by Will Stewart, HokieCentral.com, 10/19/00
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It's Time to End the Curse.
By now, the angle on this game has been repeated ad nauseum: a Frank Beamer-coached Tech team has never won in the Carrier Dome. The last time the Hokies won at Syracuse was in 1986, when Bill Dooley coached Virginia Tech.
This year's script plays out very similar to scripts from 1996 and 1998: a Syracuse team with its back to the wall (3-3 at this point) hunkers down at home to fight off an invasion by a highly-ranked Tech team with momentum. In the past, this has been a bad formula for Tech.
But in the past, the Orangemen had Donovan McNabb, a truly exceptional quarterback and sometimes exceptional leader, to take them into battle. McNabb is gone now, and although that makes the Orangemen less formidable, their pattern of playing well at home is still present, and that could spell trouble for Tech.
Same old Syracuse: world-beaters at home, stinkers on the road. The Orangemen are 3-0 at home (maroon colored links), 0-3 away from the Dome (orange links).
From an analysis standpoint, the Buffalo game can be thrown out the window, but the Brigham Young and Pittsburgh wins are quality wins. At home, of course.
On the road, the Cincinnati loss is not a quality loss (the Bearcats are not slouches, but they're only 3-4 with losses to Indiana, Tulane, and Louisville). The ECU loss is nothing to be ashamed about, nor is the BC loss, although the Cuse gave up four interceptions at Chestnut Hill in a game that was very winnable for them.
The loss to Cincinnati and the ugly loss to Boston College have brought the Coach Pasqualoni headhunters out once again in Syracuse. This is nothing new, and the CoachPMustGo.com web site has gotten a lot of publicity out of it.
A detailed look at the Syracuse football team reveals that as Troy Nunes (their quarterback) goes, so go the Orangemen. His schizophrenia moves in lock-step with the wins and losses.
As a team, Syracuse's offensive statistics look like this:
You can see that the Orangemen are very much a middle-of-the-pack team on offense, with a better running game than passing game. They have scored 129 points in their three home games (43 ppg), but remember, that's skewed by a 63-point outburst against Buffalo, one of the worst teams in Division 1-A.
Quarterback Troy Nunes entered last week's Boston College game as the third-ranked passer in the country based on pass efficiency rating. He exited the game fourth in his own conference after an atrocious 9-22 outing in which he threw 4 interceptions, including one that was returned for a TD and another one in the Boston College end zone. His interceptions cost the Orangemen the game, which they lost 20-13.
For the season, Nunes is 75-118 (63.6%), for 1045 yards, 7 TD's and 9 INT's. But get a load of how that breaks down in home and away games:
Nunes absolutely tears it up at home, led by a performance against Brigham Young that was similar to the one Michael Vick had against Rutgers last year: 10-11, 228 yards, 2 TD's, and 0 INT's.
On the road, he's a different story. His completion percentage is good, and nearly half of his yardage has come on the road, but his TD-to-interception ratio is atrocious. Much like the BYU game epitomizes his home performance, the Boston College game is the poster child for his road performance: 9-22, 134 yards, 1 TD, and 4 INT's.
By now, the conclusion is obvious: Tech might have a tiger on their hands where Nunes is concerned, because this game is in the Carrier Dome.
But despite the fact that the wins and losses swing on Nunes' performance, the Syracuse offense is more than just Troy Nunes. They have a very strong running game, second in the Big East and twelfth in the nation at a healthy 223.3 yards per game (VT is number 1 in the Big East and number 4 in the country at 298.8 yards per game).
Syracuse's running attack is led by junior James Mungro (102 yards per game, #3 in the Big East) and senior Dee Brown (88.3 yards per game, #6 in the Big East).
Their top receiver is Pat Woodcock, who has 19 catches for 363 yards. That's good enough for 19.1 yards per catch, a bit of a surprise, since Woodcock isn't really known for his speed. His catch-per-game average of just over 3 doesn't put him in the Top 10 in the Big East.
Going into the season, the offensive line was considered to be the weak point of the Syracuse offense. They returned only one starter, right tackle Joe Burton, and of the four new starters, two are sophomores who haven't lettered in the past, and the other two were juniors with plenty of experience.
I haven't seen Syracuse play enough to evaluate their offensive line play, but if they're putting up those kinds of rushing numbers and scoring totals, they can't be all that weak up front. I doubt they'll dominate Tech's young defensive line, but I doubt they'll look like Swiss cheese against them, either.
With 7 starters back from a defense that finished 9th in the country last year (including statistics from the bowl games), the Syracuse D figured to be their strong suit this year. That hasn't really turned out to be the case.
The Syracuse defense has actually backslid a little bit from last year. In 1999, they gave up 301.2 yards per game, and this year, that has dropped off a little to 317.8 yards per game, which is only good enough for 33rd in the NCAA -- and they haven't even played Virginia Tech and Miami, two of the Big East's most potent offenses.
