by Jeff Ouellet, 11/7/02
Saturday, November 9th, 2002, 3:30 Eastern
Saturday forecast: irrelevant (game indoors)
Before actually discussing the game, on behalf of Hokie fans everywhere I would like to wish Michael Crawford the very best as he begins his battle with what may be lymphoma. It is easy to get caught up in the "importance" of Virginia Tech football, but that pales in comparison to battles many people face every day. Get well soon Michael Ė you will be missed.
After losing a game to Pittsburgh that was shocking to Hokie fans not because of the result, but, rather, because of the way the game unfolded, the seventh ranked Virginia Tech Hokies (8-1, 3-1 in conference) travel to their personal house of horrors, the Carrier Dome, to take on the Syracuse Orangemen (3-6, 1-3) this Saturday.
Going into this game the Hokies seem to be beaten up emotionally with the disappointing performance against Pittsburgh and the news surrounding Michael Crawford, to say nothing of an injury list that includes arguably VTís best linebacker (Vegas Robinson Ė out), VTís best defensive back (DeAngelo Hall Ė questionable), VTís most explosive offensive player (Kevin Jones Ė out), and VTís kicker (Carter Warley Ė questionable). Throw in a nagging shoulder for QB Bryan Randall, and Iím listening more for updates from Mike Goforth than Frank Beamer.
With respect to this series, it is well known that the Hokies have struggled mightily at Syracuse. Frank Beamer was 0-5 in the Jiffy Pop Dome until two years ago when Michael Vick led VT to a tough 22-14 win that wasnít decided until Vick broke a long run with roughly two minutes to go in the game. Last year the Orangemen returned the favor at Lane, upsetting VT 22-14 in a place where they were bushwhacked 62-0 only two years earlier.
As for the state of the Hokies, that is being debated among the VT faithful on message boards, call-in shows, and even during episodes of "The Bachelor." The recent VT struggles against Rutgers, Temple and Pitt, coupled with late season fades in the past few non-Vick years (í97, í98 and í01), have some fans wondering aloud if the teamís recent struggles are because of youth or a more systemic problem. The game this week may provide some answers, but that question probably wonít be resolved for good until after the season.
Whatever pressure Coach Beamer and his staff may feel, it pales in comparison to the feedback good old Syracuse Coach Paul Pasqualoni is hearing. Coach P has a 94-45-1 career record, has led Syracuse to three of its six 10-win seasons (including one last year), and has his own web site. However, I think FireCoachP.com is a little less flattering than Beamerball.com, and my keen observational skills tell me he doesnít have as much input in the content.
The Syracuse Offense Ė A Reyes of Light
The Syracuse offense is average statistically. They are #4 in scoring offense in the Big East with 30 points per game, with a balanced rushing attack (185 yards per game, #4 in the conference) and passing game (174 yards per game, #5 in the conference).
The quarterback is likely to be 6-1, 190 lb. SR Troy Nunes. A lot of the Orange fans thought he would flourish once Jim Brown left for the pros forcing the ĎCuse to open things up . . . no, wait, Nunes hasnít actually been around that long, but it seems that way. Nunes is a tough guy who will scratch and claw for everything, and heís played well in the last two games for the Orangemen, wins over Rutgers and Central Florida.
Nunes has been more effective than last yearís starter, 6-1, 229 lb. JR R.J. Anderson. However, Nunes is questionable for this week and had to leave in the fourth quarter of last weekís game because of an injury, so donít be surprised to see Anderson take some snaps if Nunes gets hit early. Although he certainly wasnít overwhelming last year in Blacksburg, Anderson did make some plays with his legs last year and the Hokies will have to guard against that again this year.
The key offensive player for the Orange is 5-10, 200 lb. SO tailback and resident speedster Walter Reyes, who is coming off consecutive 100-yard games. Reyes is sixth in the conference in rushing at 90.2 yards per game, with a bloated 6.2 per-carry average and 12 touchdowns. Heís got the ability to break long runs, and VT will have to tighten up after last weekís poor showing against Brandon Miree. T-FR TB Damien Rhodes made a huge splash early, but now is a part-time back. He was the gem of last yearís recruiting class for Syracuse, and you should watch for him on special teams.
