Virginia’s players are looking at Friday night’s trip to Syracuse as a second chance to prove their toughness.
“It’s going to be a physical matchup and they’re really going to challenge us going forward,” Cavaliers senior running back Paris Jones said, “so we’re looking forward to it. The last time we had a problem this big, we struggled.”
The Cavaliers were routed 24-3 at Illinois on Sept. 10, shutting down UVa’s offense and limiting the Hoos to 1.4 yards per carry, while Illini star running back Chase Brown managed a whopping 7.3 yards per carry. rush to push their attack.
Syracuse also has a standout role in the backfield in running back Sean Tucker, who broke and set the Orange’s single-season rushing record with 1,496 yards last fall. He has registered 14 100-yard performances in 23 career games and is averaging 22 carries per game through the first three weeks of this season.
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“We want to give [the ball] him as much as we can,” Syracuse coach Deano Babers said of Tucker, who leads one of the nation’s most experienced offensive fronts.
The Orange return four of their five starting offensive lines from a year ago, and the unit has combined for the eighth-most starts (118) of any O-Line in the FBS.
“It’s similar to Illinois in terms of size and movement,” UVa linebacker Aaron Faumui said, “so we’re really feeling the same technique and strategy that they have, so it’s going to be similar to Illinois.
“Obviously they’re big,” Faumui added. “They got their No. 76 (guard Callan Ellis) and he’s 375 pounds and 6-[foot]-5, so it will be a dogfight in the trenches.”
And UVa expects Syracuse to try to establish a running game early on, even though Orange offensive coordinator Robert Anaye, who had held the same position with the Cavaliers for the previous six years, was the first shot in 2021. The run-to-pass ratio was 38% to 62% last fall, but Anae has reversed his tendencies this year as the Orange had a 60-to-40 run-to-pass ratio before Friday’s tilt.
He hasn’t had that high since 2018 (59% rushing, 41% passing), when former UVa running back Jordan Ellis rushed for 1,026 yards and former quarterback Bryce Perkins tallied 923 yards on the ground.
“Good coaches will do what their personnel allows them to do,” first-year Cavaliers coach Tony Elliott said of Anaye’s adjustment in philosophy.
“And when you have a running back,” Elliott continued, “and [Tucker] had a great season and he’s a really, really good player. And then you have it [quarterback Garrett] Schrader, who is a big athlete who can handle the ball. When I had Kelly Bryant [at Clemson]I was going to run the ball with Kelly Bryant because it gave you an extra hat, and that’s why good coaches will play to their personnel and play to the strengths of their personnel.”
Said Faumui: “We still need to get the run game going and try to focus on playing the run first and getting after the quarterback.”
As for Jones and UVa’s running back rotation, which also includes Mike Hollins and Xavier Brown, Elliott said they have to give up and fight for yards against Syracuse’s stout defense and complex scheme.
The Orange have the versatility to move different alignments from one snap to the next, and that could create identification problems for a Cavaliers offensive line that had some major success last Saturday, pushing the line of scrimmage forward to help UVa break through for 229 yards in a win over Old Dominion .
“The biggest thing is this [running] the back has to understand what the game is,” Elliott said. “I call it, ‘You’ve got to get dirty yards.’ You have to run through the smoke like NASCAR. There’s a wreck in front of you, but you better hit the gas, close your eyes and hope you come through the other side, so they’re going to have to have a downhill mentality and be wipers because it’s going to be tough. Expect the guys up front to be perfect.”
Jones said he is eager for the upcoming challenge.
“Syracuse is a great group,” he said. “They play hard. They play hard. It’s a big challenge and I think we’ll be up to it.”
Notes: Elliott said he doesn’t expect Cavaliers wide receiver Billy Kemp IV (illness) to be cleared in time for Syracuse. And according to Elliott, Hoos safety Antonio Clary, who missed Saturday’s win over Old Dominion, is working through the sting every day.