This weekend, they’ll host the Syracuse Orange in an attempt to reach bowl eligibility.
Each week, as part of our Line of Scrimmage series, we’ll be speaking with members of the beat that covers FSU’s upcoming opponent, getting all the details from those who know those teams best.
The Syracuse season started off hot with a 4-0 record but will be headed into Tallahassee after back-to-back losses. To help us catch up on the up and down season for the Orange, we’ll be joined by Christian De Guzman of SBNation’s NunesMagician.
Let’s start with head coach Dino Babers. I like Babers, I could start each day watching his locker room speech after the Virginia Tech upset. He’s 4-2 on the season, after a 7-6 record last year. What’s the overall feelings with Babers at the helm for Syracuse? Are you happy with where he has the program?
The honest answer to this question is... check back with me in a month. Because if if Dino cannot turn what was a 4-0 start into a bowl appearance at the very minimum, the answer to my question is going to change very drastically.
When you look at the Syracuse schedule where it is right now, this is what everyone, even the guys on the team, have called the gauntlet because Syracuse is coming off back-to-back-to-back weeks of playing Clemson, UNC and now FSU before their bye week. But then after the bye week, the schedule gets significantly easier — Virginia Tech, Boston College, Pitt, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. And so the quality of opponents at the back half of the schedule is certainly not Clemson, UNC and FSU.
Syracuse hasn’t looked good enough in its last two games for its first two losses of the season. But if you check back with me in a month and Syracuse has won at least one of their Virginia Tech or Boston College games, then I still think it’s a pretty good year because Syracuse could be on its way to a second straight bowl appearance — and to go back to back and bowl appearances, especially after the stretch during the late 2010s, where it was just under .500 record after under .500 record, that’s something I think a lot of fans would be satisfied with.
While last year saw quarterback Garrett Shrader and the Orange struggle against Florida State, it was a different story in 2021 when Shrader shredded the Seminoles with 137 yards on the ground and three touchdowns. This year, he ran wild against Purdue but has been pretty contained, at least on the ground, in the other games. Where do you feel Shrader has improved overall this year? And where does he still struggle?
Much like what I said previously about Babers, if you asked me this question two weeks ago, my answer would have been completely different. In the first four games of the season, when Syracuse was winning, this was a completely different Shrader who seemed like he had confidence in terms of not just throwing the ball, but in running the ball, in decision making.
But the last couple of games have been puzzling because it’s kind of been a regression back to the mean, for Shrader in terms of his abilities and really struggle with decision making.
It’s tough to figure out where he’s at right now, especially because we don’t know if level of competition is the reason he struggled over the past couple of game or if it’s a worrying trend that’ll still pop back up during the winnable back half of the schedule.
Sticking to the backfield, Sean Tucker is gone and in his place is LeQuint Allen. The sophomore is averaging just over 4.5 yards per carry this season. Is Allen the big bruising back or the speedy/shifty type?
Classic football fans will recognize this comparison — Dino Babers has used this throughout the entire year and even last year: Marcus Allen, all the way back with the Raiders in the 1980s. And if you know Marcus Allen’s play style, it’s pretty much the same thing.
He’s very explosive once he comes into space. He’s not going to be necessarily the same bruising type of running back that Sean Tucker was, but if you let him get into open space, he’ll make you pay. That’s been easier said than done for Syracuse, especially as of late.
It’s also important to note that he’s wearing the number one jersey and Dino Babers doesn’t give that out willingly.
As far as receiving, Shrader appears to have spread the ball around pretty well so far with eight players catching at least six passes. Who are the names to know at receiver or tight end? And has the group taken any steps back with the Oronde Gadsden injury?
You really only need to focus on one thing and that’s the last thing you said — Oronde Gadsden out for the season. He was Syracuse’s number one option last year, went down during the second play of the second game of the season, limped off and unfortunately he’s out for the rest of the season. And ever since that Syracuse’s wide receiver production has taken a massive tumble down the mountain, not just the hill, it’s a massive fall off a mountain.
This is a Syracuse team that is still looking for a receiver to step up and fill the void left by Gadsden. There are three wide receivers that you’re going to see: Damien Alford, Donovan Brown and Umari Hatcher. Alford and Hatcher will be on the outside and Brown will be in the slot. And you’ll maybe see converted quarterback Dan Villari make an appearance at tight end.
That being said, none of those receivers have shown the consistency to make catches. And so you couple that with Shrader’s regression, it’s really a toss up of whether the Syracuse passing game is going to show up or not just because the wide receiver quality has just not been there this year.
Last question on offense, Shrader has been sacked 14 times this season and the offensive line has suffered it’s fair share of injuries with the loss of David Wohlabaugh and Kalan Ellis. What’s your thoughts on the big guys up front?
My big concern ahead of the season was the offensive line, and that is still a concern. This offensive line is absolutely in shambles in terms of quality bodies available, so many people left last year due to graduation. And so now you’re left with a really ragtag of line that kind of got put up together.
This is a line that not only is banged up but is really, really porous. This is easily the weakest part of the Syracuse team — Jared Verse will have a fun time deciding where he wants to line up, because wherever he decides to line up, he’s probably gonna get something done.
