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Saturday Spotlight: Syracuse Passing Game vs. Virginia Secondary

There are a whole lot of matchups to ponder for tomorrow's game. This could end up being the most important one.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, we discussed Syracuse's linebackers and how they'll respond to the USF short passing game. Ends up: not well. Virginia also has a short passing game we should be concerned for, but to avoid redundancy in this weekly post, we focus elsewhere this time. The secondary, thought of as a strength for the Hoos, has not exactly been one. The passing game, thought to be a weakness for the Orange, has been improved. Will those narratives continue, though?

Virginia's defensive backs don't get their hands on the ball

At all, actually. And that's not just about interceptions (they have none so far). It's also about straight-up passes defended. They currently have 11 (!!!). That's near the bottom of the country at 125th overall. They're also allowing 272 passing yards per game -- 22nd-most in the FBS. Just last year, this team was allowing 40 less yards per game, plus had 15 picks. It's largely the same group, so what's happened? You can't even blame this year's tough schedule, because they had a tough one last year too. And then, they picked off eight passes in the same early five-game stretch. Quin Blanding's one of the better safeties around, and Maurice Canady and Demetrious Nicholson are top-notch DBs. If you're struggling for reasons why they've fallen well short of last year's output, you're not alone.

Syracuse can actually throw the ball fairly well this year

We've discussed some of the issue inherent with the Orange throwing the ball a ton in recent weeks, but they have admittedly improved in that department, even if it's not clear by looking at the numbers. Syracuse is currently 106th in passing yards per game (176.4), yet they're tied for 40th in passing TDs (11). They've also kept mistakes low in that department, with just four interceptions on the season. The key, despite the lack of overwhelming figures here, is the increase in explosiveness. Averaging over 12 plays of five yards or more per game (many of which through the air) is a nice change and one that's paying off big for the team in terms of scoring. SU's got room to grow -- especially in terms of completing big passes (over long runs after catch) -- but they're not letting defensive secondaries control what they do and how they do it in the passing game.

It's likely Virginia progresses toward the mean at some point

As discussed, Virginia's secondary was supposed to be a strength. With the same players, it's not a weakness. It's just not excelling at the same level. That's where we should worry a little. We saw what happened to Syracuse's passing game when put under duress and forced to try to come back exclusively through the air. The key, obviously, is to avoid large deficits and keep the Hoos' DBs guessing. If the Orange make the mistake of being one-dimensional (as they were for much of the second half against USF), the odds of UVa breaking the interception-less streak go up a ton. Eric Dungey's a quality passer, clearly. But he's also a true freshman who has made mistakes and will make more. Don't think the Hoos have avoided tape from last week. They're creating a blueprint -- on Syracuse and every other remaining opponent. They will improve in the secondary (just hopefully not this week).


Beer of the Week: Hardywood Gingerbread Stout

Virginia's finest, this seasonal gem is one to find for this game -- so hopefully you've got some in the cellar, since we're not exactly at that time of year for sales yet. This milk stout is sweet but light, perfectly capturing the taste of the holiday season with the unique taste of gingerbread. And at a whopping 9.2-percent ABV, it'll get the job done for you win or lose against the Hoos. If that's not enough, more power to you for locating Bourbon GBS -- a barrel-aged take on the same brew. Once you try it, you'll wonder how you'll ever consume gingerbread without bourbon again.

What John's Drinking: Bathtub IPA Smog City Grape Ape IPA

The Ape returns at one of my local spots, Smog City Brewing Co., which means I'm definitely grabbing a growler fill this evening. It's not their year-round IPA (that's the also excellent Hoptonic), but Grape Ape is as good as any of the brewery's award-winning releases. Along with Simcoe and Topaz hops, you'll find yourself a nice helping of muscat grapes in there as well (hence the name). It's sweet, citrusy and floral -- but fails to overdose on any of those elements. Just a smooth, enjoyable drink I'm sad you can't enjoy with me (unless you're heading out to L.A. this weekend?)


How about you? What are you drinking to enjoy this Saturday's matchup, whether you're in-person or not? And what do you think of Virginia's secondary? Does it look like they'll turn things around this game, or can Eric Dungey and the Syracuse offense continue moving the ball through the air with relative effectiveness?