Syracuse Game Analysis: A Dome Defused 
by Will Stewart,, 10/23/00

Click here for the game recap with stats

A lot of Hokie fans expected another blowout win for the Hokies and were severely disappointed, but this game went about the way I expected it would.

Syracuse has a history in the Carrier Dome of shutting down the Hokies with a ferocious defensive effort, and making the plays it needs on offense to get the win. I felt that the Hokies would win, but I also felt that it was unreasonable to expect a big Tech win, based on history. Now that this game has come and gone, I can see more clearly why Tech has lost in the Carrier Dome in the past, and why they won this particular game.

The post-game discussion centered around two things: (1) the 8 sacks given up by the Tech offense, and (2) the gutty, game-winning effort by the Hokie defense. In this analysis, I'll break down both topics and let you know what I think happened.

Down Goes Vick -- Eight Times

As expected, Syracuse brought the defensive heat, blitzing early and often, just like they did in 1996 and 1998. And just like those two years, Tech didn't seem to have much of an answer, and they looked downright powerless at times.

The Orangemen sacked Vick 8 times in this game: three times in the first quarter, three times in the second quarter, and twice in the fourth quarter. Much of the post-game commentary from Hokie fans criticized the Tech offensive play-calling and expressed the opinion that Tech offensive coordinator Rickey Bustle was not countering the blitz and pass rush with plays that would be effective against it.

There is some truth in that, but there are also other factors that played into the large sack total. I sat down and watched the film and broke down the 8 sacks. Let's take a look at them play-by-play, and then I'll recap things at the end.

Sack #1: on second and 8, Tech lines up in the I-formation. Syracuse rushes their four down linemen, with no blitz. The Tech running backs fill the middle of the pocket, and Syracuse defensive ends Duke Pettijohn and Dwight Freeney obliterate the Tech tackles, who have no help blocking. Freeney sacks Vick, who has nowhere to turn. Loss of 10.

Sack #2: on the next play, following a Syracuse offsides penalty, on third and 12, Syracuse blitzes. Lee Suggs fills the middle and tries to block a blitzing linebacker, but misses the block. The linebacker pressures Vick, who has nowhere to go due to pressure from the ends, as well. The linebacker sacks Vick. Loss of 8.

Sack #3: on second and 6, Tech tight end Derek Carter brush-blocks Freeney and releases into the flat. Vick rolls to that side. Fullback Cullen Hawkins, who has the responsibility for picking up Freeney, misses the block, and Freeney sacks Vick. Loss of 5.

Sack #4: on second and 26, an obvious passing down, Syracuse blitzes up the middle. The Hokies, from the shotgun, attempt to run their double-screen, where the quarterback fakes a screen to one side and throws a screen to the other side. On this play, Vick fakes the screen right, and turns left, only to find Freeney between him and the receiver. Vick tucks the ball, is pressured from the right by the blitzers, Freeney closes in, and Vick is sacked. This was just a great play by Freeney, who read the screen and shut it down. He had a clear alley to Vick but closed off the screen first, and then Syracuse sacked him when he tucked the ball and ran. Loss of 7.

Sack #5: on third and 10, Tech is in the shotgun formation, and Syracuse blitzes. The blitzer, Morlon Greenwood, is not picked up very well, although Greenwood is slowed down a little on the way in (it's not clear on the tape who attempted the block). Fullback Jarrett Ferguson releases to the left in the flat, and two Tech receivers run downfield on the right, but Vick doesn't have enough time to find either of them. Greenwood makes the sack. Loss of 4.

Sack #6: on second and 10, Tech is in the I formation. Syracuse rushes just the four down linemen (no blitz), Vick drops back, and the running backs fill the middle of the pocket. Dwight Freeney beats Anthony Davis, who is late getting off the snap, and Freeney sacks Vick before he even has time to set up. Loss of 8.

Sack #7: on second and 9, Tech is once again in the I-formation. This is an exact replay of sack #6, but this time Freeney beats Anthony Lambo. Loss of 9.

Sack #8: the very next play, on third and 18, Syracuse blitzes three players. Tech is in the I-formation, the backs fill the middle of the pocket, but to no avail. Vick never has a chance, and Freeney sacks him again. Loss of 9.

