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The Big Syracuse Preview: Can the Hoos Beat an FBS Team?

The Hoos are 1-4, and have lost

This might be Mike London's best chance for a win this year.
This might be Mike London's best chance for a win this year.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse Offense

The Orange entered the season with senior QB Terrel Hunt at the helm. Hunt played in just 5 games last year before an injury ended his season, but he still led the team in passing and rushing TDs. This year, it took just a handful of plays before Hunt's season ended. Behind him were a handful of untested underclassmen and walk-ons. True freshman Eric Dungey was tabbed as the starter and he played well in the opener against Rhode Island and the following week against Wake Forest.

Then he got hurt in Cuse's OT win over Central Michigan and was forced to miss the LSU game. That left Zack Mahoney, a walk-on sophomore, as the Orange's starting QB against a top-10 team. Mahoney completed just 42% of his passes, but did throw 3 TDs. Dungey returned after a bye week for the Orange's game at USF. He was solid, with 232 yards and 2 TDs, plus one on the ground. Unfortunately, he didn't really get it going until it was 24-3 Bulls.

On the season, Dungey has completed 60% of his passes for 660 yards and 7 TDs with only 1 INT. His passer rating is 169.34, good for 9th in the country. (His numbers are aided by the fact that he didn't have to face LSU's 14th ranked defense.) He's also rushed for 137 yards and 2 TDs, even though he is not particularly fast, at least not in comparison to Hunt.

Even with Dungey's solid play so far, the Syracuse passing offense ranks 106th in the nation. They are 53rd in passing efficiency. Syracuse has the opposite problem from the Hoos. They probably do not throw the ball enough. The rushing offense is better than Virginia's, but still just 76th. And their total offense is 108th.

Despite the low ranking offense, Syracuse's scoring offense ranks 57th in the nation. That is, in part due to an easy schedule, including 47 points against a terrible Rhode Island team. They scored 24 against LSU, but 14 of that came in the 4th quarter of a game that wasn't really in doubt.

The Orange offense is largely run out of a pistol formation with a single back. They run a lot of read option, but will also use the option as a form of play action and look to pass. That said, the team has thrown 123 passes versus 190 rush attempts. They run a lot of 2 TE sets, or a single TE and an offset H-back.

At RB, the Orange have another true freshman, Jordan Fredericks. Entering the season, the starter was junior Devante McFarlane and his backup was junior George Morris. Both of them have played, but sparingly as McFarlane has taken the top job and, quite literally, run with it. He has averaged 5.6 yards per carry, although an overwhelming majority of his 236 yards came against Rhode Island (103) and Central Michigan (73). Against LSU and USF, he rushed for just 39 yards on 11 carries. Morris was actually more successful in both of those games, so the Hoos should be prepared to see plenty of him.

Fredericks is a short, stocky runner. He's more quick than fast, although he does have a deceptive top speed. He can run between the tackles as well as outside, but he's not a true power runner. Morris is taller, but thinner and not as fast. Morris is more of a north-south guy than Fredericks.

In the passing game, the Orange utilize the TEs and HBs quite a bit. Five players have more than 5 receptions, and only 2 of those are WRs. Steve Ishmael leads the team with 14 receptions. He's a bigger WR who is more of a possession guy. He's got very good hands, and he'll go up and get a jump ball. He's not really a big play guy, and he's not a big run-after-the-catch guy. But he still averages 15 yards per reception. The big play is Brisly Estime, a 5'9" 180 pound jitterbug who's also the top return man on the team. Estime averages almost 25 yards per reception, including an 89 yard TD against Wake Forest. The other top receivers are HB Ervin Phillips and TEs Ben Lewis and Josh Parris. Hendricks and Mcfarlane are both decent receivers out of the backfield.

It seems like the Hoos have been facing some of the best OLs in the nation all year long. That does not change this week. Syracuse starts all upper-classmen on the line; three seniors and 2 juniors. The unit is led by senior RG Rob Trudo. Trudo has spent much of his career at OC, but has moved to RG because junior Jason Emerich has stepped up at OC. LT Ivan Foy and LG Nick Robinson both also have NFL potential.

