We beat a real opponent! In their first ACC road game, Syracuse managed to come out victorious, battering NC State with an impressive running game while applying a ton of pressure on the defensive side. While it's just one of several more wins needed for bowl eligibility, there's no reason we shouldn't be at least a little pleased with how things are shaping up.
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...
Who impressed you the most in Syracuse's win over NC State?
Sean Farrell: For me, it’s junior linebacker Cameron Lynch. Jerome Smith had another great game – so kudos to him – but we’ve come to expect that. Lynch had 14 tackles, including 11 solo (!), two tackles for loss and a quarterback hit. The Wolfpack only averaged 3.7 yards per play. The Syracuse defense, led by Lynch, held NC State to just ten points. (I know, you may be saying "Sean, the NC State offense held NC State to ten points." And you’re probably right.)
The Invisible Swordsman: Jerome Smith. Honorable Mention has to go out to the Orange secondary with Durell Eskridge in particular having a really good game. But Jerome carried the load of the Orange offense and dealt the backbreaker late in the 4th Quarter. I love me some between-the-tackles running, and our effectiveness on the ground will open things up for the Orange passing game.
Matt McClusky: With both Jerome Smith and Prince Tyson-Gulley rushing for over 100 yards, and Terrel Hunt coming close, I'm going to go with the offensive line. And while I was pleasantly surprised by the secondary, I'll give the Bigs up front much needed credit for paving the way for Syracuse to get a much needed win.
Dan Lyons: The easy answer is the running backs, and they were quite impressive, but the rushing attack would not be where it is without great improvement on the offensive line during the course of the season. Sean Hickey and Macky MacPherson have been solid all season, but Nick Robinson, Ivan Foy, and Rob Trudo have really stepped up and opened huge holes for Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley, and the rest of the backs. The group still needs to cut down on the flags, but they're making good progress as a unit.
Jared Smith: Good question. Saturday's victory had a lot of ups and downs and at time I find myself yelling at the TV and then high-fiving my stepfather. However, I left the game most impressed by Jerome Smith. I think sometimes we take his running style for granted. In the beginning of his career we thought he'd just be a short-yardage running back because of his size but as his career moves along, man, can he make big plays, and he does it a lot. You look at Smith and every time he hits a hole he's moving forward and then all of a sudden, BOOM, he's gone for 50 yards.
John Cassillo: Damn. Dan stole my answer... But to me, it really was the offensive line that was most crucial to our success. Check out the play-calling from the game and you'll see how the team helped open holes on the left for much of the early stages of the game, and how that set us up for a strong showing on the right side. Before the game, we'd also expressed concern about the Pack's ability to generate tackles for loss (top 10 in the country in that regard), but the line helped neutralize that entirely. Kudos to them!
Is Terrel Hunt struggling, or were his first couple games simply a mirage?
SF: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? On one hand, it seems that the Wagner and Tulane games created artificially high expectations for Hunt. After all, it was Wagner and Tulane. At the same time, I don’t see think it’s likely that he will continue to throw under 100 yards per game. What I really took away about Hunt in those two games wasn’t his stats. (But they were REALLY good – 7 TDs, zero interceptions, and more than ten yards per attempt.) It was his talents: the quick decision-making, his comfort in the pocket, and scrambling ability. Those will translate, even against quality opponents.
TIS: I think Terrel has simply been playing multiple standard deviations from each side of the mean. Sorry, I wrote that so the Georgia Tech folks who might come to the site could understand something we said. What I meant to say was that in four games, Terrel has shown us his best and worst, but not what will someday be described as a "typical" Terrel Hunt performance. I think what we'll see over time is that he's going to give us about 180 ypg. passing (60%, 3/2 TD/Int ratio)/ 50ypg. running. The bloom is off the rose a bit, but there is no question he can be an effective starter for a while to come.
MM: Hunt is struggling. No question. And that's due to the fact he opened against Northwestern scrubs and scrubs from Wagner and Tulane. The competition level has been raised and Hunt hasn't risen with it. Now, having written that, I'll say Hunt's ability to at least extend plays is reason enough to stick with the sophomore. I think simply ground and pound can win games for Syracuse but it's not a long-term plan for success. That means Hunt developing as a quarterback and the wide receivers actually showing up this season.
DL: Terrel's struggling without a doubt, but I don't think we can discount the first two performances. Obviously, they were against weaker opponents (although that Tulane win looks a lot better with the Green Wave knocking on the six-win door), but if he's able to put up those types of numbers against that level of opponent, as he progresses he should be able to improve against high level teams. NC State and Clemson have two of the better defenses in the ACC, so that doesn't help matters. I'm far from ready to jump off the Hunt bandwagon, and he is going to get the bulk of the time under center for the rest of the season, so there is little use in abandoning ship yet.
