Syracuse 52, Virginia Tech 21
by Will Stewart,

Click here for the game recap with stats

I posted an opinion piece last week stating why I thought the Hokies should win this ballgame, and in retrospect, I still think that everything I said was correct. We have a good coaching staff, good senior leadership, and we know how to win on the road.

Privately, people asked me if I thought the Hokies were going to win. I told them, "Sure. The only way Syracuse can win is if they run the ball like they did back in '94 (a 28-20 loss in the Carrier Dome). They're not going to beat us passing the ball."

Right again, except that Syracuse didn't run the ball as well as they ran it in 1994. They ran it better.

Before we get into it any further, let's cry in our beer a little bit first. Don't underestimate the importance of this game. In the rise to national prominence, there are a number of things a team can do to cement its image in Joe Public's mind as "a good football team." You can attain the number one ranking, as UVa did back in 1990. You can win the Sugar Bowl, as Tech did last year. You can knock off the number one team in the country, a real powerhouse, as Arizona State did a couple of weeks ago. You can also accumulate the nation's longest winning streak, and keep it a while, until people hear it over and over.

Had the Hokies knocked off Syracuse, we would probably have cruised for the next five weeks, playing three cupcakes (despite the Hokie Huddler's insistence that Southwest Louisiana is a top-quality program) and taking two weeks off. For five weeks, the nation would have been told over and over that Virginia Tech had the nation's longest winning streak, until that thought was cemented in their brains. We would probably have risen into the top 10 in the country, assuming the normal number of losses by other teams. Add that up with our Sugar Bowl conquest last year, and the rest of the country would indeed know "what a Hokie is."

But now, we're back where where we started. We're hanging around the fringes of the Top 25, looking like a good-but-not-great football team. We'll probably end up somewhere between 2nd and 4th in the Big East, and we'll go to a bowl, hopefully the Car Quest or Gator Bowl.

So, yes, the Hokies missed a tremendous opportunity on Saturday. Now, a word of advice: get over it. There's 7 more games to be played, including a big one on the road (Miami) and two games against two of the toughest defenses in the country (WVU and Virginia). And the good news is that Tech has three relatively easy games to fix the leaks that Syracuse was so kind to point out in such convincing fashion.

On the call-in show Monday night, coach Ricky Bustle and coach Bud Foster, the offensive and defensive coordinators, were the guests, and they were able to shed some light on what happened Saturday. Let's talk about the three major factors in the loss Saturday, and then look forward to what's coming up next.

Run Defense

Stop expecting this year's defense to be last year's defense. There are some great players on this defense, sure. Myron Newsome had 16 - count 'em sixteen - tackles on Saturday. Torrian Gray and Tony Morrison had 11, and Cornell was credited with 10 and another sack. Brandon Semones pursued all over the field and had a great sack early in the 3rd quarter that was Tech's last glimmer of light.

But in the first three games, you could see the lack of consistent pressure on the quarterback, and that's due primarily to the inexperience of most of the defensive line. So you could tell that the graduation of six of the eight players on the two-deep roster for the line had hurt the pass rush.

What you couldn't see was how much those graduations, along with the graduation of George Del Ricco, had hurt the run defense. BC, Rutgers, and Akron provided no stiff running challenge for this defense, so the run defense ranking, 2nd in the country going into the Syracuse game, was built on the backs of lower-echelon teams.

In 1994, Syracuse gained yardage running the ball up the middle. Saturday, they gained it up the middle again, but they also got it in huge chunks off the option. I don't think Tech's run defense is as bad as they looked Saturday, but let's just say that the players and coaches have a lot of game film to analyze. On the Monday night call-in show, defensive coordinator Bud Foster simply admitted that the players didn't always make the right read. Time and experience will cure that.

The Punting Game

The Hokies have a big problem - getting punts off before they're blocked. It does you no good to block a punt and return it for a touchdown if you're going to turn right around and let the other team do it to you, too. The Syracuse block of a John Thomas punt in the second quarter was the second blocked punt this year for the Hokies, and that's two blocks too many.

Watching Thomas punt has always been a gastro-intestinal rollercoaster ride, but don't blame it all on the punter. Abrams for Syracuse came in untouched on the block, and after the game, Beamer pointed the finger at the protection at least as much as he did the punter, if not more. Monday night, the coaches admitted that Thomas was going to have to step up the pace and that they're going to work with him on that.