Flipping over to defense, through the first four games, the Orange defense held up well before allowing 31 to Clemson and 40 to North Carolina. Would you put that on just the step up in competition or has the defense taken a step back overall?
It’s definitely a mix of both — step up in competition, then there has definitely been a step back in terms of the performance. They really, really impressed with the first four games of the season: not against the best quality of opponents, granted.
But as you may remember from last year, this is a defense that runs to 3-3-5. Syracuse lost their defensive coordinator to Nebraska, so who did Dino Babers decide to bring in as a new defensive coordinator? Well, the guy who actually made the dang system in the first place, Rocky Long.
And so many of the players loved talking about how the changes and the philosophies that he brought and you really saw that at least early on in the season. Now, because of the step up in competition, because of the offense’s lack of consistency, the defense has been out there really, really long, they’re getting really, really tired, especially towards the end of the game.
Let’s go front to back on defense. Caleb Okechukwu is following up his breakout season of seven sacks with two so far this season. He’s joined by Terry Lockett, Kevon Darton, and others on this defensive front. What does this line do well? And is there an area where it has struggled this year?
This is an undersized defensive line. You mentioned Kevon Darton, the starting nose tackle for Syracuse. He’s 5’11”, 271 which is not what you expect your defensive tackle to necessarily be at. So this is an undersized defensive line, and because Syracuse only runs with a three-man front, it’s very easy for the defensive line to get overpowered.
However, the defensive line is very, very tenacious and will stunt a lot to try and get around that undersizedness. And you’ll even see Darton used his undersized nature to essentially bully some centers off the ball.
In this scheme, the defensive line is just meant to soak up blockers, taking their attention away, maybe they’re getting double teamed. That’s what the defensive line wants to do.I love a good linebacker name and Marlowe Wax is a fantastic one. What’s the defensive junior backer bring to this team? And how have you felt the second line has performed this year?
The defensive line is supposed to soak up the pressure, and that’s because the linebackers are the guys who are going to bring the pressure. When the linebackers are put in a position where they can pin their ears back and just go full head and tail at the opposing quarterback and the opposing running back in the backfield, it’s really really hard for them to stop that.
Marlowe Wax showed that last year as the main weak side linebacker — he has now moved over to middle linebacker and even though Wax now has to stay back a bit more be more of a leader and sometimes even be a spy, which obviously is going to be needed against Jordan Travis, He will still come in with scary A gap blitzes that it can be really really hard to stop, especially if you know the offensive line gets to tunneled in on “oh, this line is undersized, just keep an eye on them and make sure he doesn’t do anything and then we’ll just kind of be fine,” because all of a sudden here comes number two in a white jersey, who’s already right in front of Jordan Travis. That’s what this linebacking corps is really, really good at. They run really,really fast to the ball carrier and close now really, really fast.
The area where they have a little bit of problem is contain and if Travis gets out of the pocket, there’s opportunities for him to gain some decent yardage, which is obviously one of his bread and butter skills.
But this is a linebacker group that is very, very aggressive when it gets the chance too, and you’re gonna see sacks.
Finally, the secondary. The Orange saw quite a bit of transition in the off-season in this position group. Garrett Williams is in the NFL, Duce Chestnut is at LSU, Ja’Had Carter is at Ohio State. How has Syracuse handled the secondary turnover?
First four games, great, it’s all fine. Then Syracuse found itself against the athletic competition, that is Clemson’s five star wide receivers and UNC having the potential projected number two pick in the draft under center, and it didn’t go too well. It just showed that Syracuse still has a problem with basically just athleticism in the secondary.
Isaiah Johnson, the number one corner receiver who you’ll probably expect, he’ll get the Keon Coleman assignment. He’s a transfer from Dartmouth, who’s in his second year with Syracuse who took over a starting spot last year and has performed very, very well.
And the other one is safety Elijah Clark who is a second year transfer from Rutgers. He is a very, very aggressive tackler and will chase down ball carriers with significant speed. It’s kind of a crapshoot right now on who’s going to play for the other positions.
Syracuse’s safeties and secondary in general play a lot of zone coverage to try and mitigate some of the athletic downsides that the natural unit has and because of that, there’s gonna be a lot of open spaces and soft zone spaces for the receivers to settle into. And that’s how Syracuse basically lost its last couple of games, which was death by 1000 cuts and then a 40-yard plus play to really take the wind out of the sails.
So who really knows right now with the Syracuse secondary right now. It’s just a hope that you survive. And hopefully, the transitions of the last couple of weeks have been because of the step up for competition and not a worrying trend for the last half of the season.
All right, the grand finale — how does Saturday play out?
This is not going to be pretty — I do not think that Syracuse has much of a chance in this game right now. Shrader has been too inconsistent. The line has been too banged up. And the secondary right now is it far too easy to expose. And when Travis is on his game, he’ll be able to take advantage of Syracuse in a multitude of ways and then thrown a fact that Trey Benson had over 160 yards last year, he he will be very close to getting that again this year. Because while Syracuse’s run defense is stronger in some areas, it’s weaker in others than it was last year, so I expect another big game from him.
And just add that all up together. It’s not looking good for Syracuse.