JS: I think Hunt is struggling but it is not a concern of mine because the first few games were a bit of a mirage. Look, Hunt is going to be a good quarterback for the next few years, but this season if he just manages the game by making smart decisions and not turn the ball over Syracuse will win more games than lose with him behind center. At this point, Hunt is struggling with the deep ball and doesn't have the big arm strength to be productive in the short screen game. He can throw the intermediate ball, but his wide receiving corps is struggling. Again, a lot of this could be because the defenses are better than Wagner or Tulane (obviously) and the offense still trying to jell together.
JC: Not to belittle Tulane and Wagner any further than we already have, but Clemson and NC State have really been Hunt's first legitimate game action of his career. He's getting more complex looks from defenses, while also trying to adjust from a very easy time in those early contests. There's going to be a bit of a learning curve, though I don't think any of us thought it would be this steep. He's "struggling" in the sense that he's not passing well, but part of that is also a product of receivers not getting open. In terms of running the football, I'd say I'm actually impressed with his abilities.
Does SU's win over the Wolfpack remove some of the stress from the Georgia Tech game at all?
SF: Absolutely. I think Syracuse needs to be at 4-4, heading into the last four games of the season to be in a good position to get to a bowl game. By beating NC State, Syracuse now has two chances to do so – either with a win against Georgia Tech or by defeating Wake Forest at home. At 2-4, the Orange wouldn’t have had that flexibility.
TIS: Not at all. Watching Syracuse football is a tough, gut wrenching, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-antacid-tablets experience, and considering every team remaining on our schedule is one where no team is a clear favorite (Florida State excluded), I go into every game expecting a stressful WWI-style battle of attrition where we win or die trying. God, my blood pressure just shot up to 140/90 just writing this.
MM: No, in fact it should only add to the stress for Orange fans (it makes sense if you don't think about it). Syracuse is sitting at three wins and still has road games this weekend in Atlanta, then at Maryland and Florida State. To have a shot at a bowl game, the Orange must win at least one of the next two roadies. Had Syracuse lost last weekend, the likelihood of a bowl trip would have dramatically decreased.
DL: It definitely does. A loss to NC State would have both made the Georgia Tech almost a 'must-win' game, and would've made the game look that much less winnable since Tech is probably a step up from State. However, with three home games and five winnable games left on the schedule, not every game is of the utmost importance. Winning, however, would really open things up for Syracuse, and we could then begin discussing seven or eight wins without sounding too ridiculous.
JS: Oh yeah, there shouldn't be a lot of pressing in the Ga. Tech game and because of that I like SU to possibly steal this one. If Syracuse can do that, well, hang on to your hats kids because there's a chance SU could finish third in the ACC Atlantic Division, which would be one heck of an accomplishment.
JC: Facing "must-win" situations can go one of two ways for a team: 2012 Syracuse or 2011 Syracuse (in very basic terms). The fact that we remove that stress here is huge, and it actually gives us a bit of a leg up on Tech, who as a program need to win this game to stay on track for bowl eligibility. Early on, we'd chalked this one up to a loss, and we're still in good position if that comes to fruition. No one wants to lose, but we'd be less crippled than Georgia Tech should we fall here.
How will the Orange defense look to stop the Georgia Tech triple-option?
SF: I think Syracuse will do a good job against the triple option. Syracuse’s depleted secondary won’t be as much of a factor because the Yellow Jackets have a run-heavy offense. Scott Shafer has had mixed results with the blitz so far this season, but I expect him to use it a lot, knowing it’s not likely Syracuse would get burned.
TIS: Okay, I'm going to break character for a second and give it to you straight. To stop the spread option, you have to establish good interior penetration from the defensive line and complement that with great gap control from the linebackers. The NC State game showed me that this is actually playing to our strengths as a defense. We showed a lot of discipline against State's often gimmicky offense, so I am going into the game much more confident that we can limit the effectiveness of the spread on Saturday.
MM: While Syracuse has struggled on defense this season, it hasn't really had too much trouble against the run. In fact, the front seven have been, dare I say, fairly stout all things considered. I know Tech has started to, or at least tried to, develop more of a passing game, but I still think this game can won by the SU bigs up front on defenses. Containment will be key.
DL: Lots and lots of pressure, and plenty of men in the box. I expect Durell Eskridge to be a key in this game. He had a huge game against the Wolfpack, recording 14 tackles. If he can have a similar impact in the run defense this week, it will be a good sign for Syracuse. I'm also looking for a solid performance out of Josh Kirkland, especially if he plays for Dyshawn Davis. That kid is a heatseeking missile.
