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Game Analysis: Syracuse
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 11/12/02

Click here for TSL's Game Recap

Click here for a TSL Extra supplement to this game analysis.

I dreaded sitting down to write this game analysis. The thought of watching film and writing up a 50-42 triple-overtime loss was daunting. It's like trying to write up an NBA game -- there's a million plays, decisions, twists and turns to talk about.

I find that every time I do a game analysis, I receive a few emails later that say, "Hey, Will, I can't believe you forgot to talk about …" or "Will, in your analysis, you didn't mention …" This is after I've done a six-page analysis and posted it at midnight. Sometimes, you have to cut the spigot off, and you can't talk about everything.

Having said that, I'll give you my take on this game. A game in which the Hokies threw for 504 yards and ran for just 55. A game in which VT's faltering defense gave up 604 yards (1,087 in the last two games now). A game in which Ernest Wilford set a Big East and VT record for receiving yards (279) and a VT record for touchdowns (4) in a single game. A game in which Troy Nunes, of all people, passed for 403 yards. A game in which Syracuse had 100 offensive plays to just 60 for Tech and controlled the ball, in regulation, for 37 minutes to Tech's 23.

This game took many unexpected twists and turns, but its closeness and drama were not a surprise. Never be surprised by this when Tech and Syracuse play in the Carrier Dome. A few more of these, and ESPN Classic will be able to run a VT-Syracuse all-day marathon.

We'll talk about the origin of Tech's defensive problems, why Syracuse wound up with a 5-to-3 advantage in offensive plays, why Tech's offense was so successful, and what I think about some of the coaching decisions Frank Beamer made. In a TSL Extra supplement, we'll talk about the importance of play-action (with a great illustration), go over "A dozen plays that changed the game," and break down Ernest Wilford's day catching the football.

Let's get to it.

Why the Defense Coughed it Up

Holy smokes, 50 points and over 600 yards. Syracuse wasn't totally inept on offense coming in -- they were averaging about 30 points a game -- but their output in this game was a surprise. The 604 yards the Orangemen had does not rank among the top six performances by VT opponents, if you can believe that. The VT media guide only shows the top six, and #6 is 606 yards put up by Rutgers in 1992. But you can bet your sweet bippy that the 604 yards is top-ten all time against VT.

What happened? Two things: David Tyree and a defense that has gone soft up the middle.

Syracuse receiver David Tyree was overshadowed by Tech's Ernest Wilford, but Tyree had a monster game. Amazingly, he didn't score a touchdown, but he did have 9 catches for 229 yards (25.4 ypc), over a third of the Orange offensive output.

I watched the game and tried to figure out how he did it, and the answer is, "he did it all." 161 of Tyree's 229 yards came on three catches, and those catches were all different. On one, he took a short pass to the outside, juked Garnell Wilds, and ran 54 yards to the VT 16-yard line; on a second, he caught a 45-yard bomb down the sideline over Ronyell Whitaker that went to the VT 6; and on the third, he caught a short crossing route in front of Willie Pile and motored 62 yards to the VT 3 yard line, where Whitaker ran him down.

Syracuse scored a field goal and two TD's after Tyree's long receptions -- 17 points. His night wasn't quite as productive as Wilford's, but he did a lot of damage to the Hokies.

But what was just as damaging to Tech was Syracuse's rushing game. The Cuse had 201 yards rushing on 60 carries, and if you take away Tech's six sacks for 54 yards, Syracuse had 54 carries for 255 yards (4.7 yards per carry). They killed the Hokies with the option and runs right up the gut, and their success in the running game helped open up the passing game for Nunes.

A Redshirt Freshman Takes His Lumps

So what happened in the running game? Well, here's where I have to do something I don't like to do: point the finger at individual players.

First of all, Virginia Tech's defensive tackles have not been successful lately at stuffing the run up the middle. Opposing running backs are making it through the first line of defense, and that leaves the tackling responsibility to the linebackers.

And James Anderson in particular has not been getting it done, folks. To be blunt, he had one of the worst games a middle linebacker could have.

