Last week was a bit rough, as most (all) Syracuse fans can attest to. And this weekend... well, we don't really know what's going to happen yet. But that's why we're all here. As usual, the esteemed panel tries to get some further insight into what's going to happen this coming Saturday.
As is and will be the norm all season, we've opened the floor to the TNIAAM football wing to discuss this week's burning questions about Syracuse on- and off-the-field, the ACC and more. Join us below...
In a Clemson loss that highlighted several issues, which was the biggest?
The Invisible Swordsman: The secondary. I don't think anyone who follows this team was honestly surprised that we gave up a number of big plays to Clemson's outstanding receiver corps, but the ease to which the defensive backs were getting beaten was really disappointing. In a scheme where our front seven sends regular blitzes, you have to have solid man coverage and excellent safety play, and right now, we do not have that.
Andrew Pregler: The biggest issue has to be the secondary. This is a pass first game and now with Lyn out for the season, the secondary does not have the depth and there isn't a whole bunch of "talent" there to make up for it. The Orange will have to get creative with how they defend the pass from here on out.
Matt McClusky: I'll go big picture here and say the biggest issue is the clear difference between the Big Boys of college football and Syracuse. This isn't a new problem, but in games against top-tier teams the talent and size disparity is on full display. Clemson looked bigger and simply better, which it is, but still, it is still disappointing to see. I'm on record as saying Syracuse's ceiling is probably 7 to 8 wins and that's because in the world of football Syracuse will never be able to recruit at a higher level. (Which is weird, I mean we have a basketball program that is the elite of the elites but the football side of things will never get there).
Dan Lyons: The issues on each side of the ball were primarily with the skill guys, namely the receivers and defensive backs. While the DBs were not good at all, I'm a bit more worried about our receivers complete inability to get open. Clemson probably has the best group of receivers that Syracuse will face all year, but their defensive backs were supposed to be the team's weakness, and SU didn't get one catch from a wide receiver. This is incredibly disconcerting.
Jared Smith: As expected it was our secondary -- which in a rage on Saturday I suggested that all of their scholarships should be revoked. Look, I knew coming in against Clemson this unit was struggling and it was going to take a big turnaround for them to contain Sammy Watkins and Co., but even after 2 weeks of coaching they still sucked. At times they weren't even 10 yards close to a WIDE OPEN wide receiver. This unit is going to allow some points against teams with a good passing game and our only hope is that the rest of the defensive unit plays outstanding to keep the offense in it.
John Cassillo: Oh wow, was that secondary horrendous. Between biting on every single fake, safeties getting burned on deep routes and the fact that we refused to ever come out in a nickel package or some facsimile thereof, I don't know where to begin. This group will be the bane of our existence all year.
How important is the loss of Keon Lyn to this much-maligned secondary?
TIS: It's like blowing a tire when your car already has a blown suspension...it was pretty useless before, and it's damn well useless now.
AP: Like I said above, I think it's huge. It's not as if Lyn is an all conference defensive back, but he's a solid veteran player to insert into a secondary that has looked really bad against two really good teams (NW+Clemson). If anything else, it'll give the younger guys a chance to shine and maybe there's a diamond in rough that everyone missed in spring/summer ball. Otherwise this is a huge loss for Syracuse.
MM: It's huge. While a part of me wants to say "Syracuse lost with you, Syracuse can lose without you," but for a unit so limited in terms of talent and bodies, Lyn's absence could give mediocre teams like N.C. State and Maryland just enough of an advantage. The margin of error for a 2-3 team is minimal, losing a valued starter, one with years of experience in a "Scott Shafer system" is about impossible to make up for -- even though the secondary has been atrocious this season.
DL: It's big, Keon has been a mainstay on the team in each of his four years at Syracuse, and it is always hard to replace a starter. I really like Brandon Reddish, and Julian Whigham has shown some good skills over the last few weeks, but you'd always like to have more depth across the board.
JS: Honestly, I really don't know. It is not like Lyn was playing well and the secondary is going to get worse because we will be missing his play. What Syracuse will miss is the depth he brings, but then against maybe with his injury a young guy will be thrust into a situation in which he wouldn't be in with a senior in front of him and he might play better. I feel bad for Lyn, but, again, I am not happy about the secondary's play overall, so I am not losing any sleep over losing a guy that hasn't played well.
JC: Losing an experienced player like Lyn is a big deal, especially for a secondary that could not get much worse than it is right now. But trying to look at some positive aspects, maybe it increases the heat on the rest of the secondary in a positive way? Or at least allows for us to field-test a few of the younger players on the roster in the hopes of avoiding this year's mistakes come next season? I don't want to start "looking toward next year," but grasping for positives on this for 2013 is tough.