JS: Syracuse will need to use one of its defensive strengths, its linebacking corps, to its advantage. The Orange have shown they have a lot of talent and depth in this area and this group will need to have a big game if Syracuse wants to win in Atlanta.
JC: Linebackers stop the triple-option pretty well (see: BYU), and as long as Dyshawn Davis is back in the lineup, that gives us a pretty good chance at containment. Don't want to rain on Josh Kirkland, but he's no Davis, and chances are the Yellow Jacktes are aware of that as well. No matter who's playing though, passing's less of a threat and that means all of our linebackers can be better utilized in free-roaming roles. We'll see if that has the desired effect (minimizing gains), versus giving us a ton of blitzes that result in us coming in behind plays.
What (other than stopping the option) will be the key to SU beating Tech on Saturday?
SF: I want to see Terrel Hunt try to incorporate his receivers a little bit more than he has recently. Don’t rely so much on running backs to catch the ball out in the flat. At the same time, Hunt doesn’t deserve all the blame. It’s a two way street. Jarrod West, Chris Clark, Jeremiah Kobena…where have you guys been recently? Beckett Wales, three receptions this season?
TIS: I expect Georgia Tech to cheat their safeties up in the box to defend the effective SU rushing attack, so Syracuse has to do a much better job of stretching the defense through the air than they did in the past two games. If we can get 3 or more 30+ yard passes completed, I think we'll be able to put up enough points on the board to win.
MM: Stop with the dumb penalties, would ya? My God, Syracuse would have beaten N.C. State fairly easy had it not been whistled for 8 penalties for a total of 72 yards. That's unacceptable usually a recipe for disaster.
DL: It seems counter-intuitive against a heavy-option scheme, but corners and deep safeties need to keep everything in front of them. It will be hard to win if Tech can gash Syracuse for six or seven yards consistently, but Syracuse is in real trouble if the Yellow Jackets begin to open it up and start to hit those deep passes over the top of the defense that they tend to throw when teams aren't expecting it. The old adage for defensive backs is to stay 'wider than the widest and deeper than the deepest' receiver, and that holds up here. Also, give Jerome Smith the ball like fifty times if you need to on offense.
JS: Continue to run the ball well on offense. Look, this is going to be Syracuse bread-and-butter. Terrel Hunt is going to need to make plays with his legs and Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley are going to need to make big plays with their legs. If they can do that, this offense will be just fine.
JC: Don't be afraid to just run the ball down their throats. We kept things confined to just Smith and Gulley last week, but I say open it up to the whole backfield this time around. If everyone gets around 10-15 carries, there's simply no way that front can hold up. Miami's Duke Johnson was able to put up 184 yards on just 22 rushes by himself against Tech. Between Smith, Gulley and McFarlane (sorry, still no Morris), it's conceivable we can replicate our recent success.
What do the Yellow Jackets need to do in order to beat Syracuse?
SF: Win the turnover battle. It’s that simple. This season, SU is 3-0 in games when it has less than three turnovers. With 3+ turnovers, the Orange is 0-3. Syracuse has turned the ball over 13 times this season, good for 4th in the NCAA. The Yellow Jackets have a positive 10:9 turnover ratio and if they can stay even with Syracuse in that department, it will be a competitive game.
TIS: Get out in front early and force SU to play to their weaknesses, which right now is the passing attack. Tech has lost three in a row to good opposition, so I would expect them to try to establish control early. If they fail to do that, I think we'll return to The Dome with two straight road wins in hand.
MM: Force Hunt to throw the ball. If there is ever going to be a team more ready for a three-headed run monster like Syracuse, it's Georgia Tech.
DL: Keep Terrel Hunt in the pocket and make him beat you with his arm. He hasn't proven he can tear up a BCS-level opponent yet, but Smith and Gulley are more than capable of tearing up a weak Georgia Tech rush defense. If I were coaching the Wreck, I would stack the box almost like Syracuse was the team running the spread option every down. If Hunt has a good game, and the backs stay hot for Syracuse, this could be a long game for Tech. However, the same goes on the other side of the ball.
JS: Not turn the ball over and get the passing game going, some how. If they can do that they can ride a lot of the home momentum to a victory.
JC: Stop the run (duh), pressure Hunt into poor decisions. If Tech can do those two things, the rest of the game is unlikely to matter, because Syracuse won't be scoring many points. Another interesting factor: Vad Lee's passing. It started the year strong and then dropped off. If it comes back and SU has a few too many guys stacked in the box, our beleaguered secondary could be in for a troublesome afternoon.