down.

On second down? Yes, on second down. Sure, the Hokies surrendered some critical third down conversions to Syracuse (more on that later), but what Syracuse and Tech did with their second-down plays, most notably their runs, says a lot about this game.

Watching the game live, I felt as if Syracuse was running the ball a lot on second down, regardless of yards-to-go, and was picking up big gains, particularly on second and long. On the other hand, the Hokies appeared to be squandering second and short quite a bit.

A detailed observation of the game tape supports that theory. I noted five instances where Syracuse had 2nd and long (8 yards or more), and ran the ball for either a first down or third and short:

  • Tailback James Mungro had a 12-yard run on 2nd and 10.
  • Mungro had a 9-yard run on 2nd and 10. SU converted on third.
  • Mungro ran for 10 yards on 2nd and 9.
  • QB R.J. Anderson had a 12-yard run on 2nd and 10.
  • Anderson had a 6-yard run on 2nd and 8. SU converted on third down.

Against a good Hokie defense, second and long is usually as big a death sentence as third and long, but Syracuse, as noted above, was pretty successful on second and long throughout the game. Syracuse ran 16 times on 20 second-down plays. That shows very little variety or imagination, and yet, they were able to execute anyway, because they were winning in the trenches.

Contrast that with the Hokies. I counted five instances where Tech had 2nd and 3 or 2nd and 2 and did not convert for the first down. Here's the anatomy of their failures:

  • 2nd and 3: two straight incompletions.
  • 2nd and 3: KJ fumble.
  • 2nd and 3: VT jumps offsides, followed by Jake Grove tripping Noel for a loss, followed by a Jarrett Ferguson run up the gut on 3rd and 12 for a 3-yard gain.
  • 2nd and 2: Burnell off-tackle for no gain, followed by a long incomplete pass to Andre Davis.
  • 2nd and 3: Noel is sacked, then throws an incomplete pass.

First and Second Half Comparisons

It's worth noting that three of the second-down failures listed above came in Tech's first four possessions, and all five failures came on Tech's nine first half possessions. Of Tech's 9 first half possessions, 2 ended in fumbles, and 5 ended after Tech was facing a second and short.

It was Syracuse's first-half success on second down, combined with their second-half success on third down conversions (4-8 in the second half, 8-18 overall) that led to the feeling that the Syracuse offense was executing well. It's ironic that Syracuse only had 220 yards of offense, including 41 on a late, meaningless run by Mungro, because it felt more like Syracuse had 400 yards of offense.

It was VT's lack of success on second down in the first half and third down overall (4-13) that led to the feeling that the Hokies couldn't get the plays they needed on offense.

When Syracuse needed to reach deep and make a play on offense, they often did. When Tech needed to reach deep and make a play on offense, Syracuse often reached deep and made a play on defense, instead.

In the first half, Syracuse had 7 possessions (plus the punt return, plus the one-play "possession" where they kicked the field goal). They were three-and-out on 4 of those 7 possessions, had a 4-play drive for a TD, had a 6-play drive for no score, and a 14 play drive for no score. Outside of the 14-play possession, they didn't have much offensive success in the first half.

In the second half, however, Syracuse's first two possessions were 7 plays and 15 plays, and they ate up 10 minutes and 38 seconds of clock, carrying the game into the fourth quarter without giving Tech much chance to score on offense (the Hokies only had 4 second half possessions).

Other Factors

I'm sure that last section was enough to make your head spin, but if you skimmed over it, take a deep breath and go back and read it again. Then we'll take a look at some other points of emphasis.

All done? Here are some things you may or may not have noticed:

  • Syracuse controlled David Pugh and Chad Beasley. They had 16 tackles between the two of them (8 each), but they were the quietest 16 tackles I've ever seen. None were for a loss, and Pugh and Beasley were not very disruptive to Syracuse's running or passing game.
  • More evidence that Syracuse controlled the line of scrimmage: the Cuse converted all three quarterback sneaks that they tried on third and short effortlessly, I might add.
  • When the Hokies got behind by two scores early, it took them out of their punt-block game. Beamer uses the punt rush to swing the tide of a game early, but as this game wore on and Syracuse continued to hold their lead, Beamer was understandably not willing to risk a roughing penalty, and the Hokies set up the return, instead. I only noticed one or two all-out punt rushes throughout the game.
  • Jim Davis really shined -- once again -- from his defensive end position. Davis had Tech's only sack and registered another tackle for loss, plus 2 QB hurries. And he stuffed one running play by pushing two blockers into the backfield in the runner's path. All this on a day when Tech's other defensive ends were nearly invisible, bringing very little pressure and often disappearing in the teeth of the Syracuse option. Lamar Cobb (8 tackles) Nathaniel Adibi (6) and Cols Colas (5) all had more than Davis's 3 tackles, but Davis was more disruptive and was more of a factor.
  • The first-half damage could have been much worse if Anderson hadn't overthrown at least two wide-open receivers on fly patterns.
  • The Tech offense was rather leisurely in their comeback, often running the play clock down to 5 seconds or less before snapping the ball. Combined with numerous runs and short passes, this caused the Hokies to burn serious clock when they needed more time.
  • Very few of Tech's passes stretched the defense, and very often, the ball was delivered short of the first down marker (most notably on numerous throws to the flat, and on flanker screens).
  • Shawn Witten is the man. He had a key third-down reception in the third quarter and a great catch (on a great throw) on his fourth quarter, 17-yard TD reception.
  • When the Hokies took over on their 1 yard line with 58 seconds to go in the first half, I fully expected Tech to go into their shell, run a couple of quarterback sneaks, and get into the locker room down 14-0. I've seen Frank Beamer take over possession on his own 40 yard line with two minutes to go in the first half and all three timeouts and run out the clock. So I never expected the Hokies to try to mount any sort of drive from their own 1 yard line like they did. And sure enough, they paid for it. I'll bet Beamer doesn't try that again for a long, long time.
  • Things were out of synch for the Hokies from the very beginning in this one. The Jumbotron intro video ran while the team was in the tunnel, then ended, and there was a deflated, milling-around type of silence while the fans waited for the team to come out. When they did, the air had been taken out of the fans. And those who sit close to the tunnel reported that they could tell the instant the team came out that they were not ready to play. The sloppy play of the first half bore that out.

Boiling it Down

This game pointed out what most Hokie fans knew, or at least feared. If this Tech team plays sloppy and gets down by two or three scores to a good defensive team, they don't possess the offensive firepower to mount a comeback.

After Syracuse got the gimme field goal to go up 17-0, I was of the opinion that unless Syracuse made some second-half mistakes, the Hokies were more than likely not going to be able to overcome a three-score deficit. Tech came out fired up in the second half and played a lot better, particularly on the offensive line, but their style of offense did not change into something that could score quickly and pressure the opposing team. They burned the clock and eschewed the no-huddle deep into the fourth quarter, and time quickly ran out on them.

Throughout the first six games on Tech's ridiculously easy 2001 schedule, the Hokies had no way of knowing if they were a national championship caliber team. That question has been answered. And the schedule, if anything, helped set the Hokies up for this loss. It allowed them to tank the first quarter against Connecticut and the fourth quarter against Boston College, and still win going away. In this game, they tanked the first quarter against Syracuse, and that was all she wrote.

"The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire," Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni said, implying that the tough schedule Syracuse played this year helped them be prepared, for once, to play the Hokies on the road. He's right. Starting next year, Tech will have more challenging teams on their schedule, but for this year, it took way too long for the first challenge to arrive. And unfortunately, the Hokies failed it.

So, for those who were thinking Rose Bowl, it's time to ratchet down the expectations, truly take it one game at a time, and enjoy the rest of the season and the team. The Hokies still have a good shot at 9-2 and perhaps 10-1, and the Big East championship is still a possibility. If Miami beats Syracuse and Tech beats Miami, the resulting three-way tie will be broken by giving the BCS bowl bid to the highest-ranked Big East team in the BCS standings.

The Hokies are still a Top 15 team (#12 in both polls). They have a little better sense of who they are now, and what to do the next time the going gets tough. Too bad they learned those lessons in a loss, but that's usually the way it goes.

And sometimes, as a year unfolds, "the story" isn't "about" your team. And there is no question that this year, the story is about Syracuse. At one time, it was questioned if they would have a winning record this season. Now they're 7-2 with a road victory over the #4 team in the country. That's news.

Next Up: Pittsburgh

The Panthers finally snapped out of their lethargy and laid a 33-7 whipping on Temple this past weekend. This game will be played at noon at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, and it will be televised on ESPN+/Big East Regional TV. I'll return later this week with a game preview.

 

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