Thoughts on George McDonald's play-calling so far?
TIS: John touched on GM's predictability on first downs, and yes, I agree that the trends look a lot like something George DeLeone would conjure up in terms of game plans. However if I look at the opponent (Clemson) as well as his body of work over the three games Terrel Hunt has led the offense, I think he's actually done just fine. We're now entering a stretch of games against teams where the defenses are closer to the mean in terms of talent (as opposed to Tulane, Wagner, and Clemson who were extremes on either side), so I'll have a much stronger opinion one way or another in about a month.
AP: I'm not 100% what to make of it. If anything, it just seems to lack flow. There are certain moments where you'd like to see the offense take a shot down field or there's an obvious opportunity to run the ball on third and three based off defensive personnel. For Syracuse, these moments haven't been utilized and the offense just doesn't look that in sync. I think this is still feeling out what the players are capable of, but I'm not impressed and... kinda... sorta... miss Nate Hackett...
MM: Meh. Syracuse is only five games into the season; Terrel Hunt has only played three full games; Clemson and Northwestern light years better than Syracuse right now; there's plenty of excuses and/or reasons to give George McDonald the benefit of the doubt, but I am disappointed. I thought Syracuse was too Paul Pasqualoni vanilla on Saturday against the Tigers. Of course, Clemson's defense is a beast, but McDonald seemed content in three-and-outs and short field plays. I was hoping for more of a let-it-all-hang-out mentality. But we shall see, there is plenty of time left for McDonald to really put his stamp on this Syracuse team. And I'm in no way going to write him off as a coordinator. Yet.
DL: Very mixed. Stuff looked great against Wagner and Tulane, but you can't only open the playbook up when you play an underwhelming team. I appreciate the increased focus on the run against Clemson, but the lack of imagination and constant running on first down gets tiresome. I think the team can win with this playbook, McDonald just hasn't quite learned how to get the best out of it yet, and doesn't seem to have a great feel for the flow of the game. I remember many of the same issues with Nate Hackett, so I think we need to give him a little time.
JS: So far, so good. I see improvements week by week and he has adopted to his personal. Personally, I HATE picking a part OC, especially this early in one's career. (Nate Hackett is getting BLASTED in Buffalo for no reason what so ever. I just don't understand why people are so harsh on someone that's just learning their new players.) Last week we saw the running game doing some good things and moving forward if that continues this offense will be just fine.
JC: As the Invisible Swordsman said, I already went through this on the blog, though really, that article looks at everything from a very basic viewpoint. Run-heavy play selection would be fine if it was varied, was interspersed with play action and did not have players simply running up the gut over and over again. Passing-wise, we're not drawing up routes with an eye on getting wide receivers open. George McDonald just seems to have his playbook and then goes through the motions, pausing to repeat things that work, even when they proceed to stop working. Hoping that's not the case against NC State...
NC State starting QB Brandon Mitchell might be back this week. Are you worried?
TIS: Any Quarterback that has two eyes, a working throwing arm and can stand up has me worried right now...hey, I just described Blaine Gabbert!
AP: Incredibly. This is one of those toss up games Syracuse needs to win if they want to be bowl eligible. With a banged up secondary, facing off against Mitchell just smells like a set up for a triumphant return rather than a barnstorming the ACC moment.
MM: From everything I'm reading, Mitchell should be under center, or in the shotgun, come Saturday. And, honestly, I don't think it should worry Syracuse fans. Not to say that Mitchell isn't a decent quarterback who could provide that little something extra N.C. State needs at home, but overall, whoever is at quarterback, it won't be Tajh Boyd, it won't be Jameis Winston. Mitchell or not, Keon Lyn or not, this game is still more than winnable for Syracuse.
DL: I don't know much about Brandon Mitchell, but it won't be terribly difficult to upgrade from Pete Thomas. While Thomas has decent yards/attempt numbers, and his 64% completion rate is solid, he has the same two touchdown, seven interception numbers that Drew Allen has. Also, while Mitchell has never put up dynamic rushing numbers, he does bring that element to the game.
JS: Honestly, I have no idea if I should be worried or not. I am worried about Syracuse just getting a win and getting back to the .500 mark.
JC: From his limited time on the field to start the year, Mitchell looked crisp and also seemed to play the part of legitimate dual threat. That could be a problem for SU, which hasn't had consistent success defending mobile quarterbacks of late. Was accounting for Tajh Boyd's mobility part of why he was able to pass the ball so easily? Or was he passing the ball so well that he just didn't need to run it at all? Mitchell's no Tajh Boyd, but the answer may give us a hint into what to expect from the Orange defensively if Mitchell's under center.
What do the Orange need to do to beat NC State down in Raleigh?
