By Greg Bishop
Mike Shafer watched the Virginia Tech game-film and saw a pattern. Through six consecutive victories, the Hokies scored first five times, including 28 and 21 point first-quarter outbursts against Rutgers and Boston College, respectively.
Often, Shafer saw, Virginia Tech would defer the kickoff, pin the opposing offense deep in its own territory and then capitalize off the ensuing field position. He sought out Syracuse captain Kyle Johnson on Friday afternoon to make sure the Orangemen didn't turn into another stitch in the pattern of a dangerous quilt.
Let's let Johnson tell the story:
"Mike Shafer comes up to me and says, 'Kyle, we've got to win the kickoff,'"
Johnson said. "I'm like, 'What are you talking about? Shafer, stop bothering me.' But we needed to get the ball in a good position because they have a habit of scoring points really quick. They stick you in the back of the endzone. Then, they lock up on you. Then, they return a punt for a touchdown. Now, you're down 13-0 before the game got under way.
"I didn't think about it. Then at about 11 a.m. (Saturday), I said, 'Wow, the only person he told was me.' He didn't tell any of the other captains. They're like, 'Who's going to talk.' I said, 'I'm going to talk.' I was really happy that we won the toss, and that we could choose to defer because it really changed the course of the game."
The coin toss turned into one of the game's most important plays as they Orangemen turned the proverbial tables, deferring the kickoff, jumping to an early lead and then hanging on for the 22-14 win in front of 53,662 at Lane/Worsham Field.
The win not only marked Syracuse's seventh consecutive victory, it pushed them into a tie for first place in the Big East and guaranteed they'd be bowl eligible. Not bad for a team that many predicted would finish under .500 this season.
"My view of it is that we felt all along that we've got a very good program," said Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni, who won for the first time in Blacksburg, Va. "We have very, very good players in the program. The people inside the program know what's going on. I'm not so sure everybody else knows what's going on. We expected to have a good year this year."
They are. And they returned to Virginia Tech - where they were smacked around
62-0 two years ago - and beat the Hokies at their own game.
It started on special teams, where many consider Virginia Tech the best in the Big East. Syracuse returned a punt for a touchdown, blocked a punt, hit two field goals and supplied the offense with good field position. It continued on defense, where the Orangemen held the Hokies to 92 yards total.
Through it all, Syracuse did what it had to do offensively, moving the ball for 168 yards on the ground against a defense that only allows 50 and scoring when it needed to.
It added up to Virginia Tech's first home loss to a Big East school since Temple pulled off a 28-24 upset in 1998.
"It was definitely rewarding," Johnson said. "I didn't get smacked last year, but two years ago they definitely smacked me around a little bit, 62-0. Let's be honest, it was a drubbing. It felt good to just play our game and not be affected. This year, really I have to give credit where credit is due. We were not as affected by the crowd because we had been to Georgia Tech at the Kickoff Classic. We had been to Tennessee. That had helped us at first to deal with the noise and the surroundings. That was one benefit of playing those hard games early."
The benefits were incurred directly after the fateful coin toss. Syracuse forced a four-and-out, and Jamal Riddle took Vinnie Burns' punt 51 yards up the middle - artfully dancing around Burns himself - and into the endzone to give Syracuse a 7-0 lead.
Later in the first quarter, Virginia Tech running back Kevin Jones mishandled a pitch left and Quentin Harris recovered the fumble on the VT 17-yard-line. Four plays later, Mungro dove over center to pass Jim Brown on SU's career rushing touchdown list into fifth place, and the Orangemen had a 14-0 lead.
The teams stage what Pasqualoni called a "war" for the rest of the half, until SU's special teams struck again with time running out. Burns fumbled a punt attempt deep in Virginia Tech's territory, and SU wide receiver came in to block any attempt to get the punt off. Syracuse recovered on the 20-yard-line and Colin Barber nailed a 26-yard field goal to give SU a 17-0 lead heading into the break.
"We got a special group, we really do," special teams coach Chris White said. "No one has given them a chance for anything this whole year. But they have been on a mission. We have great senior leadership from our captains, the best we've ever had. There is no turmoil, no pointing fingers when things go bad, and that is the key."
Virginia Tech wouldn't go easily. It staged a second-half comeback, scoring touchdowns in the third and fourth quarter. But Barber nailed a career-long
45-yard field goal and Syracuse forced a safety with 2:24 left in the game to stamp out any hopes of a Hokie comeback.
The Hokies sat dismayed in their locker room, feeling like they'd come out flat and knowing they have to beat Miami in three weeks to even have a shot at the Big East title.
"This Syracuse team is good," VT cornerback Ronyell Whitaker said. "For us to think we were just going to come here and just beat them however we wanted to beat them and do whatever we wanted to do is ridiculous."
"When you play that lousy, it goes back to your coaches," Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer said. "We just didn't do good enough getting them ready to play. I'll tell you this, they're a good football team, their quarterback played great for them. They didn't turn the ball over. When they needed something, they kind of got it. It was just one of those days. The main thing I want to say to you is give Syracuse credit because they did a good job."
The mood in Syracuse post-game interviews reflected Beamer's sentiments.
Johnson even issued a strong statement that the Orangemen had caused Virginia Tech's mistakes, that they had not just won on an off-day for the No. 4 team in the country.
The oft-maligned Orangemen had, at least for the beginning of this season, proven their critics wrong. Save a letdown against West Virginia in two weeks, Syracuse will head into Miami playing for the Big East title and a shot at a BCS bowl. And certainly, those thoughts were unthinkable when the season started. Maybe that's why Pasqualoni leaned a little further backward or why Syracuse players' smiles stretched a little further.
"I wouldn't call it an upset," Syracuse defensive tackle Christian Ferrara said. "People might call it an upset. As a team - if I had to look my teammates in the eye - I don't think it's an upset. I knew how good we were."