Syracuse Football Roundtable: Texas Bowl Preview

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Syracuse football roundtable! This week, TNIAAM's esteemed panel breaks down the Minnesota Golden Gophers and how the Orange might match up with them in the Texas Bowl.

It originally felt like a long time, but we actually got to bowl day pretty quick, didn't we? Today, Syracuse takes on Minnesota in a Texas Bowl game that should match up two very similar squads. We've mentioned this before, but we'll do some digging today to see just how similar they actually are. And whether the Orange have a shot to win this thing (please?!).

As has been 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...

How will Jarrod West's return impact the Syracuse offense?

Sean Farrell: To his credit, he’s the active leader at Syracuse in catches (80) and receiving yards (1,098). At the same time, it’s been somewhat of a disappointing junior season for West. Last year, he had 588 yards in a crowded receiving corp that included graduating seniors Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales. It looked like West would be the "guy" this year. But for whatever reason, (nagging injuries and the loss of Ryan Nassib at QB) it just hasn’t happened. West enters the Texas Bowl with 359 yards and one touchdown. So I would say, it certainly helps. He will draw attention that opens up space for other players. But some of the defensive injuries are more critical.

Dan Lyons: It will either be a good thing, or have little impact. West hasn't had a very good season compared to the expectations most of us had for him, but he's still the most established guy on the team, and I haven't heard great things about Minnesota's secondary. Let's hope West has his Marcus Sales 2010 Pinstripe Bowl moment.

Matt McClusky: It can only help, right? Let's just assume that the three extra weeks of practice Syracuse has gone through only reinforces the team's approach it took against Boston College. So George McDonald has found something he likes; Terrel Hunt is feeling the part more comfortably; and Jerome Smith is ready to rumble along with the younger backs behind him. Adding in West can only open all of those factors up more.

Jared Smith: I hope it means Syracuse will make one big play through the air, though, we know that probably will not be the case. It is nice to add some more depth to the offense, but as ineffective as West has been this season I don't think it will add much.

Sean Keeley: I'm not really sure. It's not like West was opening up the offense before he got hurt. It still comes down to Terrel Hunt and whether or not he can utilize West. Or at least find him.

John Cassillo: I've mentioned this in the comments, but I like West's return for two reasons: Deep passes and as a decoy. At this point, Hunt's been able to spread the ball around to a lot of different players due to injuries, so the more capable pass-catchers that are out there, the better. Whether West is targeted or not, defenses have to pay attention to him, which can only help other receivers (Alvin Cornelius, Brisly Estime, Ashton Broyld, etc) get open.

How will the Orange stop the Minnesota rushing attack?

SF: Well, I think Syracuse has proven itself very capable at stopping the run over the course of the year. I know I’ve mentioned this stat before, but I’ll say it again: Syracuse has not allowed a 100-yard rusher all year. They are the only FBS team in the entire country to have done so. And for Syracuse, that includes games against teams like Penn State, Clemson and Florida State, who all have rushers over 900 yards. (Which is pretty ‘doggone’ good on an 11-game schedule) Most recently, the Orange held Heisman candidate Andre Williams in check before he left the game. Williams only averaged 3.2 YPC in nine carries. So this isn’t meant as a slight to Minnesota or running back David Cobb at all. It’s just that Syracuse has faced some really good backs and – other than the Georgia Tech game – I don’t remember run defense ever being a major issue.

DL: Hopefully not by altering the team's overarching defensive strategy for one game. I don't expect Syracuse to try anything new since it has been very good against the run versus non-elite opponents. The linebackers will fly around, the interior linemen will try to blow up the middle, and against a team like Minnesota, we'll likely see safeties cheating up and daring a weak passing attack to beat them over the top.

MM: Syracuse was railroaded in Atlanta against Georgia Tech -- a completely foreign triple-option demolition. Outside of that game, however, and save for blowout losses to superior teams like Clemson and Florida State, the Orange front seven stonewalled a lot of running backs this season. While the Gophers rushing attack is better than expected, it's potency is probably somewhere similar to Boston College -- not gimmicky but more straight at you, a style SU has proven it can at the least contain.

JS: Good play by Jay Bromley and the rest of the defensive line and the linebacking corps having a heck of a day. I think the Orange have the players to stop the Gophers running attack it will just be a case of will they.