This problem with the punting game concerns me more than the problem with the run defense, because the punting problem has been there all along. There's been plenty of time for analysis and corrections, but the problem still exists. And now that there's four game films from this year to look at, Tech opponents are going to start teeing off in earnest. This is a leak that needs to be plugged soon.

The Offense

I've heard a lot of complaining about Ricky Bustle's play-calling over the years, and I will say this about the guy: he believes in mixing it up on offense, period. He will run it up the middle, throw it deep, throw it short, run it wide, and throw the screen pass, all in the same series of plays. The only exception is the Miami game last year, in which he ordered the troops to run it up the gut time and time again. Tech also ran it wide a few times against Miami, but that was just for show.

Going into the Syracuse game, the consensus of opinion was that Tech should batter Syracuse into the turf by running Ken Oxendine behind Brian Edmonds and that huge offensive line. But that didn't happen. The Ox carried the ball six times in the first half, all on predictable first-down plays, and he only gained 3 yards in the half. This happened while Tech as a team was only gaining 60 yards for the half. Amazingly, Brian Edmonds didn't touch the ball in the first half, after monster games against Boston College and Rutgers. Ricky Bustle attributed that to the fact that Edmonds had played his good games against different defenses, and it was basically harder to work him into the game plan against SU, with the way the Orangemen were stacking the line, particularly after Tech got behind.

The second half opened with Tech playing smash-mouth offensive football, driving 67 yards in 10 plays, 7 of which were runs. Syracuse never had a chance on that drive. I hope you enjoyed it, because it didn't happen before or after that. It should have happened all game long, and it could have, but it didn't. After the game, Oxendine was very upset by the fact that Tech didn't "stick to the game plan", and rightfully so. If you're a highly recruited player who has sat and waited patiently for two-plus years, and then you're not used effectively in one of the biggest games of the year, you've got every right to be upset.

And you know how I feel about Bryan Jennings, right? I think he's the best tight end in college football. His stats? One catch for 12 yards. My advice is don't watch this guy in the NFL, because when he becomes a star, you'll drive yourself crazy wondering why he "didn't do more when he was at Tech." If I've said it once, I'll say it a million times, this guy is WAY underutilized.

But the last thing I intended was for my comments on the offense to become a bitch session. I sat there after the game and listened to the post game radio show, wherein a stream of callers questioned every little thing Tech did wrong in the game. I hated to listen to it, and I don't want to be like that. But Jim Druckenmiller, Brian Edmonds, Ken Oxendine and Bryan Jennings should have been allowed to dominate this game, and they weren't. Nuff said.

What now?

First of all, everybody calm down. To give you a little perspective, I own a rental property, and I recently had to pay for some major repairs to the heat pump in that house. Did that make me want to burn the house down? Heck, no. It's a great house, and I have no intention of selling it soon, much less burning it down.

This is still a good football team with a great coaching staff, and they'll get better. It sounds like a warped thing to say, but the good thing about this loss is that it exposed EVERY weakness Tech's got, and now they can all be analyzed on game films and improved upon. The coaches emphasized repeatedly that the Tech players are a proud bunch, and they know that they need to work and fix the problems.

Also, in listening to the call-in show Monday night, I picked up on one fact: Syracuse played and coached a great game. They went after the punter, which paid off. They stacked the line on defense, which took away the flanker screen and the flair out to Brian Edmonds. They also came up close and got physical with Tech's small, inexperienced receivers, and that strategy worked, too, because it took away the passing game, which was the only option with the line stacked up. On offense, Syracuse went to the run early and often, and they stuck with it when it worked. And lastly, their kicker pinned Tech deep with great kickoffs over and over. And that McNabb guy played pretty well, too.

As for the Hokies, circle November 23rd on your calendar. That's the date of the WVU game, which is now the game of the year, in my opinion. If you assume a road loss at Miami, which is reasonable but not a certainty, then WVU is the difference between 5-2 and 4-3 in the Big East. WVU is the difference between the Liberty Bowl, the Car Quest bowl, and the Gator Bowl. Lose to WVU and we may go as low as the Liberty Bowl. Beat WVU and we may go as high as the Gator Bowl.

But for now, the Hokies have five weeks in which they get to play three very winnable games, and they get to work on what they need to fix. Remember, the season opener was only three weeks ago, but the next tough game is six weeks from now, when ECU comes calling November 9th. That's a lot of time to take a breather and work the kinks out. An excellent season is still very much within reach.

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