Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech athletics
When you were sitting down to make your preseason predictions heading into Virginia Tech’s (3-3, 1-1 ACC) 2021 season, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Hokies.
The opener against North Carolina? Probably a pick ‘em, though most favored the Tar Heels. The West Virginia game? Same way — this time with many hopping on the Virginia Tech bandwagon. Even hosting Notre Dame, that likely was going to be a loss in preseason predictions.
But Syracuse? That appeared to be one of the few gimmes on the schedule when penciling in wins and losses. As it turns out, that’s not entirely the case.
The much-improved Orange (3-4, 0-3 ACC) will travel to Blacksburg for the first time since 2003, looking to renew an old-fashioned Big East rivalry. Saturday’s winner will take a big step toward bowl-eligibility.
Game Day Information
When: Saturday, Oct. 23, 12:30 p.m. ET
Where: Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, VA
TV: Bally Sports South
PXP: Tom Werme
Analyst: James Bates
Sideline Reporter: Wiley Ballard
Forecast: 56 F, Sunny, 0% Chance of Rain
Series History: Syracuse Leads 10-8
Last Meeting: Syracuse Won 31-17 on Oct. 15, 2016
Line: Virginia Tech -3
Last Time Out
Virginia Tech fans were told the Hokies would have one of the best offenses of the Justin Fuente era when the sixth-year head coach took the podium down at ACC Kickoff in Charlotte a little more than a month before the season began.
Instead, they continue to trot out a lackluster, identity-searching, and non-competitive offensive scheme week in and week out.
Last week, the Hokies were rocked at Lane Stadium by ACC Coastal favorite Pittsburgh, 28-7. That game didn’t even feel that close. It was an extremely discouraging effort.
Some more alarming stats from this one? Not only was it statistically the worst offensive showing of the Fuente era with the Hokies barely eclipsing the 200-yard mark. It was also the first time Virginia Tech had scored in single digits since a 6-3 double-overtime loss to Wake Forest in 2014. It narrowly avoided being shut out for the first time since 1995.
Originally advertised as an offensive threat, Virginia Tech now finds itself well on pace to finish statistically last in the ACC — a feat the Hokies have yet to accomplish since joining the league in 2004.
A team that can’t find a consistent rhythm throwing the ball, can’t get anything going in the backfield, and can’t get any push from the offensive line with an injured quarterback in Braxton Burmeister leads to a recipe for disaster for Fuente’s offense.
Defensively, Virginia Tech is good enough to give the Hokies a chance to win every single weekend. They’ve proved that to this point. At times, Justin Hamilton’s bunch has looked like that vintage Virginia Tech defense: extremely physical, aggressive, and sound up front.
Unfortunately, it’ll continue to go to waste if the offense can’t get going in the right direction. This weekend will be a character test for the Hokies.
What To Watch For – Virginia Tech
Can this offense get it together? Can the Hokies’ offensive line step up once again? Will they be able to run the ball with guys like Raheem Blackshear and Jalen Holston? Will Burmeister be able to hit a couple of passes and put together a complete drive?
It remains to be seen. But for offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen’s bunch, that would be a nice starting point for a unit that looks absolutely lost.
The Hokies still haven’t found their offensive identity, which is a major red flag at this point in the season. Cornelsen’s group took steps forward in Virginia Tech’s narrow 32-29 setback to Notre Dame. But that all went out the window last Saturday.
There’s been talk all week about Fuente potentially taking over play-calling, as he did at both TCU and his early career at Memphis. But unless something changed behind the scenes, the offensive scheme and purpose will remain intact for at least another week. Will it pay off? We’ll see.
The Hokie defense is in a good spot. But just when it looks like the entirety of the first-team defense is set to trot out there against the Orange, star cornerback Jermaine Waller is questionable for Saturday’s contest after leaving last week’s game.
The Washington DC native was spotted on the sideline wearing a boot in the second half, so it’s to be determined whether or not the future All-American will be able to suit up this weekend.
Hamilton did lose two reserves for the season as well. Linebacker Dean Ferguson will be out for the year with a shoulder issue, and safety Devon Hunter suffered a season-ending knee injury in last week’s loss to Pitt.