SK: By just sticking with what works. I know the "Syracuse hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher" stat is dubious, but, it speaks to SU's ability to snuff out decent running backs more often than not. We might not shut them down but I'd like to think SU will force the Gophers to beat them with the pass, which, is a whole other issue.

JC: Don't over-commit on the blitz (Minnseota doesn't pass very often anyway), and utilize our linebackers to help keep containment on Minnesota's running backs. For the most part, they're a between-the-tackles squad, which plays to SU's strengths. Play our game and don't try anything fancy -- that should do just fine.

Since it's Jerome Smith's last game, will he be given the lion's share of the carries to help improve his draft stock?

SF: I don’t see it. I don’t think the coaches care too much about individual statistics, especially in a bowl game. Last year, Ryan Nassib was in a position to really boost his draft position with a huge game against a porous West Virginia defense. What did Doug Marrone and the Orange do? They ran the ball 65 times and Nassib was a complete non-factor in the game. If Scott Shafer and George McDonald think that running Smith is how to beat the Gopher, they’ll do it. But there isn’t much this season to suggest that he will get 20+ carries.

DL: I don't think his draft stock will be a major consideration for Shafer and McDonald. If Smith is doing his thing, he'll get touches. If Morris or MacFarlane or Gulley is more effective, they'll get their names called. I wouldn't be shocked at all though if Smith has himself a game today, however.

MM: No. And nor should he. Scott Shafer is not in the business of putting player above team, at least as far as I can tell. Smith will likely get his looks, but it could be any number of the backs in the stable that have a big game Friday; whoever has the hot hand will get the ball. That's what we've seen this season and Smith's decision to leave won't likely change that for Shafer or McDonald.

JS: I do think Syracuse will try its best to give Smith every opportunity to be the player of the game, but I don't think it is because they want him to improve his draft stock. The reason he will get a lot of opportunities is because he is the best offensive player and best bet to move the chains and get into the end zone.

SK: I don't think that's something that enters a coach's mind. At least not unless it's a blowout. Besides, Jerome Smith's draft stock isn't really going to be determined until the combine and workouts. If he has great showings there, it will overshadow what he did in a bowl game, or any game really. We put too much stock in stats when it comes to the NFL Draft.

JC: No, it won't have much of a factor, though Smith's still getting the lion's share of the carries. Minnesota's most vulnerable on runs up the gut, which we (and most notably, Smith) happen to excel at. Pound the ball between the tackles and wear down the Golden Gophers' defensive front early. Smith will lead the charge here, but the other backs will be in on the action as well.

Which Syracuse player benefited most from the extra practices and time between games?

SF: Terrel Hunt. It’s because no position requires as much timing, touch and attention to detail as quarterback. Spending a lot of offseason time in the weight room or doing drills or running suicides may make someone a good tackler. But to get the feel of a good QB, Hunt needs to play quarterback in real game-like situations in practice. Scanning the field, pre-huddle, and reading the defense is something he can only to by having an entire team practicing. There are so many things that a quarterback can’t simulate just working out in gym shorts. The extra practices, in particular, help Hunt get better pocket presence, have more repetition to his throws and work with his receivers. Unfortunately, Syracuse’s receivers have been pretty banged up over the past few months, so Hunt’s had to deal with a revolving cast of characters. That’s why a month work with the same crew definitely helps. The passing game has looked so out-of-sync during ACC play and these extra practices should address that problem.

DL: It's always hard to tell, but I imagine it's one of the quarterbacks, whether that is Hunt or a young guy like Mitch Kimble or Austin Wilson who may have gotten more snaps during the early practices than they had this season, or maybe someone on offense whose role is expanding, like Morris or Brisly Estime.

MM: That's a great question with a ton of really good answers, but I'll go easy and say Hunt will benefit the most. Over the last few games, specifically against Boston College, I got the sense Hunt started to recognize what was going on in front of him. He also was able to show off his arm strength as well as his allusiveness with his legs -- really growing into the competent QB we all thought he would become. Three bonus weeks allows the sophomore to get more reps and get even more comfortable with what was a new offense for him. Plus, the time gives him more time to act like a leader -- a major unquantifiable quality that will really payoff next September.

