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Syracuse men’s lacrosse vs. Virginia preview: What to watch

Bounce-back games don’t get much harder than this one, and the Orange have only five days to make corrections off the Army loss.

Virginia v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Less than a week after the Syracuse Orange men’s lacrosse team started their 2021 season with a thud, losing 18-11 to the Army Black Knights, they’ll be back in action on Saturday at 6 PM as ACC play gets underway at home against the Virginia Cavaliers.

Syracuse-Virginia is almost always an exciting, down-to-the-wire game, as we’ll talk more about later.

Much more important than that, though, is getting the season back on track and avoiding the dreaded 0-2 start.

That’s going to be a very tall task against No. 2 ranked Virginia. They’re one of the best teams in the country at 3-0 with wins over Towson, Army, and Loyola.

Let’s take a look now at some of the biggest keys and things to watch out for when the Orange and Cavaliers take the field for Saturday night lacrosse:

Defensive Adjustments

It’s no secret the play of the defense was a big part of the loss on Sunday. The team gave up 18 goals to an offense that isn’t as talented, we don’t think, as the one they’ll be facing this weekend.

From what I saw on my mid-week re-watch, I have to say that I was unfair in specifically naming Brett Kennedy as having a bad day against Army. That’s not to say that he didn’t have a rough day; he absolutely did. But the point is that the defense is a unit, and should be treated as such.

And this unit struggled all day against Army, giving up goals in variety of ways. In the six-on-six, the day was ruled by communication lapses, bad switches, and losing track of weak side cutters.

It felt like nearly every possession, we saw an off-ball defender step up with a too-early slide, which created either a switch to an unfavorable matchup or an open look that Army took advantage of. We saw multiple miscommunications in the middle of the defense that led to open looks for off-ball Black Knight cutters making runs down Main Street for easy goals.

The most concerning part here is that a lot of these mistakes are not going to be easy to fix, and certainly not in only five days.

Most of the problems we saw on Sunday are rooted in the communication of the unit as a whole. The best way to remedy that is through experience, and we are watching a group that doesn’t have much game-time together.

Only Kennedy and Peter Dearth have more than one season’s worth of meaningful playing time under their belts, and Kennedy himself is still adjusting to the switch to close defense.

Are they going to be able to speed up the learning curve of defending the pick-game, effective switching, help defense, off-ball defense, etc.?

We’re sure hoping so, because otherwise it might be a very long Saturday night in the Dome against what we assume is an even better offense.

Improved Attack Play

While things looked bleak on defense, they weren’t all that much better on the offensive end for SU. A six-goal first quarter gave way to a five-goal final 45 minutes that left us all scratching our heads.

It appeared that the most effective method of scoring came on individual-effort, wing dodges from the midfield. The first-line midfield combined for six goals on the day, and five of them were unassisted wing dodges.

One reason for the unassisted goals was the fact that the offense displayed issues connecting on passes. They got ambitious at times, trying to force the ball in tight spaces, but they also misfired on plenty of passes in the open field.

Although I will say, on my re-watch, I counted up five different instances of impressive passing sequences and/or good off-ball movement from the offense that ended in a Wyatt Schupler save. Four more instances ended in a hit pipe. Those moments get forgotten because they didn’t end in goals, but they are definitely encouraging pieces to build on. We just need to see a lot more of it.

If the offense as a unit is going to improve, I think we need to see much greater contributions from the attack. We know all about the vaunted SU midfield, but they can’t do it alone.

In order to avoid situations where defenses are triple-poling our midfield, the attack has to prove that they can make plays too, specifically creating from behind the cage.

On Sunday, I think we saw one member of the attack line, Chase Scanlan, trying to do too much, while Stephen Rehfuss and Griffin Cook were largely absent from playmaking duties. Scanlan really tried to force his dodges when he drew a shortie, and ended up being responsible for a handful of turnovers and bad shots.

