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Key Matchups: Syracuse vs Virginia

Three matchups that could decide the game between the Orange and the Cavaliers.

While many Syracuse fans (rightfully so) see 5-0 and a ranked matchup vs. NC State brewing up ahead, with all due respect to Wagner, I believe this is the real trap game. Currently, SU is the overwhelming favorite (84% win probability according to ESPN, -10 on the spread for CBS Sports), but even 6 months ago, this would have been a pick ‘em game and one of those essential ACC matchups for the Orange. Some of these matchups below will go a long way in ‘Cuse securing a not-so-secretly important win vs. the Cavaliers.

SS Lex Long vs. QB Garrett Shrader

True sophomore Lex Long fills a hybrid linebacker/safety role similar to the ROVER spot in Tony White’s defense, and he’s been stellar so far in it. He’s led the Cavs the past 2 games in tackles, and the former high school WR has an INT already this year and the requisite ball skills to get another on Friday. His physicality in the box and nose for the ball, as well as being a high-functioning DB as an underclassmen, should remind fans a lot of Ja’Had Carter. Physically imposing at 6’2 and a solid 215-220, he flys around the field, and after Shrader’s 17 rushing attempts last week, he may want to be mindful of raking up hits, especially from Long. Long is the an X-factor on defense in both the run and pass game, and Shrader may need to be weary of #3 roaming the secondary and causing havoc in the box. Speaking of Shrader, after last week’s performance, I know he’ll be eager to make up for last week’s performance, and I can imagine that meaning pushing some balls downfield and trying to get some chunk plays. For ‘Cuse, he needs to make sure to stay with himself and take what the defense gives him in order to avoid the the inefficiency and mistakes that plagued him vs. Purdue.

LB Nick Jackson vs. RB Sean Tucker

Virginia has their own version of Mikel Jones, and Nick Jackson is every bit as impactful on and off the field for the Cavaliers in the same way Kel is for The Mob. The Atlanta native and the ACC’s top tackler last year with 117 stops, he’s a traditional down-hill thumper in the vein of former Alabama LB great Reggie Ragland. He’s been the leader of this UVA defense that has continued its stellar play after a strong 2021, and his performance and leadership is even more important with a Virginia offense that seems stuck in the mud to start the year. By virtue of his nose for the ball and amount of snaps he’ll have, Jackson should have at least 8 tackles, the big question is if they’ll be coming after long chunk plays from Tuck, or will be stonewalling him similarly to what Purdue did last week. Tucker hasn’t looked like himself outside of the Louisville game this year, and if he plans to maintain any legitimacy in his Heisman campaign and spot as one of CFB’s best backs, he needs one of those 18 carries, 142 yards, two touchdown stat-lines to remind everybody how dangerous he is and to re-assure worried SU fans. One decided advantage that Tucker should have is catching the ball and playing in space, as Jackson can be tight-hipped and isn’t super agile and laterally quick in open-field scenarios. With Tuck’s development as a receiver in camp and through the first three games, that could be a way to hit some of those home runs we’ve been missing the past couple of weeks and ensure that #34 is #PL34SED with his performance after Friday.

WR Dontavyion Wicks vs. CB Duce Chestnut

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Former Mississippi State Bulldog Keytaon Thompson is the closest you’ll see to Deebo Samuel in the ACC. Having started his collegiate career as a highly recruited QB out of New Orleans powerhouse Landry-Walker, Thompson has put together an impressive resume going into his fifth year, which includes beating Lamar Jackson in a bowl game in his first ever start and being named second team All-ACC in 2021. Thompson and 6’7 UVA wideout Lavel Davis, who’s second on the team this year with 203 receiving yards, will both be tall, lanky red zone and mismatch problems, so I expect GW to split time between those two. However, the matchup between each unit’s respective number two, Wicks and Chestnut, should be intriguing and further determine the outcome of Friday’s matchup.

Wicks, the 6’2 WR from the Baton Rouge area, set Virginia's single-season receiving yards record last year, totaling over 1,200 yards, 59 catches, and nine touchdowns en route to first-team all-ACC honors and a spot on the Maxwell Award preseason list. However, he’s been troubled with a bad case of drops this year, with a whopping five through two games after four all of last season. Chestnut has been solid this year, but he missed a crucial tackle in the fourth quarter against Purdue that set up Purdue’s last touchdown and very nearly cost ‘Cuse the game. This will be far and away the most complete and talented group of wideouts Cuse has faced, but Duce will be tasked with keeping a guy in check that’s kept himself in check through the first quarter of the season. If Wicks catches a couple of balls and gets some confidence, he’s an experienced and talented guy with the potential to wreck a defense by himself. With GW having his hands full with Davis and Thompson, it’ll be key for Sub Zero to keep Wicks on the cold spell he’s been on. 

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