Despite Syracuse's 100 offensive plays, despite 54 rushes, Anderson had a mere six tackles. By comparison, Mikal Baaqee, his fellow inside linebacker, had 17 tackles, and in Virginia Tech's defensive scheme, those two linebackers should be getting roughly the same amount of tackles.

Anderson simply "wasn't there" in this game. He didn't defend the option, he didn't plug the run in the middle, and he showed up many times a day late and a dollar short. In the Pittsburgh game, he was there but got blocked a lot of the time, but in this game, he wasn't there. The gaping holes Syracuse was running through were there for a reason, and the biggest reason is that Anderson was getting blocked out of the play or arriving late.

Anderson's number one problem is his size. He is only listed at 218 pounds, and that is light for a middle linebacker. So even if he makes the right read and arrives in the hole, he has less chance of making the play than 240-pound Vegas Robinson, or 250-pound Clifton Smith of Syracuse.

His second problem is technique. He's going in straight up, and fullbacks and even linemen are getting under him and pushing him back.

His third problem is that his mind is slowing down his feet. Tech coaches talk all the time about young players thinking too much and tying up their feet, and I could see that happening to Anderson in this game. He's thinking too much, arriving late, and arriving slowly, instead of "flying to the ball."

I don't want to beat the guy up. He's a redshirt freshman who has been thrown into the fire before his time. As Hokie fans, you're discovering that there is often a big difference between a redshirt junior who has never played major minutes, like Vegas Robinson prior to the season, and a redshirt freshman who has never played major minutes, like James Anderson now. Robinson was ready to play at the beginning of the year, despite never having started, but Anderson is not ready to play now. Redshirt freshmen don't always struggle, but in Anderson's case, he's not ready, pure and simple, physically or mentally.

Anderson had one good play out of hundred in this game -- a goal line stop on second and goal from the VT one-yard line. Anderson met Syracuse tailback Walter Reyes in the middle of the line and knocked him backwards. But for James Anderson, every other play I saw from him was negative, or he was a non-factor.

Anderson's struggles are compounded by the fact that the defensive tackles aren't helping him out. Anderson is being relied on now to make every play that comes his way, and he's not ready for that kind of constant assault, not like Robinson was.

Some people have been asking on the board if one player (Vegas Robinson) should really make that much difference, and in this case, the answer is a resounding yes. I don't think it's a stretch to say that if Vegas Robinson had not gotten injured, Virginia Tech would still be undefeated. Robinson's injury was that big, bigger than the injuries to Eric Green, Kevin Jones, and DeAngelo Hall (although Hall locked one-on-one with Tyree might have put a stop to Tyree's shenanigans real quick).

I don’t call Anderson out to embarrass him or make him the point of ridicule. He's a smart guy who scored, if memory serves correctly, over 1200 on his SAT's. The coaches like him, and they think he'll be good. Someday. I point him out because fans are wondering if the Hokies are really missing Robinson that much, and I wanted to answer the question.

On a related note, Baaqee's lack of size (5-10, 223) has been a liability at times, as well. Baaqee is an excellent athlete with good speed and a great motor. He has made some phenomenal plays, especially in this game. If he stays out of the path of blockers, he's a real playmaker … but if a blocker gets into him, he's toast. In breaking down film of the last two losses, I've seen some great plays by Baaqee -- he's a terror on the blitz who had two sacks and another awesome tackle for loss in this game -- but I've seen some running plays where an offensive lineman makes contact with him and pushes him ten yards downfield.

Baaqee is definitely feast or famine, but as his career goes on, he'll put on more weight (he'll probably top out at 230) and will learn to avoid those blockers and make the play.

Why the Hokie Defense was Tired

Syracuse ran a hundred offensive plays. A hundred.

That ties the all-time record for plays by a Virginia Tech opponent, which was set in 1971 by William and Mary and was tied -- get this -- one week later, by Ohio. For the record, VT won those games, 41-30 and 37-29, respectively. Not so here.

