The Syracuse Orange were once a big rival of the Virginia Tech Hokies back when both teams were in the Big East. In the mid-to-late 90s, the Hokies and Syracuse were often the top teams battling for Big East supremacy. There were some epic battles at both the Carrier Dome and in Lane Stadium.
Syracuse joined the ACC in 2013, but the two former rivals have only played once since the Orange entered the ACC. Syracuse beat Virginia Tech, 31-17, in 2016 — which was head coach Justin Fuente’s first season in Blacksburg.
Now, the Orange come to Blacksburg with many Hokie fans wondering if this season is Fuente’s last in Blacksburg.
To learn more about Syracuse, I spoke with John Cassillo of Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician, our sister site at SB Nation, which does an outstanding job of covering the Orange. John provided us with some tremendous insight into Syracuse. I encourage everyone to give their site a follow on Twitter @NunesMagician.
I’ve been really impressed with Syracuse this season. How good is this Syracuse team?
This is an interesting roster, since it’s a lot of the same pieces that limped to a 1-10 finish in 2020, but with more experience and a much better grasp on scheme (at least on defense). While they’re not littered with talent, they have several all-conference-type performers like Sean Tucker, Cody Roscoe and Mikel Jones, and that makes things far easier for everyone else.
So how good are they? I’d say they’re better than their record shows and you could point to coaching decisions as a reason why they’re currently below .500. Does that mean they should be 6-1 right now since three losses have been by three points? Maybe. But at the very least, this is a squad that should be closer to 4-3 or 5-2 because of a strong run game and well-above-average defense.
Tell us about Garrett Shrader. Should Hokie fans be concerned about him lighting up the secondary, or does he do most of his damage with his legs?
You might be familiar with former Syracuse QB Eric Dungey, who was a true dual-threat quarterback. Well, Shrader isn’t Dungey at all. He’s more of a running quarterback that can throw the ball — but mostly to stationary receivers within about 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage. Though Shrader has improved as a passer since taking over the starting gig, last week versus Clemson is also an easy place to see his limitations throwing the ball. Clemson put eight in the box and dared him to beat them with his arm, but he couldn’t really do it.
Stopping Shrader means containing him in the pocket and forcing him to go through some progressions. If he’s allowed to turn most plays into RPOs, you’re going to be in for a long afternoon.
Sean Tucker is the best Syracuse running back since…….
Walter Reyes, who put up an impressive 1,347 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground in 2003, and tacked on another 375 yards receiving (plus another touchdown). What’s incredible about the season Tucker is having is that everyone knows he’s going to getting the ball, the play-calling remains suspect and the line’s average at best. And yet, he’s still putting up some of the best numbers in the country. He’s on pace to break most single-season rushing records Syracuse has, which is no small feat given the school’s history of successful running backs. If only they’d just given the man the number 44...
Are there any WRs or TEs Virginia Tech should be concerned about?
“Tight ends? What are those?”
Due to the aforementioned issues with Shrader’s throwing ability, you won’t see any single wide receiver that involved in the offense, and offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert decided long ago that he doesn’t pay any attention to tight ends in play-calling. We have some interesting options outside in Anthony Queeley and Damien Alford. But Courtney Jackson is the most likely to make a real impact if any of the Orange receivers do, if only due to his speed.
How is Syracuse’s offensive line play?
Better than the last two years, which isn’t saying much. I will say it’s improved, and that’s been a big part of having a competent offense this year, and one of the nation’s top rushing attacks. You still see the interior just collapse under pressure at times, which can be a concern. But overall, this is an average group. Now just imagine what Tucker could do behind an above-average line.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Syracuse defense?
The linebackers have become the heart of this 3-3-5 scheme, and you’ll find the aforementioned Mikel Jones all over the field as he’s capable both behind the line and in coverage. SU’s linebackers are a major part of the team’s resurgent run-stopping ability — which you may not have needed to worry about based on the Hokies’ rushing numbers so far, but that’s neither here nor there.
Oddly, the weakest part of the defense so far has been the one we thought would be a strength: The secondary. That doesn’t mean they’ve been “bad” by any means. But you’ve seen Orange defensive backs regularly caught on islands, they aren’t really forcing turnovers and they are allowing opponents to complete 68% of passes against them. Injuries and some youth will do that, as will playing zone (where they’ve fared far worse than man coverage). But again, they’re still a quality group with at least one future pro on the field in Garrett Williams.
Who are some names to know on defense?
Feel like I covered most of these above. If you hear Roscoe’s name a lot, that’s probably not a great sign. The senior leads the ACC in sacks with 7.5 this year and has 10.5 tackles for loss (also first in the conference). Garrett Williams is a very good cover man, and it’s still perilous to throw in his general direction. Beyond Jones, Stefon Thompson and Marlowe Wax are other linebackers that make plays all over the field.
How do you feel about Dino Babers overall?
Like many, I was a much bigger fan of Dino at the start when he brought a lot of energy and aggressive play to a program that needed it. Since the 10-3 season in 2018, though, he’s coached a bit more conservatively, however, and it’s definitely worn on the fan base. I still think he’s a great person and will always appreciate what he pulled off in 2018. I’m just very concerned he can’t achieve consistent success at Syracuse at this point, though, and that we don’t have the money right now (due to what’s rumored to be a large buyout) to hire someone who can achieve that.
I don’t doubt the advantage Lane Stadium provides, and I’m sure it’ll factor into this game. That said, I think Syracuse matches up pretty well with Virginia Tech this year and that should pay dividends so long as they avoid mistakes. If the Hokies let the Orange run the ball well in the first quarter, that could decide the game as SU’s game plan won’t change a ton as the contest wears on. Expect to see a hefty dose of Sean Tucker, and if you give Shrader a lane to run too, I’m not sure what Tech can really do to stop this attack. Syracuse 27, Virginia Tech 21