It’s Thursday night, national broadcast football in Blacksburg. Lots of folks pulling the “woot-woot” horn out are all excited about the big show. Funny, we’ve had two night starts this season, and the Thursday shindig really doesn’t feel all that special, now. Except that it’s going to be tragically difficult to get up and go to work on Friday morning, I suppose. Some of us have jobs, you know. (Insert the wink here.)
It’s finally really Fall in the mountains of southwest Virginia. The days are relatively comfortable for long sleeves and jeans, and the nights are just a touch chilly. The leaves are absolutely beautiful this year and the preparations for Halloween and the long march into the holiday season are well underway. It’s an exciting season for everyone, Blacksburg or not. Wait! This is supposed to be about a football game, not the weather and the seasons, doings! Yes, yes, it is. It’s just really difficult to talk about.
Syracuse (formerly the Orangemen, and now just Oranges) is an old Big East opponent that has a special place in the hearts of all Hokies. It’s that sinking Donavan McNabb place. That trip to western New York disaster game in the old Carrier Dome feeling. The heavy sinking doom pall that creeps in and starts settling in the pit of your stomach kind of affair that reminds you that it’s been a tough slog with these guys.
The big question coming into the Thursday game will be which team shows up for the game for both programs? In the case of the Orange (Could no one could come up with a better name?) we have the seemingly perpetual hot seat that never ejects under head coach Dino Babers. ‘Cuse started off the 2023 season with a blazing non-conference record of 4-0 (including Purdue… drat) and then promptly ran into a haymaker of an early ACC schedule. Babers’ seat went from greatly cooled off, back to uncomfortable in the month of October.
There is a history, here, and it bears looking at quickly. Syracuse might be suddenly struggling but they did start with some pretty emphatic wins while Tech was trying to find itself as September ground on. As the pregame announcements start, and the stadium fills with people who hopefully aren’t as inebriated as they were for the last game, it’s prudent to remember that our old rivals are nearly as painful to play as Pitt.
The Series and the “Ls”
The Hokies haven’t fared too well against Syracuse on the gridiron. The teams, before their Big East encounters, hadn’t played much, at all. Prior to Tech’s 1991 entry into the conference the two programs had only met five times, and there was a huge gap between the first meeting in 1964 and the next in 1985. The total W/L record was a 2-2 split. The encounters for the Big East schedule didn’t get much less troublesome with another tie at 6-6. The problem really popped up when Tech entered the ACC, and then later ‘Cuse stepped in. Since 2004, Virginia Tech has curiously only played Syracuse twice, and lost both times, one away in an embarrassing 2016 loss in the Carrier Dome, and again with one of those 2021 games that the Hokies allowed to get away from them in 2021. That’s why it’s difficult to call the Orange “rivals” in the classic sense of the word. The current 8-11 record, with a short side 4-6 in the last ten meetings is pretty thin historical gruel to chew on. It’s more like they are a difficult, evenly matched opponent that Tech just can’t seem to get by consistently.
So, in the grander scheme of things, Syracuse is an ACC team that the other Tech sports teams play with regularity and the football team, just does not. It’s probably more indicative of the mess that the ACC is organizationally (The ACC’s format and interdivisional scheduling was and is functionally stupid – bluntly…) than is a comment on the quality of the play between the teams. We’ll probably spend some time writing about the ACC and its looming re-organization after the season wraps and the moves are made.
The First Half of the Question: Which Syracuse team Comes to Blacksburg This Week?
As said previously, Syracuse head coach Dino Babers has hung on to a flaming seat for most of his tenure at Syracuse. But he hasn’t been ousted… and might never be until he decides to quit. Babers’ record since he took the reins of the Syracuse program has been a very frustrated 40-52. He’s only been to two bowl games, and only had two seasons that weren’t a sub .500 effort. The Orange managed a 10-3 record and made the Camping World Bowl in 2018, and a 7-6 Pinstripe Bowl showing (lost the bowl game, though) in 2022.
The reality of this season’s fast start for Syracuse is that they played the likes of Colgate, Western Michigan, and Army (Who struggling due to its massive change in offense from the triple option to a BG Read/Option variation.) While winning football games is never easy or completely guaranteed, those were two cupcake and one problematic opponents. Now, ‘Cuse and Tech did have one common competitor for the season and that was the Purdue Boilermakers. Syracuse managed to beat Purdue pretty soundly, while Tech obviously didn’t manage to beat them and the weather.
Once Babers and crew hit their ACC schedule, Clemson, UNC, and FSU, the wheels came off the western New York farm truck. They’ve only managed 24 points in three games, and their defense has given up a total of 112. Admittedly, even with a struggling Clemson, that schedule is absolutely brutal, but three drubbings in a row can have some serious emotional effects on a team. Which emotion will come to Blacksburg; the one steaming mad to get some sort of redemption going or the defeated and abandoned give up? With Tech counting as a “beatable” team for them, it would be best if the Hokies treated the visitation as the former and not the latter.
Looking at Their Players
The Orange quarterback situation is a bit on the odd side. Though their main QB is Garrett Shrader a Senior from North Carolina of all places, since he is a transfer from Mississippi State, has had some on field competition from Sophomore Carlos Del Rio-Wilson. Neither player is lighting the collegiate football world on fire. They both have been up and down in ratings. Shrader has the better overall numbers, but that’s to be expected. He has the most experience and has a fair stat base to judge his general performance probabilities. His ACC numbers are relatively modest, and he has managed 2 passing TDs against Clemson, but that’s against 2 interceptions (5 total for the season). He’s also been sacked a total of 17 times for the entire season. He runs the ball, but his only big game was against Purdue. Most of his scrambles or designed run totals have been relatively modest. It’s just enough to make the R/O work. Del Rio-Wilson looks pretty much like a sophomore version of Garrett Shrader. Unless some injury is nagging, or a total meltdown happens, look for Shrader to be the Orange’s main QB choice for the game.
