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USA Today
Game Preview:
Syracuse at Virginia Tech
by Will Stewart,, 10/25/01
Click here for Blacksburg Weather

Syracuse at Virginia Tech
Saturday, October 27th, 2001, noon
ESPN+/Big East Regional
Click here for a list of stations showing the game

The similarities between this game and the 1999 matchup in Blacksburg are many. In that game, the #4 Hokies, who were 5-0 and "hadn't been tested," lined up against a 5-1 Syracuse team that was ranked #15 in the country. Syracuse had a workable offense and a strong defense that was supposed to present a stiff challenge for the Hokies.

The result? 62-0, Hokies, the worst shutout loss ever handed to a ranked team.

This season, the #4 Hokies, who are 6-0 and "haven't been tested," line up against a 6-2 Syracuse team that is hanging around the fringes of the top 25. Syracuse has a workable offense and a strong defense that is supposed to present a stiff challenge for the Hokies.

There are some differences between 1999 and this game, though. "ESPN Gameday" is not going to be in Blacksburg, the game is set for noon on ESPN+ instead of prime time on ESPN, and a Virginia Tech fan base that seized the joy of the moment back then is wound tight as a drum as it casts a critical eye on its team and a wandering eye towards December 1st.

Last season, Virginia Tech got a huge monkey off its back with a win in Syracuse's Carrier Dome. The Orangemen, losers of their last four in Blacksburg by the combined score of 169-34 (an average score of 42-9), seek to pull off a similar feat this Saturday in Lane Stadium.

Syracuse Fast Facts: The Orangemen are 6-2 overall, 3-0 in the Big East. They started out with two tough losses and since then have strung together six straight wins. Syracuse comes into Blacksburg with a team that is ranked 28th and 29th in the two major polls. Here's a look at their season so far:

Date Venue Result
Aug. 26 KO Classic Georgia Tech 13, Syracuse 7
Sept. 1 Road Tennessee 33, Syracuse 9
Sept. 8 Home Syracuse 21, Central Florida 10
Sept. 22 Home Syracuse 31, Auburn 14
Sept. 29 Home Syracuse 44, East Carolina 30
Oct. 6 Road Syracuse 24, Rutgers 17
Oct. 13 Road Syracuse 42, Pittsburgh 10
Oct. 20 Home Syracuse 45, Temple 3

Last season, the Orangemen were 6-5, including a 4-3 mark in the Big East. They did not go bowling. Syracuse was ranked preseason #38 by Athlon Magazine this year and was picked by the Big East media to finish fourth in the conference this season.

Head Coach: Paul Pasqualoni is in his eleventh season at Syracuse and is the winningest coach in Big East league games (going back to 1991 when the league was formed). Pasqualoni is 11th on the list of winningest active coaches in Division IA football in terms of winning percentage (16 seasons, 121-55-1, for a winning percentage of 68.6%). He has a 5-2 record in bowl games at Syracuse. Before coaching at Syracuse, he was the head coach at Division III Western Connecticut State from 1982-1986, and he coached the linebackers at Syracuse from 1987-1990 before becoming the SU head coach in 1991.

The Last Time: The Hokies squeaked by Syracuse 22-14 in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse last year. Syracuse had 177 yards of offense in the first quarter and shot out to a 14-0 lead. The Hokies closed it to 14-3 at half time and went up 15-14 in the third quarter. Michael Vick sealed the game with a 55-yard TD run with 1:34 to go that made the final margin 22-14. Vick was sacked 8 times, 4.5 by Syracuse defensive end Dwight Freeney, and the Hokies were held to 240 yards of offense. Syracuse had 328 yards, and the Hokies registered no sacks and only 75 passing yards in winning their first game in the Carrier Dome since 1986.