The starters are set if Waller can play. But the depth and margin for error just keeps getting thinner for Virginia Tech across the board.
What To Watch For – Syracuse
Ah, the runaway Syracuse offense. Who thought we’d be saying that early on in the seasons?
It’s clear that sixth-year head coach Dino Babers may have saved his job with the way his team has overachieved in the early stages of the 2021 campaign. He’ll look to lead the Orange to yet another victory in what has been a competitive series over the years.
Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb: who’s next to step up between these two former Big East foes?
Our guess? It’s star running back Sean Tucker. Tucker has emerged from nowhere, and is putting up Heisman Trophy-like numbers for the Orange.
Tucker has truly burst onto the scene for the Orange through the first seven games. The Maryland native has put up a whopping 948 yards on the ground while adding nine rushing touchdowns to the mix. That’s a complete contrast to what Virginia Tech is putting up in the run game with Blackshear totaling just 197 yards on the year.
Not only that, he’s the leading receiver too. Tucker has 14 receptions for 224 yards and two touchdowns receiving. He’s an absolute playmaker, and Virginia Tech will have to subdue him the best it can to have a shot Saturday.
It’s not just Tucker in the backfield though. Ever since Babers made the switch at quarterback from longtime starter Tommy DeVito to Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader prior to a victory over Liberty, Syracuse’s offense has been clicking at a different level.
Shrader himself has added 418 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. He’s completely reinvented the Orange’s offensive scheme to a run-heavy system with the ability to move the ball on the ground despite the lack of a passing game
If the Hokies are unable to contain the Charlotte native on the ground, it could be another long afternoon.
Initially an afterthought in the preseason polls, the Orange are close. Like dangerously close. They’re extremely young, talented, and have lost all three ACC contests each by three points. It’s miraculous when you think about it.
Defensively, Syracuse is pretty good as well. The Orange are at the top of the ACC in a multitude of different categories, and are filled with sneaky good playmakers at every position on defense.
A leader like Mikel Jones captaining the linebacker corps is a nice piece to have for a team that has been good in stopping the run this year. Jones leads the team in total tackles with a solid 64 on the season. With 6.5 sacks up front Cody Roscoe creates a menacing presence for any opposing quarterback.
The secondary is strong as well with corners like Garrett Williams and Deuce Chestnut shutting receivers down. Those two will create interesting matchups with Virginia Tech’s Tre Turner and Tayvion Robinson.
Although many may not admit it, Syracuse looks like a program moving in the right direction. Look out going forward.
Hokies’ Keys To The Game
It’s Obvious: Stop The Run
These may be the three most obvious keys we’ve given all year long, but this one is that simple.
If Virginia Tech can’t slow down Tucker and Shrader on the ground, the Hokies will have very little chance to win this ballgame. Tucker had more than 130 yards in the first half last week against Clemson. That just can’t happen on Saturday against Hamilton’s defense.
Make Shrader Beat You With His Arm
To build off that last point, if Virginia Tech’s defense forces Shrader to pass often, that’s a good sign. As a passer, Shrader ranks just 12th in the ACC in completion percentage and 11th in passer rating.
The Orange are only going to throw the ball if they have to. This also coincides with a fast start. Against a ground attack that can wear down defenses, Virginia Tech won’t want to dig itself a big, early hole.
Help Out Your Defense
The Hokies can only do so much defensively. If they hold the Orange to 17 points or less, they should win this ballgame. But will they? There’s no guarantee this Virginia Tech offense can put up more than two scores.
This is the game where things have to get going for the Virginia Tech offense.
Coming into the season, if you had told us we were going to pick Syracuse to beat Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium, we would’ve told you you were crazy — regardless of how the Hokies had performed.
Things do change. While Virginia Tech’s defense is good, so is the Orange’s. The bigger question mark is whether or not Virginia Tech will be able to stop Syracuse’s offense — not whether the Orange will be able to stop the Hokies’.
That’s why the Orange will come to Blacksburg and hand Virginia Tech its third straight loss. Leaving Fuente’s already-warm seat ready to burst into flames.
Prediction: Syracuse 17, Virginia Tech 14