Syracuse plays four wide receivers regularly with undersized human blur 5-7, 173 lb. JR Jamel Riddle leading the way. Riddle is eighth in the conference in receptions per game (27 total on the year) and second in the conference in yards per game (61.8) while averaging a gaudy 18.3 yards per reception. SR David Tyree is 6-2, 198 and is second on the team with 19 catches. However, the guy to watch is 6-5, 221 JR and former blue chip national recruit Johnnie Morant. Morant is an enigma: big, fast, strong, and a superior athlete, but he hasnít produced like SU fans expected. However, heís the type of big target that thrives against VT.
There has been talk this week of having DeAngelo Hall line up on the opposing teamís best receiver. My guess is that heíll still play a side rather than a man in this game, assuming he can play at all with his back pain, because there isnít one guy that jumps out on the Syracuse roster. I still think having Hall play a man rather than a side of the field is good strategy with UVaís Billy McMullen and UMís Andre Johnson looming.
The good news is that the Syracuse offensive line, numbers aside, is not as good as Pittsburgh veteran front. The numbers do indicate this is a decent group, though. The Orangemen are averaging a solid 4.4 yards per carry and have given up 17 sacks on the year, a respectable number, but it is a relatively inexperienced line with only one returning starter. 6-2, 297 JR C Nick Romeo is the returning starter and glue for the o-line as he provides a veteran to make the line calls in the middle. The other player that came into this season with significant experience is 6-5, 296 lb. JR OT Kevin Sampson. He played in every game last year.
The Orange D
Based on the numbers, this team needs a twelfth man a whole lot and Iím not just talking about the fans. Syracuse is last in the conference in pass defense, surrendering 274 yards per game, second to last in rush defense, allowing 179 yards per game, and last overall in total defense. They are giving up over 30 points per game on the season. With that being said, Syracuse does have some difference makers on the defensive side of the ball, and part of their problem earlier in the season was injuries to some key personnel.
The defensive line returns two starters, 6-7, 270 lb. JR Josh Thomas and JR 6-4, 297 LB. Christian Ferrara, but the big play guy is undoubtedly 6-2, 284 LB JR DT Louis Gachelin. His numbers are amazing. He leads the Big East Conference with eight sacks on the year and is second in the conference with 14 tackles for losses, both very high totals for a DT. He has stepped in as the big play guy after SU lost to Dwight Freeney, one of the greatest Big East pass rushers ever, to the NFL.
6-3, 263 MLB and four year starter Clifton Smith is Syracuseís best player and a certifiable star in the Bradie James/Gerald Hayes class. Smith led the team with 92 tackles last year when he played injured. Now that heís healthy, he is leading the league in tackles with 106 already this year, a whopping 11.8 per game. Heíll be all over the field, as he pursues and runs very well. Returning JR starter 6-3, 210 Jameel Dumas is undersized, but he runs well and uses that speed as a weakside linebacker. He is third overall on the team in tackles with 66, which places him eleventh in the conference with 8.2 per game. The linebackers are the strength of this traditional 4-3 defense.
At defensive back, the book on Syracuse is that they struggle in coverage but are solid in run support. 6-2, 195 lb. Keeon Walker (SS) is a senior and leader in the defensive backfield. Walker has 70 tackles on the year. Defensive backs Will Hunter (64 tackles, 8 passes broken up) and S Scott OíNeil (60 tackles) also arenít afraid to hit people in run support. The guy to watch is the fastest player on the Orange, 5-11, 170 lb. R-FR DB Steve Gregory. He is a special talent, the Syracuse version of DeAngelo or BCís Will Blackmon. Gregory has 41 tackles and is tied for the Big East in passes defensed (breakups plus interceptions) with Hall. Heís a great raw talent.
The Orange have struggled mightily against the pass, perhaps in part because DB coach Tim Walton is the fifth different assistant to coach the secondary the last five years. There is something to be said for continuity, and Syracuse hasnít had it.
Will Beamerball be Beamerballed?
This is a real potential problem area for Virginia Tech. The Hokies always seem to have some special teams problems at the Dome, and this yearís version isnít as solid in the kicking game as the average VT team.