Cook, who was held pointless, was largely a ghost on offense. He did, however, have one nice moment that definitely gave me hope. He dodged from behind the cage, drew a triple team, and found a wide open Jacob Buttermore in front of the net. Buttermore couldn’t get much power behind his shot and it was easily saved by Schupler, but it was exactly the type of play that this team needs from its attack to help take pressure off the midfield.

Virginia’s Ride

Syracuse actually had a good day in the clearing game against Army, going 12-13 on clears.

SU’s proficiency in the clearing game is about to get tested in a huge way on Saturday, as Virginia possesses one of the toughest, most tenacious ride games in all of college lacrosse.

In three games this season, UVA’s opponents have successfully cleared on only 39 of 58 attempts, a dreadful clearing percentage of just 67.2 percent.

Again, the Orange are coming off a good day clearing the ball, but things are about to get dialed up to 11 against the Cavaliers. We cannot afford too many turnovers if we’re going to keep pace in this one. Our offense needs all the possessions they can get.

I’m sure there was plenty of focus on the clearing game in practice this week.

Virginia’s Offense

UVA comes into this weekend averaging over 16 goals per game and facing-off at over 63 percent, and the players behind those numbers might be even scarier than the numbers themselves.

The Virginia attack is just downright ridiculous. So far this season, former No. 1 overall recruit Connor Shellenberger and Payton Cormier have led the way scoring 15 points in three games. Cormier is a force averaging four goals per game and shooting 48 percent, while Shellenberger is a little more balanced as a creator for the offense.

What’s most frightening is that I’m mentioning Matt Moore, arguably UVA’s best player, last among the group of attackman. That’s because he missed their first game of the season and doesn’t have the point total of the other two. All he’s done in his two games is score eight goals.

Merrimack transfer Charlie Bertrand has led the midfield for UVA as All-American Dox Aitken works his way back from his brief stint trying football at Villanova in the fall. Aitken is one of the best midfielders in Virginia history, and has only contributed two goals so far this season. Yikes.

The Orange defense has an incredible task ahead of them trying to match up with this loaded Cavalier offense. We’re going to need to see a drastic improvement across the board defensively if SU is to have a chance this weekend.

Ground Ball Game

Year in and year out under head coach Lars Tiffany, the Cavaliers are up near or at the top of the leaderboard in the ground ball game. Ground balls are obviously a critical part of any lacrosse game, but they will surely be a defining stat in this ACC matchup.

Virginia poses quite a threat here too, as they are +31 on the season in ground balls. That means they’re averaging winning the ground ball battle by over 10 ground balls per game, another impressive number for the Cavs.

SU did win the GB battle against Army, 33-26, but they’re going to need to ramp up the intensity in this one. They have to fight to keep this battle close, as every loose ball is another chance to alter the momentum of the game.

18 Wins & 466 Goals

Virginia is a very interesting opponent for Syracuse. They’re not our primary rivals, Johns Hopkins. We don’t have the depth of history with them that we do with our local rivals, Cornell and Hobart. Even within the conference, most SU fans would probably list the Duke Blue Devils as our main ACC rival.

But our rivalry with Virginia is unique in the closeness that it brings. Nothing defines the SU-UVA rivalry quite like the wins and goals in the all-time series. You guys might have seen numbers like these in recent years as the rivalry has remained tight and the wins have gone back and forth. Currently, the history of these two teams sits at 18 wins and 466 goals EACH.

As in 18-18 in the 36-game history of this series, and 466-466 in total goals scored for each team. It’s absolutely absurd and shows us that when it comes to evenly matched opponents, no rivalry surpasses Syracuse and Virginia.

The Orange have put themselves in a very tough spot after losing the Army game and now being faced with the first of two Virginia matchups this season. But I certainly don’t doubt that the team is going to come out on Saturday night for a primetime lacrosse showcase to show the college lacrosse world that they’re much more than what they showed against Army.

So, everybody, enjoy the start to your weekend and let’s gear up for some awesome night time lacrosse on Saturday at 6 PM. Go Orange!