TIS: I think the offense will have more success against an NC State defense that is a little banged up. Terrel Hunt came back to earth a bit, but is still an extremely dynamic force for us. We will put up more points than last week, so it really will be up to the defense to put in their best effort to date and limit NC State to no more than 2 or 3 plays of 30 yards or more.
AP: Jerome Smith and PTG had the big runs to put Syracuse on the board against Clemson. I'd love to see both of them incorporated into the play calling but in a far less predictable way. After both of their runs, it was apparent to Clemson the Orange wanted to hammer away on every down. I'd love to see a healthy 60/40 run to pass ratio which should help take some pressure off Hunt.
MM: Let's ignore the issues on defense and concentrate on offense: Syracuse needs to establish a consistent passing game. Be it Drew Allen or Hunt, in games against quality opponents, Syracuse has failed to get its receiving corp involved. There's plenty of reason and blame to go around for that, but in order to pull out a road win against a fairly quality opponent, Syracuse is going to need more than Jerome Smith, Prince Tyson-Gulley and Hunt running for their lives.
DL: N.C. State has a very solid run defense (17th in the NCAA), while they are far more susceptible through the air (67th). Wake Forest, who has been struggling to move the ball this year, had 268 yards and three touchdowns through the air against the Pack. While Syracuse doesn't have a weapon like Michael Campanaro on the outside, they do have a far superior running game to the Deacs, so if Terrel Hunt and his receivers can back the Wolfpack defense out of the box with any consistency from the passing game, Jerome Smith and company should have plenty of room to run free.
JS: Syracuse needs to continue to move the ball on offense and make a few plays here and there on defense. I don't see the Wolfpack's offense exploding, though, it could against our secondary and I am not scared to death about their defense, which gave up a bunch of points to a bad Wake Forest team. If the Orange can just execute their gameplan they should be able to pull off a win in Raleigh.
JC: Win the battle up front, on both sides of the ball. Syracuse's pass-rush has been a nice surprise this season, and gets plenty of help from the linebackers. Utilizing that front seven to force whoever the Pack quarterback is into poor decisions will go a long way toward deciding the outcome of this game. The Orange offensive line also needs to be on its game if we have any hope of moving the ball more effectively. State has 44 tackles for loss this year already (tied for fifth in the nation), so preventing them from getting penetration will be the focus of the day.
What will be the key to the Wolfpack holding back Syracuse?
TIS: The offense still revolves around the effectiveness of Terrel Hunt, and where Wagner and Tulane offered no real pressure on Terrel Hunt (and paid the price), Clemson showed that an effective pass rush can disrupt his rhythm and force him into mistakes. Syracuse's offensive line is average to be fair, so I think consistent pressure and a hostile crowd will have a major impact on whether the Wolfpack sends our Orange home with a 2-4 record.
AP: Turn the game into a track meet. I don't think Syracuse is really built to overcome a huge deficit and as Clemson and Northwestern have made apparent, you can move the ball on our defense. If the Wolfpack jump ahead early at home, I'll be incredible worried.
MM: Whoever gets the call at quarterback, I think the objective has to be to exploit Syracuse's secondary. Again, I know N.C. State is not Clemson or Florida State here (or Northwestern, for that matter), but SU has major issues on its back line of defense. Go deep early and hope to keep the hometown crowd involved and get Syracuse players thinking about hitting the bus to get out of Dodge. Clemson shot first against Syracuse and it set the tone for the rest of the game. N.C. State doesn't have the fire power, but scoring early and wearing down the secondary has to be a major goal.
DL: N.C. State's passing game sort of resembles Syracuse's, in that they don't have one dominant go-to receiver, and they have really struggled to throw the ball to score (three passing touchdowns total this season). Again, like N.C. State, Syracuse defense has been very good against the run this year. The Wolfpack will need to move the ball against a battered Orange secondary to really get things going on offense. As we saw in the Northwestern game, SU's defense also struggles with quarterbacks that can break contain, so while I don't believe Mitchell is Kain Colter, he may look to hurt the Orange on the ground as well, if he does play. On paper, these two teams look very similar in terms of strengths and weaknesses, so I expect a very close game down in Raleigh this weekend.
JS: Doing what all the other winning offenses have done -- kill our secondary. If N.C. State can get its passing game going and force our offense to be unbalanced because they need to score points than SU is in trouble.
JC: Exploit the secondary. While not known for the deep ball, State has two impressive weapons in Bryan Underwood and Rashard Smith who can both beat us over the top. If they can get the secondary to bite on fakes again, and perhaps get the linebackers to stay home to prevent the quarterback from scrambling (more a fear for Mitchell than Thomas), that's when trouble will start. This Syracuse team hasn't played incredibly well from behind this season, so the Wolfpack scoring early would put us in a bind once again.