We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with our buddies from Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, SBN’s excellent Syracuse blog. John Cassillo sat down with us to discuss Eric Dungey, a leaky defense, and what the Orange can do to come out with a win on Saturday in the Carrier Dome.
TN: Syracuse is off to a 2-0 start in Dino Babers’s third year. What were your expectations for this year’s team, and have you seen anything so far this season to change them?
TNIAAM: Things are going as planned, for the most part. Despite opening on the road against a decent MAC team in Western Michigan, we expected to win that one and we did. Eric Dungey looks healthy in his return from last year’s broken foot, and the run game looks like it may have improved.
That said, with a ton of experience (and Texas A&M grad transfer Koda Martin) back on the offensive line, we were under the impression things would get better on that front, and instead they haven’t looked so great. After the first half versus WMU, the Orange have allowed near-constant pressure, which is a bit concerning. The defense hasn’t necessarily shown much improvement from the late collapse last season either. Didn’t expect them to be a great unit this season, whether in the typical 4-3 scheme or the new Nickel package they’ve implemented. But when teams have time to throw, they’ve torn this secondary to shreds. That’s concerning both in the short- and long-term.
TN: Florida State is undertaking a transition to an offense similar to Syracuse’s. It’s certainly experienced some growing pains early on, which has caused some anxiety among a fanbase that, justified or not, largely had high expectations entering the year. Can you tell us a bit about your experience with the transition to a high tempo spread offense and what we might expect?
TNIAAM: It doesn’t necessarily click right away, I’ll tell you that. FSU has some obvious advantages compared to our implementation, with superior athletes, direct access to Florida recruiting and a history of success to bank on. And despite Jimbo’s (much) slower pro-style offense, that’s still a lot closer to Willie Taggart’s system than the terribly executed almost-option attack the Orange ran before Dino Babers arrived.
For Syracuse, we didn’t necessarily get signs it was truly working until maybe game five (a 50-33 loss to Notre Dame) of year one, and the offense never truly exploded until the 76-61 defensive atrocity against Pitt (another defeat). Last year looked better, but still wasn’t necessarily consistent, whether Dungey was in or not. Again, you guys will skip this level of growing pains because you have depth and talent we didn’t when Babers arrived. But implementation could take a full season before things really get rolling. Poor O-line play and injuries can potentially delay that progress, too (something we certainly saw play out).
TN: How’s our favorite death-defying quarterback doing? Still in one piece? Who are his main playmakers to keep an eye on Saturday?
TNIAAM: Dungey remains Dungey, for better or for worse. And after a summer of telling everyone why he’s NOT injury prone, he’s mostly avoided taking unnecessary hits this year through two games. We’ll see if that holds up against better competition, though. As mentioned, the offensive line remains a potential concern (as his 200 rushing yards against WMU should prove).
With so much turnover at wide receiver this season, it was a mystery as to who would carry on the record-setting tradition of guys like Amba Etta-Tawo, Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips from recent years. So far, that guy’s been Jamal Custis, who’s always had the right size to be dangerous (6-foot-5, 213 pounds), but only showed glimmers of what he could do until this year. He has 11 catches for 209 yards and three scores so far.
Tight end Ravian Pierce has been pulled into blocking duty more than we’d originally thought he would, but he’s a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-3 and 244 pounds, and is dangerous with the ball in his hands. Nykeim Johnson and Moe Neal are two of the fastest guys on the team, and are tough to catch once they have a head of steam. Neal’s a running back, but I’d argue a far better pass-catcher than most of the actual receivers on the roster. I’m interested to see how we use him in the passing game more this year.
TN: How do you expect the high-flying Orange to attack the FSU defense, which is also transitioning to a new system? Do the Orange have a formidable runner other than Dungey himself?
TNIAAM: As you’d expect by now, the run game does go as Dungey does, since even when he’s not running himself, he serves as a distraction for the opposing defense. So far this year, he’s accounted for 244 of SU’s 549 rushing yards, though a bunch of the rest was in garbage time last weekend. The aforementioned Moe Neal has shown breakaway ability, though he’s a bit smaller. Dontae Strickland runs well outside but sometimes has trouble finding lanes between the tackles.
