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Syracuse vs. Virginia Tech
Date:  October 16th, 1999
Location:  The Rock, Blacksburg, VA
Syracuse's Record:  5-1
Weather: forecast is partly cloudy and 72 degrees.
USA Today's Syracuse Page
Syracuse On-line

Back in 1982, when I was a senior at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, the N.C. State Wolfpack had a very promising basketball team that was a contender for the ACC championship.

Iím going on a nearly 20-year-old memory here, but I believe that was the year that the ACC had the short-lived 17-foot, 9-inch three-point line. State had a talented shooting guard named Dereck Whittenburg that could bomb it in from there like he was shooting lay-ups.

In an early-season ACC game against a UVa team that featured Ralph Sampson, Whittenburg tore UVa up for 27 first half points on the strength of 9 three-pointers. But for State fans, there was a small problem Ė Whittenburg went down late in that first half with a serious knee injury that would keep him out for months.

Wolfpack fans bemoaned their luck. Their season was over. They didnít have a chance.

But oddly enough, thatís not how it worked out. Sure, State lost a lot of games during the regular season (they ended it 17-9, I believe), but something interesting happened along the way. Namely, without Whittenburg on the court, the rest of the team stepped up and improved their play. Sidney Lowe, Thurl Bailey, and Terry Gannon all developed their games, instead of sitting back and counting on Whittenburg to win games, which they would have done had Whittenburg been playing.

When Whittenburg returned, the rest of the team had improved vastly, and with his addition, well, the rest is history. N.C. State knocked off UVa in the ACC Tournament and went on to win the 1983 NCAA Championship.

Iíve been thinking a lot about that N.C. State team and wondering if a similar effect is occurring at Syracuse this year. Finally, at the end of last year, Donovan McNabbís 15 years of eligibility were used up, and the Orangemen lost their leader and media poster child. Many people wrote the Orangemen off, figuring that it was McNabb that made them what they have been for the last four years Ė annual contenders in the Big East, co-champions in 1996, and champions in 1997 and 1998.

In the void left by McNabb, however, Syracuse isnít exactly floundering aimlessly. They are 5-1, with a narrow loss to the Michigan Wolverines being the only blemish on their record (all links go to USA Today game recaps):

Sept. 2 Syracuse 35, Toledo 12
Sept. 11 Syracuse 47, Central Michigan 7
Sept. 18 Michigan 18, Syracuse 13
Sept. 25 Syracuse 30, West Virginia 7
Oct. 2 Syracuse 47, Tulane 17
Oct. 7 Syracuse 24, Pittsburgh 17

Okay, so we could trot out that tired refrain that "they havenít beaten anybody," but then again, they havenít lost to any pansies, either. The Orangemen have taken care of business. Now that McNabb is gone, the media circus and hype that accompanied him are gone as well, and Syracuse can once again play as a team, not as Donovan McNabb and his posse.

The Defense Takes Charge

Perhaps the strangest thing going on at Syracuse is that it's the defense that's getting all the attention now, not the offense. Let's take a look at the Big East and national rankings of their defense:

Defensive Category

Stat

Big East Rank

National Rank

Rushing Defense

110.3 yds/game

3

24

Passing Defense

191.0 yds/game

3

10*

Total Defense

301.3 yds/game

2

23

Scoring Defense

13.0 pts/game

2

7

*Note - the NCAA ranks pass defense by efficiency, not yards per game.

Of course, for all of the stats listed, the Hokies are #1 in the conference, and anywhere from 2nd (total defense and scoring defense) to 12th (pass efficiency defense) nationally. So, while the Syracuse defense deserves its props, there's no question which defense on the field Saturday will be the best -- the Hokies.

The real question to be settled Saturday night is to find out who's the pretender: Virginia Tech's suddenly resurgent offense, or Syracuse's suddenly respectable defense? It's time for one of those units to be knocked down a peg, and for the other to find out that its improved play will stand up to the test of good opposition.

I can't wait for the Virginia Tech offensive line to take the measure of itself against a good defense. After struggling somewhat against JMU and UAB, and having a decent game against Clemson, the offensive line has blasted UVa and Rutgers off the ball with precision blocking and team work. I want to see what they can do against a good defense.

The results will be somewhat skewed from the norm, of course, because Tech's starting and backup centers will both be out, and the Hokies will have to rely on inexperienced walk-on junior Steve DeMasi. The good news is that from what little I've seen of Syracuse, the middle of their defensive line is not its strength -- the defensive ends and the outside linebackers are.