SR punter Mike Shafter was second team all Big East last year as a punter, and Syracuse is first in the conference this year in net punting at 37.6 yards per kick. SO kicker Colin Barber is not setting the world on fire, as he is 6-12 of the year kicking field goals.
Syracuse has very dangerous return guys. Riddle returned punts last year and brought one to the house against VT in Lane. Heís first in the conference this year averaging 15.3 yards per return with one touchdown already to his credit. Tech has to do a great job covering kicks against him, and remember Kevin Jones wonít be playing as a gunner this week.
On kickoffs, the Orangemen are solid, with the freshman tandem of Rhodes (23.2 yards per return) and Gregory (22.6 yards per return). Gregory is the reigning Big East Special Teams Player of the Week as he returned a Central Florida kickoff 57 yards, blocked a field goal in the fourth quarter (his second blocked field goal of the year), and recovered a fumbled punt.
VT has to be particularly concerned about blocked kicks against the ĎCuse. Syracuse blocked two field goals last week (Gregory and SR CB Latroy Oliver), and WR Tyree has blocked punts in consecutive years against VT. To say that I am concerned about special teams in this game is an understatement. The Hokies need to come up big here just to hold their own.
Overall, Syracuse has only eight returning starters and has struggled this year. Still, the Dome causes problems for the Hokies, and Syracuse has talented linebackers that will make Lee Suggs earn his yards. Syracuse will use its safeties, who are aggressive and tackle pretty well, to crowd the line of scrimmage. That will leave Ernest Wilford man to man with much shorter and less experienced corners. The Hokies need to go to him on a regular basis after some play action.
I think the VT defense, despite the injuries, will be solid against the run. The Pittsburgh game, with respect to the Tech rush defense, was an anomaly. I have some concerns about the Tech pass defense, especially if Hall is unable to go. Obviously Riddle is a concern, but I am watching Johnnie Morant too Ė big wide receivers seem to do well against Virginia Tech.
Few VT games are as hard to predict as this contest. Is VT the talented team we saw early in the year, with the inconsistency a product of youth? Is VT too one-dimensional to be successful, as the Hokies are only 4-4 in their last eight games against the Big East teams that know them best? Or are VTís "struggles" overblown by fans who have become spoiled by unprecedented recent success? The truth probably is some combination of all of the above.
The only thing I can offer to Hokie fans is that when I get confused, I often think of the legendary Yogi Berra. One particularly apt quote, given the uncertainty in Blacksburg, from the Yankee catcher: "When you come to the fork in the road, take it." VTís football program will be taking the proverbial fork for the rest of this season, and the Hokie Nation will be anxious to see where it leads.
Prediction: VT 27, Syracuse 16
Will Stewart's Take: This game makes me nervous. VT has too many injured players, with the injuries to Vegas Robinson and DeAngelo Hall looming particularly large. Anyone who saw Troy Nunes play against Auburn this year knows he can pull a rabbit out of his hat, and if he can't go, well, RJ Anderson proved himself last year in Lane. The gaudy 6.2 ypc average that Walter Reyes has is a surprise to me, and a cause for concern.
Offensively, Virginia Tech has had some nightmare games in the Carrier Dome. The Hokies are making zero effort to disguise their runs and their passes, so I look for Syracuse to do what they normally do to the Hokie offense in the Dome: tee off. Blitz-arama. Send the House. And I look for VT to do what they normally do against Syracuse's pressure in the Dome: struggle.
I think Jeff's prediction of 27 points for VT is overly optimistic, because in eight road games at SU, the Hokies have never scored 27 points. They hit 26 a couple of times (1986, 1998), but have never exceeded that, and only average 17.4 points per game at Syracuse. SU limited the 1996 Druckenmiller-led Hokies and the 2000 Vick-led Hokies to 21 and 22 points, respectively, and those teams had better offensive talent and better offensive lines than this year's team.
I'm not ready to give up on this Hokie team yet, so I'll pick them to win, but not by much. The defensive injuries and offensive malaise will keep this one close.
Will's Prediction: Virginia Tech 17, Syracuse 14.