Reasons for the Sacks

As I noted, the post-game criticism centered around Tech's playcalling as the reason for the sacks. Fans were saying that Tech has no response for a blitzing team. Again, there's some truth in that, but I boiled it down to five reasons why the 8 sacks occurred. Here they are:

Dwight Freeney: Freeney will be an All-Big-East first team selection, and he may win Big East Defensive Player of the Year. He now has 13 sacks in just 7 games, and is on pace for about 20 sacks this year (for perspective, Bruce Smith had 22 in his best year, and he wasn't playing the level of competition that Freeney is playing). Freeney has awesome speed and comes off the end just like Corey Moore. He is a phenomenal player, and his read of the double screen (sack #4) was his best play of the game.

Poor Execution by Tech: the simple fact is, Tech just didn't execute on some plays. On sacks 2, 3, and 5, Tech players simply missed blocks and failed to pick up the blitz. Most blitzes were up the middle, and ordinarily, Vick would be able to avoid them, even on missed blocks, but with the pressure that Freeney and Pettijohn were bringing from the ends in one-on-one blocking, there was nowhere to go.

The Deep Drop: note that on the bull-rush sacks that Freeney had (1, 6, and 7), the losses were for 8-10 yards every time. Vick was setting up deep enough that he wound up right in the path of the Syracuse defensive ends. If the Tech tackles had been able to get good contact with Freeney (more on that on the next note), they might have been able to push him deep a little bit, but as it was, Vick was hit several times deep in the pocket before he even had a chance to set up.

Tech's Tackles Were Slow Getting Off: due to the crowd noise, the offensive tackles for Virginia Tech could not hear the snap count and therefore had to respond to motion by the Syracuse rushers. In the case of Lambo and Davis, trying to block Freeney without being able to get off on the snap count was deadly. On sacks 6 and 7, Freeney shot across the line, and by the time Davis and Lambo started moving, they were already beaten. Had Davis and Lambo been able to hear the snap count, they could have gotten out of their stances earlier and been ready for Freeney. Note that their inability to hear the snap count was due to crowd noise, not the music being played over the PA system. The music was not played during plays..

Play-calling: Rickey Bustle did indeed call numerous plays to counteract the blitz, but they rarely worked. Some of that was due to great play by the Syracuse players, some due to poor execution by Tech, and some due to poor play-calling.

In watching the game tape, I counted numerous rollouts, quick hitters, a flanker screen, and a double-screen. The rollouts and quick hitters were somewhat successful. The one flanker screen I remember worked like a charm, going for 18 yards to Emmett Johnson early in the third quarter. The double-screen was a miserable failure, thanks to Freeney.

Tech also tried a rollout with a short pass to the tight end, twice. This was the play-call on sack #3, when Derek Carter brushed off Freeney. Vick rolled out and Carter was open, but Cullen Hawkins failed to block Freeney, and Vick was sacked. On another instance, Carter did the same thing, releasing downfield, and Vick avoided Freeney and completed the pass to Carter. Unfortunately, Tech held on the play, and it was called back.

One mistake Bustle made was calling rollouts and the double-screen to Freeney's side. Freeney got two sacks from plays called to his side of the field that were supposed to foil the blitz. Bustle should have gone away from Freeney. Duke Pettijohn, Syracuse's other defensive end, is no slouch, but Freeney was out of his mind in this game and should have been avoided at all costs.

There are certain plays that would help that Tech does not appear have in their playbook. As noted before in previous analysis, Tech does not have a three-step drop, quick-slant-across-the-middle pass play. When that play is run out of a the shotgun, with a spread formation, it is very successful against aggressive defenses -- picture Florida State, BYU, Clemson, and Florida running it. But Tech does not run this play.

Part of the problem goes to offensive philosophy (the Hokie coaching staff just refuses to run that play), and another part of the problem may be the fact that Vick probably isn't tall enough to run that play consistently. He' s only about six feet tall, and with the Hokies running the tight formations they have (Tech almost never spreads out the formation), the middle of the field is jammed up, and Vick probably couldn't see well over the clog of players in the middle. Vick has already had numerous passes, mostly screens, batted down at the line of scrimmage this year. The Tech coaching staff could probably work around this if they wanted to by spreading the field more, but again, they don't seem inclined to.

Also, Tech does not appear to have a straight screen to the backs, or at least, not one that they use very often. They've got the double-screen, but that takes a little more time to develop and didn't work in this game, thanks to Freeney reading it correctly.

