Halfway through their first seasons at their schools, coaches Justin Fuente of Virginia Tech and Dino Babers of Syracuse are headed in different directions.
Fuente seems to have picked up where Frank Beamer left off: the Hokies (4-1, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) are ranked 17th and lead the Coastal Division going into Saturday’s game against the Orange in the Carrier Dome. Syracuse (2-4, 0-2 ACC) has lost four of five and faces three ranked teams in the second half of the season, its chance at the postseason seemingly out of reach already.
“There’s a long season ahead of us,” Fuente said. “We can take pride in winning a couple games. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you’ve got to move past those things.”
Moving past the Orange once was a struggle when both teams were in the Big East — they split their 12 meetings before Virginia Tech left for the ACC in 2004. The Orange bolted for the ACC three years ago and this will be the teams’ first meeting as conference members.
The Orange strives to thrive on offense. The Hokies have been dominating opponents with a stifling defense that’s become the perfect complement to an efficient offense.
“You’re talking about a defense that’s ranked in the top five,” Babers said. “And then when you watch the D-linemen redirect and get after the football, these guys are running down screens, wide receiver screens, running back screens from behind, pressuring quarterbacks. It’s fun to watch them play, but it’s not fun to know that you’ve got to play them.”
The last time Virginia Tech won in the Carrier Dome was 2000, when quarterback Michael Vick overcame eight sacks by an Orange defense led by Dwight Freeney in a 22-14 victory.
Other things to know for Syracuse vs. Virginia Tech:
ROLL TECH: The Hokies have had three straight dominant defensive performances — against East Carolina, Boston College and former No. 17 North Carolina — outscoring those three foes 137-20. The lone loss under Fuente came against then-No. 17 Tennessee — a 45-24 setback in the second game of the season, played at Bristol Motor Speedway before college football’s largest crowd (156,990). Five Tech turnovers, all fumbles, spelled doom as Tennessee scored 31 straight points to overcome a 14-0 deficit.
“I think the Tennessee game was a fairly good wake-up call for us,” Fuente said. “You don’t give yourself a chance to win when you do those types of things. I think that helped us in terms of maybe getting our kids’ attention a little bit. Now, we’ve just got to keep it.”
WIDEOUT WONDER: Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo is fifth (8.5) in the nation in receptions per game and still leads everybody in receiving yards per game (146) despite coming off his worst showing of a breakout season — four catches for 34 yards last week in a 28-9 loss at Wake Forest. The Orange failed to score in the second half of that game, which was buffeted by Hurricane Matthew.
EVANS’ EFFICIENCY: Hokies quarterback Jerod Evans leads the ACC in passing efficiency, having thrown 15 touchdown passes with one interception. That one pick came on a pass that hit top receiver Isaiah Ford in the hands, and he juggled it right into the hands of a defender. If the Hokies’ passing game remains essentially mistake-free, they will be hard to beat.
SOMETHING HAS TO GIVE: The Hokies rank second in the FBS in pass defense (132.2 yards per game) and third in total defense (237.6 ypg). Syracuse ranks second in the ACC and 12th nationally in passing offense, averaging 336.3 ypg.
THROW IT: Syracuse QB Eric Dungey is second in the league with an average of 314 passing yards per game. He might be third had the Hokies not held No. 3 Mitch Trubisly at UNC to 58 passing yards last week in a 34-3 victory played in a driving rain.
AP Sports Writer Hank Kurz in Virginia contributed.
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