Syracuse is likely to try the same thing with Florida State that they do with everyone else: Run inside and pull the defense in, then exploit open space toward the sideline and downfield. Dungey adds the extra wrinkle of needing a spy that helps, too. I’d be surprised if we see as many screen passes this weekend as we did against Wagner, due to your obvious speed advantage there. Without that, going to be relying a little more on deep balls. Hopefully our receivers are up to that task... otherwise, it means a lot of Dungey running. You also won’t be giving him the open space to do that in the middle of the field the way our last two opponents did (see the highlights for some of the bigger gains WMU allowed in the middle).
TN: On the other side of the ball, y’all had to be a little concerned with the defensive output against Western Michigan, right? What were the main issues there?
TNIAAM: Oh, very. Despite the apparent base scheme change to a 4-2-5, we’ve yet to really use it because the last two teams were supposed to be pretty run-heavy, so we stuck to a 4-3. The transition from Scott Shafer’s havoc- and blitz-based system to the Tampa-2 has been a difficult one, and it’s clear that process isn’t necessary over yet. While we had very experienced linebackers for the last two seasons, SU basically starts from scratch there this year.
What we’ve found through two games is that when Syracuse brings pressure, they’re able to minimize big plays (since they’re forcing quick decisions). When they’re not... that’s how you get Western Michigan’s quarterback throwing for 300 yards with ease. Syracuse’s secondary is experienced, but also rotates in plenty of youth. All of the defensive backs have been guilty of allowing receivers to get behind them when opposing QBs have any time to throw. So if we can’t get a blitz going against FSU, this could get ugly. Would think the ‘Noles try the deep ball often if Deondre Francois has a few seconds in the pocket.
TN: Which match-ups with the FSU offense concern you? How do you think the Orange defense will attack a similar offensive approach to their own?
TNIAAM: I know Florida State has its concerns about the offensive line, but Syracuse hasn’t really been getting much penetration this year without a blitz. That matchup -- FSU’s O-line versus Syracuse’s D-line -- is the key to this entire game for me. If the ‘Noles can protect against pressure, that means Francois will find (likely open) receivers downfield. It also means Cam Akers has another field day, in all likelihood. He did whatever he wanted against the Orange last year (199 yards). It could be the same issue again this time around if the blocking’s in front of him.
I’m torn as to how Syracuse will approach this week in terms of scheme. On the one hand, would think they stick to the 4-3 because of Akers and the resulting ability for FSU to run the football well. But the 4-2-5 is designed to counter spread and up-tempo attacks to some extent. We may end up switching back and forth a bit to both force adjustments from Taggart and his staff, and just to change up the personnel we’re tossing out there against a faster pace of offense. Blitzing will be a necessity, and that’s where players like Ryan Guthrie and Antwan Cordy seem poised to get involved, regardless of alignment.
TN: Finally, how do you see this one unfolding? FSU sits as a 3.5-point road favorite, which came as a surprise to some, and the under/over sits at 66.5. Are we going to have a point-laden Big 12-style nooner on our hands?
TNIAAM: First off, bet the house on the over. Win or lose, the Syracuse defense is unlikely to stop Florida State from falling short of 35 points (at the very least), so seems like a no-brainer that this one’s a barnburner.
As much as I’d like to pick Syracuse to win this one (and I actually did on our podcast earlier this week), I just think there are too many IFs for the Orange on defense. We need pressure to be successful, and that’s been hard to come by. The secondary needs to improve, but other than freshman Andre Cisco’s nose for the ball so far (three picks in two games), there have been few signs they can defend downfield against lesser opponents than FSU. This thing is going to be close, but points-y. I think we’ll see Florida State win 45-41 in a game that sort of fixes what ails the ‘Noles though also gives us some room for optimism that the offensive output is here to stay for SU.
Big thanks to John for his time and insight! Be sure to head over to TNIAAM for all things Syracuse and the internet’s strangest friendship. You can find our answers to their questions here.