It's the ACC opener for Tony Elliott and the Virginia Cavaliers and in order to start off ACC play with a win, they'll have to go through a Syracuse team which has performed a lot better than most expected through the first three weeks of the season.
Coming into the season, the Orange were 11-24 over the last three seasons and had accumulated only five ACC wins over that period. Powered by an offense that has been totally revitalized by the additions of former UVA assistant coaches Robert Anae and Jason Beck, the Orange are firing on all cylinders and come into this game with an unblemished 3-0 record.
Meanwhile, Virginia comes in at 2-1 after squeaking by Old Dominion on a last-second field goal last weekend. The UVA defense has been solid, but the Cavaliers are still struggling to get into a rhythm offensively, with red zone execution and ball security being the hot-button issues of the week. Virginia will need to pull it all together on Friday night in order to knock off a very good Syracuse team at the newly-named JMA Wireless Dome.
Read on for a full preview of Virginia at Syracuse, including details on how to watch, stat comparisons, key storylines, and a score prediction.
Who: Virginia Cavaliers (2-1, 0-0 ACC) at Syracuse Orange (3-0, 1-0 ACC)
When: Friday, September 23rd at 7pm
Where: JMA Wireless Dome in Syracuse, New York
How to watch on TV/Live Stream: ESPN/fuboTV (Start your free trial)
All-time series: Virginia leads 3-2
Last meeting: Virginia defeated Syracuse 44-38 in triple overtime in 2015.
Spread: Syracuse -9.5
|Virginia||By the Numbers||Syracuse|
18.3 ppg allowed
16.7 ppg allowed
349.3 ypg allowed
340.3 ypg allowed
197.0 ypg allowed
242.0 ypg allowed
152.3 ypg allowed
98.3 ypg allowed
Third Down %
Opponent Snapshot: Syracuse
2021: 5-7 (2-6 ACC)
2022: 3-0 (1-0 ACC) | Wins: vs. Louisville, at UConn, vs. Purdue
Nothing better describes how the Orange have demolished expectations this season than their season-opener against Louisville. The Cardinals were favored on the road by six points in that game. Instead, Syracuse crushed Louisville 31-7. The Orange followed that up with a dominant 48-14 win on the road at UConn and then won a dramatic 32-29 game over Purdue on a game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass from Garrett Shrader to Oronde Gadsden II with seven seconds remaining.
Syracuse Offense vs. Virginia Defense
The arrival of quarterbacks coach Jason Beck, responsible for the tutelage of Kurt Benkert, Bryce Perkins, and Brennan Armstrong, and offensive coordinator Robert Anae, architect of a Virginia offense that ranked 3rd in the nation in total offense last season, has worked wonders for the Syracuse offense.
Quarterback Garrett Shrader, who threw for only nine touchdowns last season in nine starts, has already thrown eight touchdown passes and rushed for another three scores through just three games so far this year. The 6'4" junior was the highest rated quarterback in the country by Pro Football Focus in week 1 and has the third-best cumulative passer rating (177.9) in the ACC so far, trailing only Duke's Riley Leonard and North Carolina's Drake Maye (who saw that coming?). Shrader has yet to throw an interception this season and does well to spread the ball around, with his eight touchdown passes going to six different receivers.
Shrader's favorite target is Oronde Gadsden II, who has hauled in 12 passes for 193 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winner against Purdue. Running back Sean Tucker is also a threat out of the back field, as he too has caught 12 passes for 124 yards and a TD.
Tucker is the reason that, despite having an effective passing attack this season, something that wasn't the case in 2021, the Orange have continued to be a run-heavy offense this season, with 126 rushing plays vs. 82 passing plays through three games. Syracuse has a solid offensive line with some big, physical bodies that the UVA D-Line will have to battle, but Sean Tucker is the engine behind the Orange offense. Tucker had a record-breaking season in 2021, earning All-American and First-Team All-ACC honors after rushing for a program-record 1,496 yards. So far this season, Tucker's numbers haven't jumped off the page, with 254 yards on 66 carries for an average of 3.8 yards per attempt and 84.7 yards per game, but that can be attributed to opposing defenses prioritizing run defense to try to take him out of the game.
The Virginia defense will try to do the same, hoping to keep a lid on Tucker and trust the UVA defensive backs, who have done well so far this season, to win their matchups with Syracuse's receivers. The Virginia defensive line was effective in the Old Dominion game, getting pressure in the backfield and forcing three sacks. The unit will have to be even better this week against a capable Syracuse offensive line in order to disrupt Garrett Shrader and get the Cuse offense out of rhythm.
