In some ways, Villanova and Syracuse couldn't be more different: one is in the CAA, while the other is in the ACC; one plays in the 63-scholarship FCS while the other is at the game's highest level; Villanova Stadium seats just over 12,000, while the Carrier Dome holds almost 50,000; Orange head coach Scott Shafer is in his second season, while Nova's Andy Talley has been at the school since 1985. In other ways, the schools are similar -- private schools with a lot of pride in their basketball programs and ambitions of growth.
Tomorrow night, unlike that December game at the Wells Fargo Center, the differences will be more pronounced.
Villanova hasn't played football against Syracuse since well before the Carrier Dome was built. The last meeting between the two teams was in September 1975 -- a Syracuse victory, 24-17. The Orange lead the all-time series 2-1, with the lone Villanova victory coming on November 21, 1953 at Franklin Field.
This will be the 19th time since Villanova became an FCS program in 1985 that the team has faced an opponent from the FBS. As has often been the case in recent years, the Wildcats enter the season ranked (12th in FCS), and while Syracuse will not have a number next to their name, the Orange are the clear favorites entering the contest.
Senior quarterback Terrel Hunt solidified himself in the Syracuse offense last season, throwing for 1,638 yards and rushing for 500 more. He took the reins of the program that once started Duke point guard Greg Paulus under center, leading the Orange to a 6-6 record and a victory over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl.
The Orange running game should be strong with Hunt's running ability coupled with the return of fifth-year senior Prince-Tyson Gulley who ran for 456 yards and four scores last season. The Orange should have significant depth at the running back position and also return six of the top-seven receivers from last season.
Ashton Broyld is the leading target returning this season after grabbing 52 catches for 452 yards last season. Jarrod West also returns with 26 catches and 397 yards under his belt. The Orange had 18 different players who recorded a reception last season, from Broyld to Quinta Funderburk, and all of them return this season. Syracuse has plenty of depth at the offensive skill positions.
Tight end Josh Parris, however, won't be a part of the Syracuse game plan this season, after undergoing offseason knee surgery.
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The Orange defense is really their strength, however, they were the only team in FBS last season that did not allow a single 100-yard rusher last season. The unit, which operates out of a base 4-3 formation, returns seven starters this Fall. They play fast and gamble with a variety of blitz packages, designed to disrupt the opposing offense. They have been in the top-20 nationally each of the last two seasons for tackles-for-loss and registered 37 sacks last year.
That should make things tricky for Villanova. The Wildcats are working in three new faces on the offensive line this season, and it will be imperative that they perform well in this game, if the team expects to be competitive. The Orange will bring pressure into the backfield, which may open up big plays downfield, if John Robertson isn't forced to run for his life on every down.
With Syracuse's strength against the running game, and tendency to blitz, the Wildcats may need to look downfield early and often to move the chains. The 'Cats should have options in the passing game if the line can buy Robertson some time to look for them. Poppy Livers will be the obvious option over the middle, and he showed the ability to slip through the seam and find big-play opportunities last season. On either side of the field, he will most likely find two sets of very good hands in big target Mike Burke and the talented Kevin Gulyas.
The 6-4 tight end Earnest Pettway is also an option in the passing game and may see his number called a few times by Robertson if the defensive pressure forces him to make quick decisions.
The Wildcats' running game relies on a thunder-lightning-and-more-lightning approach of Kevin Monangai, Austin Medley and Robertson carrying the ball. With the success that this veteran Syracuse defense has had against the run, however, the Villanova running game may not be a focal point unless Robertson's arm, or some tricky playcalling, can force the defense to adjust.
Villanova's defense may have a slightly better time. Hunt is a good passer, but not immune from mistakes, while he passed for 10 touchdowns last season, he also threw away eight interceptions. The Wildcats lost a bit on the defensive line with the graduations of Rakim Cox and Antoine Lewis, but they return two veterans there and have a lot of talented veterans at linebacker and safety as well. Don Cherry and Joey Harmon are two of the teams' leading returning tacklers (99 and 81, respectively), and safeties Cameron McCurry and Joe Sarnese have both shown that they have a nose for getting to the ball and making plays.
Can they win?
The 'Cats will need to attack early and keep the chains moving on offense if they are going to have a chance to win. Getting their ground game going against Syracuse's defense will be very difficult, but the Wildcats have a tendency to be creative with playcalling when things get tough, so it isn't implausible that they can do it. Like Villanova, they are more susceptible to an airborne attack than grinding it out in the running game -- so Robertson's arm will be a key factor.
Defensively, stopping the Orange means stopping Terrel Hunt. The dual-threat quarterback passed for a lot of yards last season, but wasn't immune to mistakes -- tossing 8 picks to his 10 touchdowns. Villanova will need to find ways to make him uncomfortable and force those mistakes if they are going to slow the Orange down and keep fans seated into the fourth quarter.