How is it that the Tech offense could roll up 541 yards and 35 points in regulation, but only have the ball for 22 minutes and 44 seconds? How is it that the yardage battle was 604-559, but the offensive plays advantage was 100-60 in favor of Syracuse?

The answer is (here's that expression again) the feast-or-famine nature of the game the Tech offense had. I never thought 504 yards of passing would have such a big downside, but it did.

Tech's first touchdown drive was typical Tech: 8 plays, 73 yards, 3:33 from the clock. But their last three TD "drives" went like this:

  • 1 play, 75 yards, 11 seconds.
  • 3 plays, 90 yards, 35 seconds.
  • 1 play, 87 yards, 12 seconds.
  • 3 plays, 95 yards, 1:12.

Wow. That's 8 plays, 347 yards, 4 TD's, and just 2:10 off the clock.

But it's what the Hokies did when they weren't scoring that hurt them. Of Tech's 15 legitimate possessions, only two were longer than three plays. Two. By contrast, Syracuse had ten possessions longer than three plays, including five in a row. Here's how many possessions each team had that were one play, two plays, three plays, or four+ plays.

Length of



One play



Two plays



Three plays



Four+ plays



Note that four-play possessions in which the fourth play was a missed field goal were counted as three-play possessions for VT, in the same manner than a three-and-out followed by a punt is called a three-play possession. VT had five true "three-and-out" possessions, plus two more in which they ran three plays and then missed a field goal. Their other two three-play possessions resulted in touchdowns.

The Hokies didn't have a single drive that was longer than 3:33 in possession time. Oddly enough, Syracuse only had two drives that lasted longer than that, but they held almost a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession (37:16 to 22:44 in regulation).

Why Tech's Offense Was So Successful

The success VT's offense had with the passing game and their offense in general was due to three things: (1) that's what Syracuse gave them; (2) offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring called a great game; and (3) the players executed.

1.) The Syracuse Orangemen stubbornly continued to pack 8 or 9 men in the box, even after the Hokies started to torch them with the pass, so Tech kept it up. Some people have complained about the lack of a rushing game, and the short possessions did indeed hurt Tech, but this was a classic case of taking what the defense gave the Hokies.

2.) Everything that Stinespring did wrong against Pittsburgh, he did right against Syracuse:

He called play-action passes, including the 75-yarder to Wilford (see the TSL Extra supplement article, The importance of play-action).

He used the fullbacks (2 catches, 19 yards), tight ends (2 catches, 113 yards), and running backs (2 catches, 24 yards, 1 TD) in the passing game. He went down the middle to the tight end, he used the backs as an outlet, he threw it everywhere. Truly a stunning display of distributing the ball that helped free up Wilford for his record-breaking day.

He threw on first down, he threw from inside his own 20, he threw the fade route to Wilford for a TD, he handed off from the shotgun, he used misdirection. In short, the offensive play-calling was a stunning contrast to the Pitt game.

One subtle play that I particularly liked was the option call for a TD in the second overtime. With the Hokies facing third and goal from the one-yard line, Tech lined up in the full house backfield, and fullback Cedric Humes went in motion to the left.

Tech does that all the time, and the play always goes in the direction of the fullback's motion. The play right before that, Humes had gone on motion to the right, and Suggs had taken a toss sweep to the right and been tackled at the one.

So VT was going left, because that's the way Humes went in motion. If you watch the tape, you can see a Syracuse linebacker pointing to the left side of the Hokie line, as if to say, "They're running it right here!"

So what did Tech do? They optioned to the right. Randall kept it and scored easily. Brilliant. Reminiscent of Rickey Bustle's called fly pattern to Andre Kendrick from the same full-house backfield formation in the 2000 Gator Bowl against Clemson.

Of all the things Stinespring did right in this game, I thought that was his best call. Totally unexpected, at a critical time in the game. It was a game-winner of a call, but alas, that was not to be.

3.) The players executed.

He wasn't perfect, but Bryan Randall had his best game by far passing the ball, and the offensive line had their best game by far in pass-blocking. Randall had plenty of time to throw and exhibited confidence and the ability to progress through his reads.

