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The toughest test of the season awaits Virginia football at Syracuse

The Cavaliers have stumbled to a 2-1 record, yet a massive opportunity awaits on the road against an undefeated team in the Orange.

<p>The Cavaliers' offense hopes to get back on track in a crucial road contest against Syracuse.</p>

The Cavaliers' offense hopes to get back on track in a crucial road contest against Syracuse.

With three weeks of non-conference play under its belt, Virginia will look to start off strong in a matchup against ACC opponent Syracuse. The second road game of the year for the Cavaliers (2-1, 0-0 ACC) entails a Friday night contest against a team that has surpassed expectations early into the season. 

Due to the separation of the ACC into two divisions — the Atlantic and Coastal — this will be the first meeting since 2015 between the Orange (3-0, 1-0 ACC) and the Cavaliers, a game Virginia won 44-38 in a three-overtime thriller.

Plenty of buzz surrounds this long-awaited clash between the Orange and the Cavaliers. Senior quarterback Brennan Armstrong will aim to get back on track after an unusually slow start to the season, while Syracuse will feature a new offense — a high-scoring unit with an explosive pass game — that shares an uncanny resemblance to that of Virginia in 2021. Expect an emotionally-driven game thanks to some coaching moves that affected both the Cavaliers and the Orange. 

Storylines

Syracuse offensive coordinator Robert Anae and quarterback coach Jason Beck

After former Virginia Coach Bronco Mendenhall decided to resign last season, the bulk of his coaching staff pressed the reset button by searching for jobs elsewhere. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, quarterback coach Jason Beck — who has received acclaim for his tutelage of Armstrong and former Cavalier quarterback Bryce Perkins — and offensive coordinator Robert Anae chose Syracuse as their next destination. Despite Virginia fans’ largely mixed feelings towards Anae, Beck was undoubtedly a member of the staff who many wanted to retain. The duo’s departure has evidently left a mark on this year’s roster, as the offense has taken a sharp dip from where it was in 2021. 

Syracuse’s junior quarterback Garrett Shrader — who played in 12 games last season for the Orange — has already tallied nearly half of his passing yards from 2021 through three games. The dual threat quarterback may remind Virginia fans of Armstrong, who thrived under Beck and Anae’s system as a runner and passer. Shrader’s passer rating has skyrocketed — from 113.7 to 177.9 in only one year — and his eight passing touchdowns are only one shy of his total amount from last season. The dramatic improvement by Syracuse’s offensive unit only shows the effect that Beck and Anae have had on their new roster, an unfortunate sign for a Cavalier team which has taken a step back from its former production. 

Virginia’s wide receiving corps’ struggles 

Senior wide receiver Keytaon Thompson and junior wide receivers Lavel Davis and Dontayvion Wicks were ready to make a splash come 2022. However, the offense has often sputtered and the unit which spurred Armstrong on to so much success has looked like a shell of themselves.

Wicks — who posted 1,203 yards and nine touchdowns in 2021 — has only had twelve receptions and 155 yards through three games. Davis and Thompson — the Cavaliers’ leading receiver this season — may have to pick up more of the slack until Wicks and Armstrong rebuild the rapport which they established last season. It’s essentially now or never for this unit, one which needs to showcase their limitless potential in a crucial ACC road game. 

Players to Watch

Syracuse sophomore running back Sean Tucker

Shrader has benefited from the revamped Syracuse playbook, yet running back Sean Tucker remains a gamebreaker. A second-year starter for the Orange, Tucker has amassed 374 total yards through his first three contests and has established himself as a receiving threat out of the backfield. 

With Virginia’s run defense largely struggling against Illinois and Richmond, all eyes will be on Tucker and his ability to gash defenses on the ground and through the air. The Cavaliers will have to be creative in their schemes, making sure to account for Shrader’s capabilities as a runner — having notched 201 yards and three touchdowns as a quarterback — and obviously for the main threat in Tucker. 

Virginia sophomore defensive back Langston Long

A sophomore who has appeared in the last two matchups for the Cavaliers, Long looks to be the catalyst for a defense that has more than improved from last season. Long — who starred in last week’s game against Old Dominion despite giving up a late touchdown — recorded two pass deflections and nine total tackles — giving him 22 on the season after a strong outing against Illinois. 

If Virginia can have a security blanket on the back end with Long, they can concentrate more on the patented rushing attack of the Orange and make their offense slightly more one-dimensional. Long seems to be the guy to make that happen, as the defensive back has shined throughout his first two games. 

Despite what the record shows, Virginia desperately needs this win on the road. Turnovers, offensive inefficiency and a flawed run defense have plagued the Cavaliers, and the stiffest test of the season awaits in undefeated Syracuse. A revenge game against former Virginia coaches only heightens the anticipation for a team that would love to start the season 3-1. Kickoff is set for Friday at 7 p.m., and the game will be televised on ESPN.

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