I hope for DeMasi's sake the Orangemen don't prove me wrong on that point. In the event that DeMasi can't hold his own in the middle, and Rickey Bustle is forced to send Vick and the running backs to the outside, it will play right into the Orangemen's strength on defense, which is the perimeter players and their team speed

One thing is clear: Michael Vick and the Virginia Tech receivers are on a roll. If Syracuse can't pressure the quarterback, then Vick, Andre Davis, and Ricky Hall will give them some serious trouble. On that count, Syracuse has at least one good cover guy, Will Allen, and if the Orange can cover Davis and Hall, then Emmett Johnson and Terrell Parham, who have been quiet so far this year, will have to step up. Vick's first and second options might not necessarily be open to him, as they were against UVa and Rutgers, and his rapidly-improving ability to run the offense might be tested to a greater extent.

The Other Side

What about Syracuse's offense against Tech's defense? Here's where it gets sticky for the Orange. Their offense ranks 28th in the NCAA in rushing, 83rd in passing, 66th in total offense, and 27th in scoring. They employ two quarterbacks, neither one of which is the complete package at this point. If the Hokie defense brings its "A" game, which it almost always does in packed Lane Stadium night games, the Orangemen are in trouble.

The Hokies have sometimes had trouble defending the option, which has historically been a Syracuse staple. But the Hokies usually don't have trouble defending Syracuse's option on the Lane Stadium grass -- only in the Carrier Dome.

Syracuse has some good experience on the offensive line, but graduation gutted their skill positions, with the exception of star wide receiver Quinton Spotwood.

I simply can't see the Orangemen being able to put points up on the Hokies offensively. With special teams and a defensive score, maybe. But with 52,000+ Hokie fans screaming bloody murder, and a national television audience watching, the matchup of Syracuse's mediocre offense against Tech's experienced, nasty defense is just a bad thing for the Orange, no matter how you slice it.

The Intangibles

I've managed to go this far without mentioning the McNabb prayer that beat the Hokies last year in the Carrier Dome. That memory no doubt fuels the Hokie defense, in particular linebacker Michael Hawkes, who was beaten by Syracuse's tight end for that winning score. Perhaps you donít know yet that the tight end was not Hawkes's assignment. It was now-departed whip linebacker Lorenzo Ferguson who was horribly out of position on the play, leaving Hawkes stranded to try to do the job.

Hawkes didn't get it done, and I'm sure he'd be the first to admit that although it wasn't his assignment, he was there, and he should have made the play. Michael Hawkes is one guy that I'm going to be watching closely on Saturday night, because he has had a full year to look at that video of him being scored on over and over.

With the presence of ESPN's College GameDay on campus, this is one of the biggest football games ever played at Virginia Tech. The Hokies are focused on pounding everyone they play into the turf on their way to a possible undefeated season, and while the Orangemen are also focused, their goal is a smaller one. They want simply to prove that they're more than just what Donovan McNabb made them.

The motivation here is clearly on the side of the Hokies and their fans. I've got to figure that the intangibles fall heavily in Tech's favor.

Keys to the Game

As usual, I'll give the nod to special teams and turnovers, because the outcome can turn on those two critical phases of the game. Barring anything unforeseen or unusual, at the very least, Syracuse will lose the field position battle to Tech's special teams. Everyone else does.

The key for Syracuse is to not turn the ball over on offense. If they cough it up as few as two times, they could be in deep trouble. They need to play solid, competent offense, and hope that they can cash in a score here or there, because I just can't see them driving consistently on the Tech defense.

On the other side of the ball, Syracuse's only hope is that with DeMasi filling in at center, they can stuff the Tech running game, force Tech to throw, and stop that with good coverage. If the Hokies are able to run, then it will open up everything else, and once again, Syracuse is in big trouble.

Here's the way I see it going: Syracuse will have a very difficult time gaining any offensive success. Tech's offense may or may not run the Syracuse defense over, but at the very least, I see Tech having intermittent success on offense and putting some points on the board.

This game will probably start out relatively even score-wise, but as more and more time goes on, Tech will put up points and will pull away from Syracuse. Somewhere along the way, the Orange will make a big mistake on special teams or offense that will allow the Hokies to put up a cheap touchdown. It's the same script that has been followed in the last two Tech/Syracuse games that have been played in Blacksburg.

I also see this year's score ending up similar to the 1995 and 1997 games. I don't usually predict scores, but for this one, I'm predicting Tech 34, Syracuse 7.



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