I'm not sure why the running backs and the tight end were not called in more to help on Freeney. Most of the times that the running backs were kept back to block, they filled the middle of the pocket, not the sides, and Freeney went untouched by them. As for the tight end, perhaps Freeney lines up on the other side from the tight end (I didn't look for this while watching the game tape), and my guess is that you can't just rotate the tight end over in motion. Plays are designed to have the tight end to a certain side of the field. You don't call a play, line up, and move a blocker from one side of the field to the other. Not the tight end, anyway.

So, in summary, don't just blame the playcalling for Tech's inability to combat the Syracuse pass rush (notice I said pass rush, not blitz -- half of Syracuse's eight sacks -- sacks 1, 3, 6, and 7 -- were not caused by a blitz). The play-calling was somewhat at fault, but the crowd noise, Dwight Freeney, and Tech's failure to execute also contributed.

Tech's MVP: Defensive End Jim Davis

It's time for Jim Davis, #95 in your game program, to become a starting defensive end for Virginia Tech.

Watching the tape and looking over the drive chart that I wrote up makes me appreciate what an incredible game Davis played, and what a key role he played in Tech shutting out the Syracuse offense after the first 14 points had been given up.

Syracuse had two first-quarter possessions and scored with ease both times. The first possession was an 11-play, 93 yard drive, and the second was a 3-play, 69 yard "drive."

Then the second quarter started. Enter Jim Davis.

On Syracuse's third possession, Davis shut down the SU offense single-handedly. On first and 10, he ran down Troy Nunes on the option for a 7-yard loss, and on second down, he rushed up the middle and flushed Nunes, who scrambled for a 6-yard gain. On third down, the ball was snapped over Nunes' head, and he ran it down in the end zone. When he picked it up and turned, guess who was hot on his heels? That's right, Jim Davis. Nunes chucked the ball downfield for a Willie Pile interception.

Later, in the fourth quarter, Syracuse took possession on their own 34 with 7:15 to go, down 15-14. They moved the ball smartly downfield, and with just over three minutes to go, had a third and 2 at the Tech 35 yard line.

On the next play, Davis flushed Nunes out of the pocket. Nunes scrambled and threw the ball away.

On fourth and 2, the Cuse false started to make it fourth and 7. And on the ensuing play, Davis bull-rushed around the end to flush Nunes up into the pocket. Davis changed direction and kept charging, and despite the fact that his jersey was being pulled from behind, hit Nunes as he threw it. The pass fell incomplete, and Tech took over possession. Three plays later, Michael Vick's 55-yard TD run nailed the coffin shut on Syracuse.

Davis has emerged in the last couple of games to become Tech's best defensive end, in my opinion. He is the most consistent run defender and pass rusher from the quartet of himself, Nathaniel Adibi, Lamar Cobb, and Cols Colas.

Adibi has his moments, but he is very inconsistent defending both the run and the pass. Cobb has turned into a pretty good run defender, but doesn't bring much pressure on the pass rush (although he did have one nice rush in this game). Colas, in the meantime, has just about disappeared and is playing very little.

Davis, though, has cranked up his game, and it's time to put him in the starting lineup. You can tell that the Tech coaching staff is toying with this idea, because for the last two games at least, they played Adibi and Davis on opposite ends at the same time, even though Davis backs up Adibi. This means that Cobb and Colas were both on the bench, with Davis playing in their place.

A look at the WVU depth chart in hokiesports.comthenewspaper tells me that this isn't the first time Davis and Adibi have played together -- it's just the first time I've noticed. In the WVU game, Cobb (35 plays) and Colas (5 plays) only combined for 40 plays, but Adibi (48 plays) and Davis (29 plays) combined for 77 plays, which means that Davis and Adibi were on the field together quite a bit.

Look for the coaching staff to make the switch very soon and put Davis in the starting lineup. They probably donít want to put him at the Cobb/Colas "stud" end position, which is usually reserved for smaller, lighter players like Cornell Brown and Corey Moore. Cobb and Colas weigh 224 and 226, whereas Davis weighs 236 and Adibi weighs 243.

But the simple fact is, Cobb and Colas are not yet strong enough and are not the complete package, and Davis is doing the best job of the defensive ends. He's got to get on the field more.