Let's face it, the Hoos run defense has been terrible at times this year. But, they did look like perhaps they turned a corner last week. Though they gave up a few big runs early, they buckled down in the 2nd half and shut down the Pitt running game. Syracuse's running game is very different from Pitt's, with a lot of read-option along with some jet sweeps and even some wildcat-like plays. So the challenge this week is different.

One thing the Hoos have had trouble with this year has been edge contain. Far too often, opposing runners have been able to get outside because the Hoos defenders are crashing down into the pocket looking for a big hit on the QB. Against the read-option, this simply cannot happen. If the DE crashes down, the OLB needs to be on edge contain. Continued failures in edge contain will spell doom against Syracuse's running game.

I actually think Coach Tenuta will have the correct game plan this week. As long as the Hoos focus on not getting beat outside on runs, they should focus on getting pressure on Dungey. The Orange have only one real big play threat in the passing game, and Estime can struggle to get off against press coverage. Stop Syracuse's running game and you likely stop Syracuse.

Player to Watch

#2 QB Eric Dungey - Maybe this is a bit too easy. I suppose I could pick the QB every week for this spot. But this week he's the only real candidate. With all the read-option they run, you need to avoid letting Dungey pick up yards with his feet. If the QB can't run, that takes a big bite out of the read option.

Since Syracuse will run many of their passing plays out of the same read-option look, you need to be careful about over-committing to the RB. As I mentioned above, Cuse will run a read-option look into a play-action pass. Dungey has gotten to be very adept at making this play. The defense commits to stopping the run and Dungey hits a big play deep to Estime or a quick hitter to a TE/HB.

The Hoos have struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing QBs, but they finally managed to get some pressure on Nate Peterman last week. The only other game where the opposing QB was pressured was Notre Dame. Dungey is a good runner, but he's not the athlete Malik Zaire is. And he's not as developed a passer as Nate Peterman. Getting some hits on Dungey will be a big part of slowing down the read-option and getting pressure on him will help slow down the passing game.

Syracuse Defense

Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer is a defensive guy. He started out at Syracuse as the DC under head coach Doug Marrone, who was an offensive guy. He's also been a DC at Michigan, Western Michigan, Stanford and Northern Illinois. He has an impressive resume of good defenses, especially at Western Michigan and Stanford.

His defenses are predicated on pressure, not unlike Jon Tenuta's defenses. He's quoted numerous times saying that defensive schemes are overrated. As such, he'll use 3-4 defenses, 4-3 defenses and other formations as well. According to the depth chart, the Orange's base defense is a fairly standard 4-3. But they will regularly line up with only 3 down linemen.

While Shafer is like Tenuta in a lot of ways, his defenses tend to focus on stopping the run first. And though he'll bring pressure, he'll hide it in more ways. He'll fall back in an obvious blitz situation, and he'll big blitz on first down. Much like Tenuta, he wants his defense to generate negative plays for the offense, to generate turnovers and to hit the QB. Also, much like Tenuta he might not have the horses to run this type of defense. Not this year, after losing a lot of talent off last year's team.

Last year's defense ranked 26th in the nation in total defense. They were 31st in rushing defense and 38th in passing defense, though they were 104th in passing efficiency defense. They were 37th in scoring defense. Those numbers are very similar to the Hoos' defense last year. That Syracuse team lost its best player (and leading tackler/sacker) Cameron Lynch to the St Louis Rams. Leading CB Brandon Reddish is gone. Both starting safeties are gone. Starting NT is gone. In fact, the top returning tackler from last year is MLB Zaire Franklin, who was 6th a year ago. The Hoos lost a lot of talent from last year's defense, but Syracuse lost even more. In fact, this year's team features just three returning starters from last year. Franklin, SS Antwan Cordy and DE Ron Thompson. And both Cordy and Thompson are at different positions. (Other guys from this year's defense started at times last year, including senior CB Julian Whingham and WLB Marquez Hodge.)

With the loss of all that talent, it will come as no surprise that this year's defense has fallen from those lofty numbers last year. Right now, Syracuse ranks 67th in total defense, 44th in rushing defense, 97th in passing defense (99th in pass efficiency defense) and 61st scoring defense. They haven't fallen as far as the Hoos have, but they've also played a much easier schedule than the Hoos have. And they gave up 540 yards to USF, including 281 on the ground.

