Like a food fight in Florida, it's a battle of the oranges at Scott Stadium this weekend, as the 3-2 Syracuse Orange come to Charlottesville. While the Hoos won't be able to secure three wins over SU in one day this time, it's still a pivotal battle as both teams head into the meat of their ACC schedules.
John Cassillo of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, SB Nation's Syracuse blog, was good enough to answer our questions before the game. We answered some of theirs too. Be sure to swing over to TNIAAM for all your Syracuse coverage needs.
STL: After Terrel Hunt went down, no small number of outside observers thought any chance for a successful Syracuse season went off the field with him. But Eric Dungey has been a capable dual-threat replacement. What has impressed you the most about Dungey thus far?
TNIAAM: It's the little things that have really set him apart, in my opinion. Even as a true frosh, Dungey's shown himself a very capable leader, fearless competitor and a student of the game who's willing to put in the work to improve week-to-week. He's a little reckless sometimes, yes. But when you see his ability on play-fakes (among the best I've seen at the college level, to be honest), the air he can put under the ball and stuff like the presence of mind to lateral in the open field... these are all very good things. They can go wrong every so often, but really haven't yet. Really hoping we get four healthy and productive years with him under center.
STL: The first four games were pretty much the best Orange fans could have reasonably hoped for: three wins and a respectable showing in a loss to LSU. So um ... what happened against South Florida?
TNIAAM: If you ask the coaches? The "heat got to'em." That's inexcusable in my book, so coming up with my own conclusions after watching the game twice: the defense simply was not prepared. At all. They'd already shown a pattern of diminishing returns each week since the opener, but this was on a whole 'nother level. USF had a great gameplan, mind you -- use short passes to beat the blitz and spread the terrible-in-coverage linebackers too thin. But Syracuse should've also been ready to deal with that sort of thing going in (most of the Bulls receptions were/are courtesy of running backs and tight ends). Since they weren't, they got torched. I'm not nearly as optimistic now as a I was after the LSU game.
STL: Scott Shafer's defense has been solid if not spectacular this year. What's the driving philosophy behind his scheme, and who are the two or three players who are most important to making it go?
TNIAAM: I'd beg to differ, based on what's explained above. The Orange have allowed a career-high performance by an opposing offensive player in every game. The secondary can't cover anyone, and the linebackers bite on play action EVERY time. If the line's not blitzing, it's getting knocked around in the trenches a ton. We're allowing 5.87 (!!!) yards per play right now (a stat greatly assisted by holding URI to a pretty minuscule number in the opener).
But on the positive side, Ron Thompson's emerged as the lethal pass rusher we thought he'd be, and the linebackers (especially Zaire Franklin) have done a nice job of getting into the backfield, as is typical in this aggressive and blitz-heavy 4-3. They may not be the best at "havoc" but when they pull it off, they're a very formidable group. There's no one in the secondary worth talking about. You'll find them on islands, giving you a 10-yard cushion to complete throws.
STL: Flipping sides of the ball, when Syracuse is on offense, what are they looking to do and who are they looking to for big plays?
TNIAAM: Syracuse's offensive philosophy this year is simply to get as many playmakers out there as they can, and just start creating mismatches. It's largely worked, especially with Eric Dungey under center, making plays with both his arm and his legs (nine total TDs in under four games of action). Dungey is the focal point, and then everything else forms around that. As long as they're not playing from behind, they'll utilize a lot of play action to try to open things up in the middle of the field. You'll see a lot of his favorite target, Ben Lewis, along with the team's two excellent receivers Steve Ishmael and Brisly Estime (the latter's arguably the fastest guy on the field). A lot of runs end up coming out of the option of late, but if we go back to handoffs a bit more, that should keep shifty freshman back Jordan Fredericks involved. He gets his first start on Saturday, though he's been the team's leading rusher all season.
STL: After Virginia, SU's next four games are brutal: hosting a surprisingly stout Pitt team, then at Florida State, at Louisville, and a home date with Clemson. With three wins already, are there three wins left on Syracuse's schedule that could bring a bowl game around?
TNIAAM: Obviously this would've been a much easier task if we'd handled our business against USF last week... Still, there are three games against peers left (Virginia, NC State and Boston College), plus the Pitt game is anything but assured for either side due to the Panthers... well, being the Panthers. Under Scott Shafer, the Orange haven't been ones for upsets, so they're pretty much forced to win three of those four games spelled out. Not an impossible feat, mind you, but with the way this defense has continued to deteriorate, it's getting tougher to stay optimistic there. A win over the Hoos on Saturday would do wonders for their chances, and morale.
STL: A ton on the line for each of these teams this weekend. Bottom line: Who ya got?
TNIAAM: I try not to be a blind optimist (see most of the above), but I really do like Syracuse to bounce back here against Virginia. Trends aren't built in one game, and I'm hopeful that what we saw against USF was just an anomaly, with a more prepared team headed to Charlottesville this Saturday. I think Dungey is able to make the plays he want and the team should come out aggressively on offense. If the defense can simply handle its business and maybe force a turnover or two, I do like the Orange to pick up the much-needed victory. Syracuse 27, Virginia 23 is my pick.