Notes and Highlights

  • Andre Davis aggravated an Achilles tendon injury that he suffered during the WVU game, and it caused him to miss almost all of the second half of this game. His absence was felt in the passing game, which went to sleep in the second half. Vick was 2-4 for 38 yards in the second half, and the Hokies went almost exclusively with the running game after intermission.
  • For the game, Tech ran the ball 48 times and passed it just 11, but that stat is skewed by the 8 sacks, which started out as passing plays and ended up as running plays in the statistics. That also doesn't count the times where Vick scrambled. In one instance, Tech ran the shovel pass play, but Vick didn't pitch it because of the presence of Syracuse defenders in the backfield.
  • Nick Sorensen had a great tackle one play before Nunes tripped in the end zone and threw his interception. Syracuse had moved the ball out to the 4 yard line, and Sorensen made a great slashing tackle on a sweep to pin the Cuse back on their 2 yard line. From there, when Nunes tripped, he fell into the end zone and heaved up an interception. Had he been falling down on the 1 or 2 yard line, he would have just held the ball, so Sorensen's tackle made a big difference.
  • Suggs and Kendrick were extremely impressive in the running game. Kendrick seems to turn it up a notch on turf (like the Sugar Bowl last year), and Suggs ran with guts and power. Their performance at tailback was outstanding.
  • The most interesting play you may not have noticed came on the last play of the third quarter. Up 15-14 with a first down on their own 9 yard line, the Hokies ran a misdirection play to Kendrick. From the I formation, Jarrett Ferguson and the rest of the team went left, and Vick handed off to Kendrick, who went right. It fooled the entire Syracuse defense, including the linebackers and free safety Charles Burton (#37), who came up on run support but could only watch helplessly as Kendrick juked him and jetted up the sideline for a key 34-yard gain.
  • Syracuse lucky bounce #1: on the snap over Nunes' head early in the second quarter, the ball bounced happily into Nunes' hands, allowing him to launch it downfield, where Willie Pile picked it off at the 50. Tech got just three points out of it, when they could have gotten six.
  • Syracuse lucky bounce #2: in the third quarter, on Ben Taylor's first punt, Syracuse strong safety Willie Ford, for some insane reason, got near the ball as it was bouncing around inside his ten yard line. The ball bounced into Ford's arms, and he was tackled harmlessly on the Syracuse 1 yard line. Had the ball bounced off his shin or knee, one of the three or four Tech players in the area would have grabbed it. As it was, Nunes threw an interception three plays later, anyway, and Tech took over at the Syracuse 5.
  • Some fans reported seeing a Syracuse defensive player arguing with Nunes after game, and the two having to be separated by a Tech player, but the game tape doesn't appear to show that. After the game, Duke Pettijohn is speaking animatedly to Nunes, but it doesn't appear to be an argument. A Tech player steps in, but only to shake hands.
  • In my preview for this game, I didn't think Nunes would self-destruct and throw four interceptions. It was a surprise to see it, after Nunes had previously had an excellent TD-to-interception ratio (5 to 1) in the Dome.
  • After Syracuse blocked a Tech punt late in the second quarter and took over on the Tech 29 yard line, they blew their chance to score with horrible play calling and clock management. The Cuse ran an option for two yards, false started, threw a wimpy screen pass for a two yard loss (Ben Taylor crushed the receiver), and then inexplicably let the clock run from 0:32 down to 0:08 before calling time out. On the following third and 14 play, Adibi batted down the pass, and then Syracuse missed a 51 yard field goal as time expired in the half.
  • I can't help but think that there wasn't much difference between this game and the 1998 game, except that Donovan McNabb has been replaced by Troy Nunes, and Al Clark as been replaced by Michael Vick. And the second replacement didn't make much difference, except for Vick's 55-yard TD run. The fact is, if McNabb still took the snaps from center for Syracuse, the Cuse probably would have won this game. But the short eligibility of players, and the challenge that presents for coaching staffs, is one of the great things about the college game.

  • Syracuse's Mike Shafer missed a 51-yard field goal and a 48-yard field goal, and Tech's Carter Warley made a 47-yard field goal. Reverse those outcomes, and the final score is Syracuse 20, Tech 19. Carter Warley can flat-out kick. Nuff said.

Next Up: Pittsburgh

The Panthers bring a 5-1 record and a hot passing game into Lane Stadium. They will no doubt provide a very stiff test for the Tech defense, which is low on cornerbacks and will be decimated if another injury occurs at that position.

The Panthers have played Tech tough before in Lane Stadium (27-7 in 1998), and the Hokies are hoping that they don't suffer another barrage like they did last year on the road, when Pitt racked up over 400 yards passing in a 30-17 Hokie win. I'll return later this week with a preview.


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