Depth Chart: Athlon's preseason edition listed Syracuse as returning 6 starters on defense and 6 on offense from last year. The Orange return Freeney, linebacker Clifton Smith, and 3 DB's from last year, plus most of their offensive line and tight end Graham Manley. Starting QB R.J. Anderson is shown as a returning starter from last year, but the lion's share of starts in 2000 went to Troy Nunes. Nunes started games 1-3 and 5 for Syracuse this year, with Anderson starting games 4 and 6-8 (he had the flu in game 5 against ECU). Anderson is a sophomore, Nunes a junior.

Best Offensive Players: QB R.J. Anderson has sparked the Syracuse offense since taking over for Nunes in the fourth game of the season. At 6-1, 229, Anderson is 32-71 (45.5%) for 672 yards, 4 TD's, and just 1 INT. In his four starts, Syracuse has averaged 35.5 points per game. In Nunes' four starts, the Orangemen have averaged just 20.3 points per game. It's worth noting, though, that Nunes started against Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Central Florida, and ECU, while Anderson's starts have been against Auburn, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, and Temple.

Tailback James Mungro, a one-time VT recruiting target, leads the Orange with 155 carries for 757 yards (4.9 ypc) and 8 TD's. Their leading receiver in terms of catches is David Tyree (15 rec., 192 yards, 12.8 ypc, 0 TD's), but in terms of yards, it's Johnnie Morant (13 rec., 323 yards, 24.8 ypc, 2 TD's, long of 74), a favorite of Anderson. Morant and Anderson have connected on three plays of more than 50 yards this season.

Best Defensive Players: Syracuse's best defender is backup linebacker Rodney Wells, who has 21 tackles on the season ... well, okay, it's not Wells. It's Dwight Freeney, the sack machine who annihilated the Tech offensive line at Syracuse last year and leads the nation with 13.5 sacks this season. Freeney, 6-2, 250 pounds, once had 14 straight games with a sack, including 7 straight with at least 2 sacks. He has 27.5 sacks in his last 16 games and is currently 4th on the Big East career sack list with 30 (he trails only WVU's Canute Curtis with 32, and VT's Corey Moore with 35 and Cornell Brown with 36).

In addition, the Orange are very strong in the defensive backfield. Senior free safety Quentin Harris is tied for the Big East lead in interceptions with four and leads Syracuse with 80 tackles. He is joined by junior strong safety Keeon Walker (50 tackles, 1 INT) and senior cornerback Willie Ford (40 tackles, 1 INT, 13 pass breakups).

Special Teams: Junior punter Mike Shafer, who had a very forgettable game in Blacksburg in 1999 (he dropped two snaps), averages 42.7 yards per punt. Freshman placekicker Collin Barber has made his only field goal attempt, a 37-yarder (fellow freshman Justin Sujansky was 4-9 before Barber took over).

Offensive Philosophy: Syracuse has one of the more varied and complex offenses in college football. They can run it anywhere and pass it anywhere, but they like to emphasize the run (364 rushes versus 177 passes, or 67.8% run -- compared to 64.9% for the Hokies). They do not platoon running backs. Mungro gets most of the carries (155), with QB Anderson second (54 attempts), and fullback Kyle Johnson third (30 carries in 8 games). The Orange will use a variety of personnel groupings and offensive sets.

Defensive Philosophy: Syracuse runs a traditional 4-3-4. Freeney is a monster pass rusher, and overall, 21 of his 36 tackles on the season have been for loss. The leading tacklers on the Syracuse team are their safeties and linebackers.

Statistical Rankings:

Category Syracuse Virginia Tech
Stat BE
Stat BE
Rush Offense 171.9 ypg 4 41 234 ypg 1 7
Pass Offense 173.2 ypg 7 90 211.7 ypg 2 57
Tot. Offense 345.1 ypg 4 75 445.7 ypg 2 15 (T)
Scoring Offense 27.9 ppg 4 42 41.3 ppg 2 3
Rush Defense 154.9 ypg 5 63 42.5 ypg 1 1
Pass Defense 186.5 ypg 7 31 143.2 ypg 2 4
Tot. Defense 341.4 ypg 5 46 185.7 ypg 1 1
Scoring Defense 16.3 ppg 3 15 7.3 pts/g 1 1
Turnover Margin +1.25/g 3 10 +1.67/g 2 4

If that table is a little hard to absorb, just cast your eye on the "BE Rank" and "NCAA Rank" columns for each team. Virginia Tech ranks #1 or #2 in the Big East in every statistical category listed, and in the top 10 nationally in all but two.

