We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. It’s an especially enjoyable edition of the Opponent Q&A this week, as we’re joined by our buddy John Cassillo of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, SBN’s excellent Syracuse site. We chat about football and some other stuff!
TN: Dino Babers brought a wide open air raid offense to Syracuse this off-season, and the team currently sits at 4-6 on the year. What were your expectations coming into the 2016 campaign, and how would you evaluate it so far?
TNIAAM: Calling the system an Air Raid's probably a bit of a misnomer, despite its current appearance regularly trotting out five wide receivers. Like Baylor (his one-time employer), Babers brings a run-first spread to the table. Problem is our offensive line and running backs haven't been able to hold up that end of the bargain, so we just pass every down instead.
Knowing that this was a young and inexperienced roster that had to adapt to a whole new system and pace of play (Scott Shafer's teams were among the slowest in the country on offense), our expectations were pretty reserved. Finishing 4-8 or 5-7 while looking more competitive was the bar to jump over in preseason, and it's the one we've largely met as the year's progressed. Babers has a system and a way of doing things, and you can see the improvement week to week. Especially with the Virginia Tech win in our back pockets, there's little to complain about here.
TN: Eric Dungey is an exciting player, though I was always concerned that he might get broken as I watched him play. It seems he kind of has. Is there any chance that he plays? If not, who will take the reins in his stead?
TNIAAM: Syracuse fans love watching Dungey play, and yes, we share the same fear of him crumpling into a heap every time he touches the football. Luckily his injury vs. Clemson wasn't a concussion, but we've still yet to receive a definitive answer on what the ailment might be.
Dino Babers said Dungey's "probably doubtful" against the 'Noles, so I wouldn't bank on him suiting up. That means you're seeing Zack Mahoney, who started against NC State last week with mixed results. Mahoney is a former walk-on who was brought in to handle last year's option attack. While his passing has gotten better, running the football is still his best attribute. That doesn't mean SU's going to run much more, though. Color me concerned.
TN: Amba Etta-Tawo is another excellent player featured on the Orange offense. What makes him so special? Are there any other offensive playmakers FSU fans should keep an eye on?
TNIAAM: Etta-Tawo was expected to be a nice-to-have deep option when he came over from Maryland as a grad transfer. We never expected him to have the sort of impact he's having right now. He excels because of his expert route running, and ability to use his size in a variety of ways. He also fails to be predictable, which makes it tough for defenses to really lock onto where he's headed on the field.
If you try to jam him at the line, he'll make himself open for a screen pass (usually in a trips formation on the short side of the field) or just run right by you. If you play him 5-10 yards off the line, he'll either stay at home for the screen, or split your coverage and challenge the safety in the back. Etta-Tawo's sure-handed and physical, but turns on the jets when needed. He's a very difficult assignment.
Etta-Tawo's also the beneficiary of the other weapons on the Orange offense. Ervin Philips is SU's primary slot receiver and can terrorize in the short passing game. Steve Ishmael has taken advantage of teams doubling Etta-Tawo in the past to get open downfield. FSU has an advantage over a team like Boston College when it comes to defending Syracuse, obviously, since they have the speed to hang with five wide receivers.
TN: How do you see the ‘Cuse offense attacking this Florida State defense?
TNIAAM: If Mahoney's in (likely), not nearly as efficiently was we would with Dungey under (behind) center. Still, the crux of the offense is draws and screens. Those plays pull the defense in, setting up the occasional deep ball to Etta-Tawo. Since Mahoney doesn't have the same grasp of the offense that Dungey does, it's unlikely plays are all that difficult to read. The challenge of the offense is always the speed at which it operates (which again, will decrease with Mahoney at the helm).
TN: The Syracuse defense has certainly had a rough go of things at times this year. Where have they struggled, and are there any particular bright spots you’re clinging to?
TNIAAM: If you take away the Clemson game, Syracuse has actually looked a whole lot better on defense since October started. Still, the problems we saw to start the year have been exacerbated over the course of the season. Depth in the secondary and in the trenches were minimal, but then we suffered injuries that led to even more youth being tossed into prominent roles. The new Tampa-2 scheme has the potential to work, but it's also a huge departure from Shafer's old defense predicated on an aggressive blitz. Most of these players were not recruited to play in coverage as much, so that's how you get the mismatches you see most Saturdays.
All of that said, the linebackers (the strength of the old defensive scheme) have managed to carve out niches for themselves, rushing the passer and disrupting throwing lanes while also getting better covering the middle of the field. This group is also very good in the red zone, since the shorter field allows them not to get spread out as much.
TN: What’s the Orange’s best hope for slowing Dalvin Cook and the FSU offense?
TNIAAM: Uhhh... there isn't one?
Syracuse is allowing nearly 200 yards per game on the ground, and that number was largely with sophomore nose tackle Steven Clark on the field. Without him (he's out for the remainder of the regular season), Syracuse is going to be pretty limited in terms of stopping runs in the middle of the line. This groups won't sell out against the run, since the passing game will shred them as a result. Florida State will have its pick of how it wants to carve up this front four.
TN: Finally, let’s get a prediction. You can tell me how you think this game will unfold, or you can predict something unrelated, maybe about basketball or lacrosse. Whatever you’d like. We’re friends here.
TNIAAM: Syracuse starts shooting in rhythm very early, and the 2-3 zone takes it from there in a resounding 84-68 victory over the 'No...
Oh, football. Right. As we saw vs. the Wolfpack last week, Mahoney can't replicate Dungey's success (not his fault), so this offense is going to have a tough time keeping up with FSU for a full game. Maybe it takes a couple drives for the Seminoles to get a read on Mahoney. But once they do, I'm not holding out much hope for Orange points. I'll go with 45-20 in a game that sounds closer than it ends up looking.