He missed some passes and had a shaky time where he threw two straight interceptions, but Randall also did an exceptional job of reading the blitz, dumping off to his backs when he needed to, and throwing accurate deep passes.

Randall had 504 yards passing and 5 TD's, and if Richard Johnson hadn't dropped the best pass of the night on third and four from the VT 26, Randall might have had 578 yards and 6 TD's.

Unfortunately, though they had some perfect plays, the offense made enough mistakes that they had a lot of short possessions, as detailed extensively above. But overall, they played much better than they have at many times this year.

As a sidebar, some posters wondered why the passing game didn't open up the running game more. Well, it did, to some extent. In the first half, the Hokies had 9 carries for (-1) yards, and in the second half, they had 9 carries for 49 yards. I thought Suggs found much more running room in the second half than he did in the first half. Yes, VT never dominated with the run, but it did open up a little.

Coaching Decisions

Post-game commentary on the coaching decisions centered around two things: (1) Virginia Tech conservatively running the ball into the line in the first overtime, and attempting a 36-yard field goal; and (2) Coach Beamer's decision to put the defense on the field first in the third overtime, where they promptly gave up a touchdown.

In both instances, Beamer played the percentages, which is really all you can do as a coach: go with what is most likely to work, and leave the outcome in your players' hands.

1.) The First Overtime

After Garnell Wilds intercepted Nunes in the end zone on Syracuse's possession, the Hokies called three straight running plays into the middle of the line to position the ball for the field goal (amazingly, they gained six yards doing this, though everyone knew it was coming).

Carter Warley then promptly missed the 36-yard field goal attempt, prompting some Hokie fans to wonder why Tech didn't try to do more with the offense and score outright.

Well, what if Randall had dropped back and thrown one of those terrible interceptions he threw on the night? You'd crucify Stinespring for calling a pass. What if he had called a cutesie-pie reverse and lost ten yards? You'd crucify him for that. What if he had called three straight short passes, all of them incomplete, resulting in a 42-yard field goal? You'd wonder why he didn't run the ball forward a little bit. So on, and so on.

What Tech did wasn't brilliant, but the bottom line is, Warley should have made the field goal. He wasn't in pain, the hold and the snap were clean, and he just flat missed it.

2.) The Defensive Decision

With the decision in his hands, Beamer put his dog-tired defense on the field to open the third overtime, and wham, Syracuse promptly scored on them, no sweat -- and converted the two-point conversion.

Why put the 100-play wonders back on the field first? Simple, it's playing the percentages. It's much easier to coach your offense in overtime if you know what you need to get to win. What if VT had gone on the field first and been facing a fourth-and-one at the 16-yard line? What if Warley had made a field goal from there, giving VT a three-point lead, and then Syracuse had scored on their first play? Then everyone would second-guess Beamer for not going for the first down on that fourth and one.

An extra 2-3 minutes of rest wasn't going to revive the Hokie defense at that point, folks. It wasn't going to suddenly cure DeAngelo Hall and Vegas Robinson and put them back on the field. Syracuse probably would have pierced them just as easily had Tech gone first.

This game was lost when the Hokies missed the field goal in regulation, missed the field goal in the first overtime, and failed to stop Syracuse on fourth and three in the second overtime. The longer it went on, the more likely the Hokies were to lose.

TSL Extra Addendum

There's some additional material for TSL Extra subscribers in the TSL Extra supplement to this analysis. In that article, I'll list "A dozen plays that changed the game" and break down Ernest Wilford's day catching -- and not catching -- the football. Plus, there's a very interesting section that talks about the importance of the play-action pass and breaks down the play-action pass that resulted in a 75-yard TD to Wilford.

Next Up: West Virginia

The red-hot West Virginia Mountaineers, who beat Boston College 24-14 on Saturday and are now 4-1 in the Big East, ahead of the fourth-place Hokies, come calling on Wednesday, November 20th. The game will be televised by ESPN2.

We'll return later this week with a preview.


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