SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Virginia Tech’s defense had yielded three third-down conversions and one fourth-down conversion in a single drive before Syracuse mercifully called a timeout and gave the Hokies a chance to catch their breath. After 13 plays of a drive that began early in the fourth quarter with the game tied at 17, the Hokies tried to talk about coverage over the sounds of the Carrier Dome, two-thirds full but deafening nonetheless.
They jogged, somehow, back out onto the field and four plays — and another third-down conversion — later, Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey launched himself into the end zone as the home crowd exploded.
“It’s just tiring, lining up against these guys and then playing all four downs,” Hokies defensive end Ken Ekanem said afterward. “When you play against offenses like that and they convert, it’s extremely tiring.
“This one was more tiring and taxing than most.”
Exhausted on defense and unable to turn opportunity into momentum on offense, No. 17 Virginia Tech fell to Syracuse, 31-17, Saturday. But Justin Fuente’s up-tempo offense couldn’t match Dino Babers’s, and Syracuse ran 100 plays in outgaining Virginia Tech 561 total yards to 468.
Fuente can at least take solace knowing he’s not the first Virginia Tech coach to get steamrolled at Syracuse: The last time a Hokies opponent ran 100 plays was in 2002, in a triple-overtime win against Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
“I knew this was a dangerous team,” Fuente said. “This was a dangerous venue, the way they play can certainly cause you some problems. And that showed today.”
The Orange (3-4, 1-2 ACC) entered the game having lost four of five, the most recent defeat a 28-9 offensive dud last week at Wake Forest. Virginia Tech (4-2, 2-1) had taken the early lead in the ACC Coastal Division race on the strength of three consecutive routs by a total score of 137-20. But Syracuse provided an unexpected amount of trouble from the beginning.
It started with a statement on both sides of the ball: First, Dungey lobbed a 58-yard touchdown pass up the middle to wide receiver Ervin Phillips to put Syracuse ahead 7-0 just six plays and 1:49 into the game.
Then Syracuse defensive end De’Jon Wilson sacked quarterback Jerod Evans on Virginia Tech’s first offensive play.
Syracuse went up 14-3 at the start of the second quarter on another gutsy play.
Dungey had Syracuse on its 16-yard line when he pitched the ball to running back Dontae Strickland, who chucked an 84-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brisly Estime. It was Syracuse’s longest pass this season, and another example of the Hokies’ defense getting caught flat-footed.
The defense, which entered the game ranked third in the nation at 237.6 yards per game and second in pass defense (132.2 yards per game) and third-down conversion percentage (19.2), simply couldn’t get off the field. Syracuse converted 10 of 21 third downs and 4 of 5 fourth downs. The Orange amassed 32 first downs and controlled the ball for 33:25.
Syracuse held the ball for 11:41 of the game’s final 13:53, scoring 14 unanswered points and running 29 offensive plays to Virginia Tech’s eight.
Virginia Tech had its moments, too, but never enough to build momentum.
With 12:52 left in the half, the Hokies’ defense stuffed the Orange four times at the Virginia Tech 1, but Evans drove his team a fruitless 36 yards.
With four minutes left until halftime, Evans’s 17-yard touchdown run was negated by a holding call on Augie Conte, and Joey Slye missed a 45-yard field goal attempt. It was evidence of a breakdown across all units from Virginia Tech, one that stumped players and coaches alike.
“I didn’t sense any lack of focus or looking forward or looking ahead to other games we have. I didn’t see any of that. I don’t know why we came out the way we did,” said wide receiver Isaiah Ford, who led the Hokies with eight catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. “. . .We felt like we had a good week of preparation and we came out flat and we played like this.”
Evans completed 20 of 33 passes for a career-high 307 yards and two touchdowns, and he added a team-high 61 rushing yards. But he threw a costly interception, just his second of the season, in the Syracuse end zone to end a 73-yard drive with Virginia Tech trailing 17-9 in the third quarter.
Dungey completed 28 of 53 passes for 311 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He added 106 rushing yards and another score on 24 carries.
Virginia Tech now has a short week to prepare for a Thursday night matchup against No. 16 Miami, which lost to North Carolina at home Saturday.
“We’ve got five days,” Evans said. “We’ve got to get over this one real quick. It definitely left a bitter taste in our mouths — I know for sure mine. I hate losing. Hate it. So five days to go back home and get ready to play Miami.”