Thompson has become the top pass rusher on the team, and has 5 sacks on the year. He moved from DT to DE this year, which better suits his 6'3" 255 pound body. A pair of true sophomore LBs lead the team in tackles (Franklin and Parris Bennett). The safeties are a redshirt freshman (Rodney Williams) and Cordy, the coverted CB.

Considering all of the above, it is not surprising that the Orange defense is struggling. As Wahoo fans have seen, running an aggressive read-and-react defense full of young, inexperienced defenders leads to mistakes. Mistakes by this kind of defense often lead to long TDs by the opposing offense, something else that Wahoo fans are familiar with this year.

The Hoos, however, are not really a big play offense. They are capable of big plays, such as the 75 yard catch-and-run by T.J. Thorpe or the 80 yard screen pass from Smoke Mizzell. But more likely, the Hoos are going to have success by grinding away at the Syracuse front 7, picking up 5 and 6 yard runs, and using those runs to generate play-action opportunities for the intermediate passing game that suits Matt Johns' skills.

Canaan Severin should be targeted early and often in this game. Not only because he is the best WR the Hoos have, but because he is 6'2" and Syracuse's DBs (other than Whingham) are young and small. Actually, pretty much across the board, Syracuse's defenders are undersized. The only position where they are probably above average in size is at DE, with Thompson and senior Donnie Simmons (264 lbs). Even though redshirt freshman NT Kayton Samuels is 300 pounds, the Hoos may be able to have success running up the middle against this defense. If they can get a blocker into the second level and take Franklin out of the play, a bigger RB like Jordan Ellis should have success.

The Orange are going to blitz Matt Johns. They want to get pressure on him and they want to force him to make mistakes. He's going to need to be very careful with the ball. Better to throw the ball or even take a sack than to throw a pick-6. A year ago, Syracuse had 5 defensive TDs. They have 2 this year, plus a punt return TD from Brisly Estime. Those non-offensive-TDs will kill the Hoos this week.

USF scored against Syracuse last week on a crazy flea-flicker type play. The Hoos showed a similar look against Notre Dame. This week would be a good time to break out something like that. A big play like that could completely change this game. Beyond that, the Hoos need to focus on getting back to the ground game, using play-action and getting Canaan Severin heavily involved. The offense was at its best against Notre Dame when they were able to run the ball and Canaan Severin was all over the place catching pass after pass.

Special Teams

This is yet another place where these two teams are similar. The Hoos have finally found a punt returner and currently rank 1st in the nation in punt returns. Syracuse also has one of the top PRs in the nation. Both teams have poor coverage units, decent return units and good punters. Hopefully, Ian Frye is back on track after going 2/2 last week (the blocked PAT was not his fault).

A big play in special teams could absolutely turn this game, whether that is a big return, or a blocked kick or whatever else. But the teams are equally likely to provide that play, so this is a wash.


For some reason, the Hoos are favored by a TD this week. The line opened at 8.5, which is mind-boggling. Even the Hoos lone win over William and Mary was by less than a TD. W&M is a solid FCS team, but Syracuse is a solid FBS team. The people in Vegas who make the lines are smart, so what do they know that we don't?

That the line has been bet down to 7 in just a few days is telling. It means that a lot of people don't think the Hoos can win by more than a TD. It seems to be holding steady at 7, so maybe people think they can win by a TD.

After this week's Pitt game, there were numerous reports that Mike London "had not lost the team". The Hoos' effort in their comeback against Pitt showed this. We should find out for sure this week. Playing at home, as the favorite, it could be easy for the team to come out and play lackadaisically, especially if they've tuned out London. But if they still believe in their coach and they want to win for him, they should come out fired up and feed off the home crowd.

This may sound crazy, but I'm betting on Mike London. Not Coach London, but Mike London. These kids love him and want to play for him. He can't coach, but he can get his team up for this game. This may be the last winnable game on the schedule for the Hoos, and I think they come out on top.

Prediction: Hoos 24, Orange 17