Syracuse, on the other hand, is in the top 3 in the Big East in only two categories (scoring defense and turnover margin), and doesn't even sniff the top 10 nationally in most of the categories listed.

Syracuse, an average team statistically, is helped greatly by the turnover margin statistic, which in turn helps them keep their scoring defense numbers low. They don't give up the ball a lot (Anderson only has one INT in 71 attempts), and they don't force their defense to work with a short field very often.

The Lowdown

If you analyze the Syracuse schedule, scores, and stats, the same trends keep popping up that have appeared over and over in Syracuse football in the last decade. Namely, the Orangemen are a solid team that performs well at home but struggles on the road. Syracuse is 4-0 at home, 2-1 on the road (with victories over struggling Pitt and Rutgers), and 0-1 at neutral sites this year.

Against the same opponents, VT beat UCF 46-14 at home, while Syracuse beat them 21-10 at home; VT beat Rutgers 50-0 on the road, and Syracuse beat them 24-17 on the road.

The trend in this series in the last ten years is that the home team wins, period. To break that trend, the road team has to be clearly superior to the home team, as Virginia Tech was clearly superior to Syracuse last year, but even then, it was a nail-biter.

Syracuse is not clearly superior to Tech this season.

Is Dwight Freeney an awesome player? Yes, he is, but he's surrounded by inexperienced defensive linemen, and in the past, Tech has been able to cram the ball down Syracuse's throat in Lane Stadium. Freeney will get his plays in, but his defense is ranked 63rd in the country against the run, and it's going up against the #7 rushing team in the nation. 

Is R.J. Anderson a better QB than Troy Nunes? Yes, he is, but so was Donovan McNabb, and McNabb's record in Lane Stadium was 0-2 by a combined score of 62-10.

As it is with nine other games on Tech's schedule, so it is with this one: the Hokies have nothing to fear but themselves. If they show up to play and bring at least their B+ game, they'll win. The big key here is that the Hokies have to be ready to play, and their fans have to bring the same intensity that they do to night games. If that happens, Tech will once again blow up on Syracuse.

One point worth highlighting, though, is that unlike the Syracuse games in 93, 95, 97, and 99, this one doesn't have the same fervor surrounding it. In 1993, a bowl bid was riding on the game for Tech. In 1995, the Hokies were hurtling toward destiny, and the Cuse came to Blacksburg at a critical time. In 1997, a young Tech team was looking to prove itself in a prime time night game on ESPN, and in 1999 ... well, you know the story there.

But this game ... it's different. Hokie fans and journalists around the country are looking down the road to December 1st (just hope that the Tech team isn't), and this one is a noon game that's flying under the radar on ESPN+, not on national TV. This game doesn't have the same aura around it, so the Hokies better be careful, not look ahead, and play hard. They've been good at that lately. 


As a journalist that covers a Big East team, I'm very impressed with what Syracuse has done this season in rebounding from their 0-2 start. With Pitt, WVU, and Temple tanking this season and Boston College not distinguishing themselves, the league needed someone to step up, and Syracuse has. Coach Pasqualoni, while not one of the country's best, is very good, as the statistics listed in his information above prove.

But I'm going to take the same "show me" attitude with Syracuse that I take with Boston College. Namely, until Syracuse shows me that they can play well and coach well in Blacksburg, I'm not going to believe they can beat Tech in Lane Stadium. I'm not even going to believe they can make it close. If they win, more power to them, and I'll analyze the reasons why, but until then...

Virginia Tech 33, Syracuse 10.


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