The Orange can run, though. That’s the Hokie issue this season. Getting those linebacker run-fits to work right. That’s going to be the challenge for Thursday evening because Syracuse uses running back LeQuint Allen is their primary back with 511 yards booked at a 4.8 yard per carry rating. Shrader is the #2 gaining back with 358 yards, but as noted 195 of those came in one game against Purdue. So Shrader’s ACC run total is a much more modest 42 yards, with a dismal -10 yards listed for the FSU game. Syracuse’s next back on the list is Juwaun Price who has managed 190 yards for the season, but his ACC totals are relatively modest and his yards per attempt average is a shade less than 3 per.
The upshot is that Syracuse’s defense is struggling against better teams, and its offense is sputtering out. That makes them a very dangerous opponent as the Hokies should look to the reality of the UVA win over Carolina. Sometimes a team arrives at the doorstep with a bad attitude and things just don’t work the way the predictions say that they will. Syracuse desperately needs a win on Thursday, and it would be wise for them to pull out all of the stops and push every button. The have won in Lane Stadium before, in the modern era, and recently, too.
And Now Which Hokies Show on Thursday?
There isn’t much doubt that the Hokies are looking much better over the last three games. Yes, the FSU loss was disappointing, all losses are, but there was a glimmer of hope in that one since Tech managed a 17-17 tie for essentially the final ¾ of the game. There was a marked improvement in linebacker play for the Wake Forest game, and though the run game was hampered by a capable Wake Forest defense, the Hokie passing game balanced that out with Drones going from a run-heavy to pass-heavy balance without too much difficulty. Intermediate routes and multiple level reads began to show up. That means Kyron Drones is beginning to not only “get” the offensive concept, but actually begin to add his personality to the team. That’s something that the Hokies lacked over the first five games; personality.
The offensive performance last weekend also seemed to buoy the spirits of the defense and they managed an impressive performance of run and pass stoppage with Wake’s quarterback bearing the brunt of a visit to the returning “Sacksburg” personality that has been so lacking in Virginia Tech’s quiver of arrows. The most successful teams are not a pile of video game avatars and robot automatons. They are humans with personalities, intellects, and emotions. When a team gains a personality, it provides those disparate elements with a focal point. There needs to be a level of consistency to that personality, now.
Hopefully the Hokies have taken positive advantage of the bye weekend. In the past the results haven’t been grand coming off of such things, so let us hope that the team hasn’t lost much needed momentum. It has given a nicked-up Keli Lawson a bit of time to heal, and we might see some other faces returning soon enough, though it’s doubtful that Ali Jennings will be back this season. It might be best for him to deal with the trials of a medical redshirt and come back refreshed and in good health for 2024. That’s a discussion for the season wrap up, but it’s an important one for the future.
The reality is that the Syracuse game is a major turning point event. If Tech can rise to the occasion, tamp down the overconfidence, and focus on this one game for now, good things will be happening for Virginia Tech over the next few games and season. A win, any win, on Thursday sets Tech up for that emotional turn that pushes the capability curve back into positive territory. Frankly that’s all that Hokie Nation should be looking to see.
These teams are fairly evenly matched, and both are at a critical inflection point. If Tech plays like they did against Wake Forest, they have a big opportunity to make a major program trajectory turn.
The Odds, and Probabilities
The early out of the gate odds have the Hokies laying 3 points (the traditional home field advantage on a pick ‘em game) with an O/U of 46.5. That’s not a hot endorsement of the Hokies, but it certainly isn’t overly hopeful for the Orange, either. It’s probably best to think of this game with the same level of interest and ferocity of purpose as the Wake Forest game. Remember they rolled into Blacksburg as 1.5-point underdogs which as we noted in the preview was essentially a pick ‘em. The numbers are still very early and the most definitive spread and scoring totals won’t be out until Wednesday. However, it’s enough to go on and enough to get you to have some information for the poll or the comments.
It’s your turn to give us your impression of what’s going to happen.
How is this one going to go? Think hard be objective.
This poll is closed
Tech should win this one. It’s a winnable game. ‘Cuse is struggling. Hokies are getting better. I keep telling myself good things because my stomach is queasy. Tech gets a win by a Touchdown and destroys the spread. Bet the Over.
Syracuse is going to be desperate. Their entire season is on the line, and so is Tech’s. They pull out all the stops, and just do stuff that confounds the defense. The Orange pull off a close win by a field goal in a low scoring fist fight. Take a U.
Hokies come out firing, and even with a bogged down red zone end sometimes, do to the Orange what they did to Wake. The results end up pretty much the same. Take the over. Tech wins by much more than a TD. The ship is turning!
Syracuse surprises Tech... no Tech surprises... no... ugh... I just don’t know. This game could go either way. I’ll stick with the wise guys with Tech by 3, but I just don’t feel great about it.
Next up will be predictions for Thursday, and this weekend it’s going to be a speculative opinion article on the state of college football from the playing perspective, not the organizational outlook. If you haven’t noticed, things are getting really “odd” with players, consistency, and capabilities. It’s really time to take a look at the major weakness of college football (and football in general) on the field, and that’s the near universal implementation of a flavor variation of the Bowling Green Read/Option. We’ll get into it after the game wraps and pictures get posted.