Statistically, this defense, like the offense, is middle-of-the-pack:
But again, in the Dome, they do pretty well. They held BYU, which is usually a potent offense, to 293 yards and 14 points, and they held the strong Pittsburgh Panther offense to 328 yards and 17 points. And last week they did well on the road, holding a good Boston College offense to 295 yards and 13 points (BC's other 7 points were from a defensive touchdown).
The strength of this defense is the front seven, which includes such well-known names (to Tech fans) as defensive end Duke Pettijohn, defensive tackle Rickie Simpkins, and linebacker Morlon Greenwood. Hokie fans should also recognize the names of cornerback Will Allen and safety Quentin Harris.
But without a doubt, the surprise of the defense is defensive end Dwight Freeney, #54 in your game program. Freeney, a junior who played extensively last year and contributed 3.5 sacks, is the only new starter on the defensive line this year. And so far this season, he has been a dominating player.
Through 6 games, Freeney leads the Syracuse defense with 8.5 sacks and a total of 13 tackles for 75 yards in losses. His sack total ties for the Big East lead, and his tackles for loss place him second in the conference. The closest Syracuse players in each stat have 2 sacks and 5 tackles for loss, so he is without a doubt Syracuse's defensive leader for the year.
Another surprise is strong safety Keeon Walker. Walker, who wasn't even listed in Athlon's preseason two-deep and is barely mentioned in other preseason material, is the leading tackler for Syracuse with 50 tackles.
The Orangemen get the bulk of their tackles from the linebacker spots, where Clifton Smith, Morlon Greenwood, and JR Johnson are 2-4 in tackle statistics. Johnson is the only new starter at linebacker, and Smith was a Sporting News All-America pick.
It's a solid defense, with one outstanding player (Freeney), but when you look over the defensive stats for this team, one statistic really jumps out at you: interceptions, or the lack thereof.
Syracuse has two -- count 'em, 2 -- interceptions on the year, and neither one is from a defensive player in their two-deep depth chart. Both pickoffs came in the 63-7 Buffalo rout, one by reserve freshman defensive end Josh Thomas, and the other by little-used senior defensive back Andrew Benson, who hasn't played since that game.
That means that the Orangemen have gone five games without picking off a pass. The only saving grace for Syracuse's defensive backs statistically is that cornerback Will Allen leads the Big East in passes defensed with 10.
In the last two trips to the Carrier Dome, the Syracuse defense has absolutely stifled the Tech offense, and the game plan has been the same both times: put 8-10 guys on the line of scrimmage and blitz like crazy. The Hokies, who lack a good short passing game, have not been able to answer. Most teams have blitzed Tech this year, so look for Syracuse to do it again, and watch closely to see if Tech can respond.
Syracuse uses the same kicker for both punting and placekicking, sophomore Mike Shafer. He's a much better punter (41.2 yards per punt) than he is placekicker (5-13 on field goals, with a long of just 37 yards. From 30 yards and beyond, he's a paltry 2 of 9 on field goals).
Syracuse has had 2 punts blocked, and 1 field goal blocked. Their long-snappers are both juniors, so they've got some good experience there, and given that the game is in the Dome, they're probably not likely to get too nervous against the Hokies. But you never know.
The Syracuse kick returners don't jump out at you. For kickoff returns, they use Will Allen and Pat Woodcock, and the team averages 24.3 yards per return with no touchdowns. On punt returns, Malik Campbell is their returner, and he averages 9.4 yards per return with a long of 26 and no touchdowns.
Virginia Tech has blocked three Syracuse punts since 1993, with the last two being returned for touchdowns (in the Dome in 1996 and 1998).
This game will be challenging. Dwight Freeney will be a handful for the Tech offensive line, the Syracuse linebackers will make a lot of tackles, and Troy Nunes, knowing Tech's luck, will continue to play very well at home. Defensively, Tech will be challenged by Syracuse's option attack, which has burned them in the past, when a guy named McNabb ran it.
As usual, turnovers will be a big key. The Hokies have lost 13 fumbles this year, the most in the country. Vick only has 4 interceptions on the year, and Syracuse doesn't do well defensively in that department, so if the Hokies can just stop fumbling, they might have a turnover-free football game. And that will go a long way towards ending the Dome curse.
For their part, the Hokies must take advantage in the one area of the game where they are clearly superior: special teams. Yes, Syracuse is a better punting team, but the Hokies are a much better placekicking team (from what we can tell, given that Carter Warley has only attempted 2 field goals). And Tech is on a punt-blocking mission this year.
So for the Hokies, the keys to victory are (1) press the special teams advantage, including a possible blocked punt; (2) don't fumble the ball on offense; (3) have an answer when Syracuse starts blitzing; and (4) play solid defense against the run and generally weather whatever storm Troy Nunes may feel like putting up on the cozy confines of the Dome.
This is a hard one to call, and I'm going to call it closer than any other game so far this year. I have predicted Tech blowouts in every other game this year, but for this one, I'm calling it a lot closer, although, of course, I'm still predicting a Tech win:
Virginia Tech 31, Syracuse 24.