Virginia Offense vs. Syracuse Defense
On the other side of the ball, time has run out for the UVA offense to figure out its issues. The Cavaliers cannot afford to field a performance like they did last week against Old Dominion if they hope to knock off the Orange on the road. Virginia was able to move the ball down the field against ODU with 513 yards of total offense, but three turnovers and a failure to punctuate drives with touchdowns resulted in the Hoos putting just 16 points on the board, the last three coming as time expired to win the game.
Ball security and red zone execution are the key areas for the Cavaliers to focus on this week as they prepare for a Syracuse defense that has been solid so far this season. The Orange shutdown Malik Cunningham and Louisville and then did the same on the road at UConn. The game with Purdue turned into a shootout, and passing defense was a particular issue with the Boilermakers putting up 424 passing yards, but the Cuse defense did just enough to give the offense a chance to win.
Syracuse's defense implements a variety of different looks designed to keep opposing offenses guessing. In Tuesday's weekly press conference, Tony Elliott said that on a 10-play drive, "with what they do on defense, you could see 10 different fronts."
The Orange have talented athletes all around the field on the defensive end, but three playmakers stand out. Junior linebacker Mikel Jones has 26 tackles this season, including four tackles for loss and two sacks. Jones has also racked up four quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He's got a nose for the football and Brennan Armstrong would be wise to always know where No. 3 is before every play.
Jones is tied for the team-lead in tackles with sophomore defensive back Garrett Williams, who also has 26 tackles, with 20 of those being solo stops. Williams has also recorded a sack, an interception, and two pass breakups this season. He'll likely go up against Dontayvion Wicks on Saturday, looking to keep Wicks cold and prevent him from catching his first touchdown pass of the season. Sophomore linebacker Marlowe Wax is another name to know, as he has recorded 19 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hurries, and one forced fumble this season. Wax and Jones make up a formidable duo at the linebacker spot to anchor the Syracuse defense. The Virginia offensive line will need to be vigilant and steady for when Wax and Jones come on blitzes.
1. Virginia must start strong to take the crowd out of the game
There is a great deal of excitement and energy building surrounding Syracuse football this season after a 3-0 start to the year. The home crowd at the Dome played a factor in Cuse's win over Purdue last week. With a big ACC matchup happening on a Friday night, you should expect to see another big and loud crowd this week when UVA comes to town. Virginia did not play well in its first road test at Illinois in week two. The Cavaliers have a chance for redemption this week, but they'll need to start strong and strike early to take the fans out of the game. A good start for Syracuse could snowball into a blowout with the help of the home field advantage.
2. Robert Anae and Jason Beck face their former team
Before or after the game, there are sure to be some friendly interactions between coaches and former players, especially between Jason Beck and Brennan Armstrong, who had a strong relationship at UVA. But in the game itself, Anae and Beck give Syracuse a crucial edge from a scouting perspective, as they know what the Virginia offense is capable of at its best. Beck especially will be able to tell the Syracuse defense what Brennan Armstrong's tendencies are as a quarterback. It's uncertain how much Syracuse will utilize Beck and Anae's experience with UVA's playmakers as they prepare this week, but it's definitely something to keep an eye on.
3. UVA's defensive line must be disruptive
Virginia's secondary has been much improved so far this season, but it will be tested by Garrett Shrader and the Cuse passing game. The Cavalier defensive backs will be left one-on-one with the Orange receivers and must hold up their end while the pivotal battle takes place in the trenches. The UVA defensive line has its work cut out for it against a big and physical Syracuse offensive line. The Hoos must put pressure on Shrader and force him to improvise. He hasn't thrown an interception all year, so it will take pressure to make him make a mistake. The Virginia defensive line will also be responsible for disrupting the line of scrimmage, plugging running lanes, and containing Sean Tucker. If UVA can keep him under 100 yards and prevent the Orange from picking up first downs on the ground, then the Cavaliers will have a chance.
4. Ball security and red zone execution are paramount for the Virginia offense
The Cavaliers were able to move the ball down the field against ODU, but turnovers in plus territory turned what should have been a comfortable win over the Monarchs into a nail-biter that required a last-second field goal to avoid an embarrassing upset. UVA must keep the turnovers to a minimum and execute in the red zone in order to stay in this game. Purdue had success throwing the ball against Cuse last week. Virginia has the quarterback and the receivers to do the same, but can the Cavaliers take care of the ball and punctuate their drives with touchdowns? UVA is going to need a lot more than 16 points to win this one.
I don't doubt that Virginia is capable of winning this game. The Hoos certainly have the talent, but we have yet to see them pull it all together and it isn't likely to happen this week on the road at Syracuse. The Orange have momentum and home field advantage. That will be too much for the Cavaliers to overcome as they continue to search for their identity within a new offensive system.
Prediction: Virginia 24, Syracuse 31
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