JS: Hopefully it is Terrel Hunt. He showed a lot of progression in the win against Boston College, but the hope is the extra practice time helped him develop his throwing ability a bit. He will not come out and be Ryan Nassib, but lets hope he can make some plays with his arm and less with his feet.

SK: Guessing Terrel Hunt. Get that man as many reps as you possibly can. Even with the incoming QBs and young guys, Hunt is the odds-on favorite to be the 2014 starter. Right now it's all about getting him as much practice and game time as possible.

JC: It could've been any one of the injured defenders we'd hoped would return, but without that, I'll go with either Hunt or West. Hunt's gotten to be a much better passer as the season's progressed, so the extra practices will be a huge boost going into this game. For West, he hasn't played in a month, and needs to find his place within this offense again. Wherever that may be, it'll take practice reps to get there, so hopefully it's all sorted out when SU takes the field today.

Which SU player is most essential to us pulling out the victory?

SF: Since the Gopher offense is so predicated on the run game, I would say the entire run defense for Syracuse needs to play well. Minnesota is averaging almost 40 passing yards per game LESS than the mediocre Syracuse aerial attack. So, if the Orange can contain David Cobb, it will be in pretty good shape. One player in particular I would single out is linebacker Marquis Spruill. He’s put together a pretty solid senior season. Spruill leads the Orange with 13.5 tackles for loss this year. With one more, he will be in sole position of second place on Syracuse’s career tackles for loss list.

DL: If Hunt gives Syracuse what he did against BC and in flashes against Pitt, I think Syracuse wins this one. Picking the quarterback is a bit of a cop out, but he's been quite unpredictable this year, and both teams struggle to throw the ball. If one gets good QB play and can lose that "one dimensional offense" tag, it is their game to win.

MM: What the hell, I'll go Ryan Norton! Tell me you didn't forget Norton's two field goals against Boston College last month, right? A 42 yard field goal followed by, but of course, a 44-yarder. Listen, bowl games are just about to predict given the amount of time off for the two teams and the lack of familiarity between the two (and the venue itself). So there may be more "important" players, but Norton's leg could be the decider in a game of fairly evenly-matched foes. If you're expecting a 3 or 6 point type of game, as I am, then the kicker is of extreme importance. Norton's going to have to make a couple of field goals, at the least.

JS: I think Jerome Smith and the running attack will be fine, so the difference will be Hunt's ability to manage the game and make some plays. If he can do that, then the Orange have a good shot of pulling off the upset.

SK: Terrel Hunt again. He's got to be the same Terrel Hunt who put together impressive drives and made smart plays against Boston College and not the Terrel Hunt from the previous six or so weeks. From his success, all the other players will play well.

JC: Jerome Smith, because he's our best player and his strength (running the ball between the tackles) attacks one of Minnesota's biggest weaknesses (stopping inside runs). If we can get an explosive rushing attack going early, that's how the Orange take control of this game. Minnesota isn't built to mount comebacks, so jumping out to a lead does a whole lot for us.

Which Minnesota player is the key to the game for that team?

SF: As I mentioned in my last answer, running back David Cobb will be the most pivotal player for the Gophers. With a big game, he could move into the top ten for single-season rushing yards at Minnesota. The Gophers don’t have a great quarterback. So expect Cobb to get the ball early and often. There’s another less obvious reason why Cobb is the most important player. His team plays very well with the lead. When the Gophers score first, they are 4-0. Minnesota is a perfect 7-0 in games in which it leads at halftime. It makes sense that a team with a good back can hold leads by running the ball and using the clock to its advantage. But, if Syracuse limits Cobb, especially early in the game, they can force the Gophers out of their comfort zone. And it may force Minnesota to deviate from their usual gameplan.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman is quite scary, and with Syracuse looking to run the ball, he could have a similar impact to Jay Bromley on Syracuse's defense. If he blows up the interior running game for SU, it may become very difficult to the Orange offense to get rolling.

MM: SU hasn't allowed an opposing running back to get to rush for 100 yards. You'll hear that a lot Friday. But it's a skewed stat, given the damage Georgia Tech, Clemson and Florida State did to the Orange defense. I think any of those three teams could have had at least one back go for triple digits on the ground. But regardless, SU hasn't allowed anyone to hit the century mark against it; the Gophers go as David Cobb, a thousand yard rusher, goes. Meaning, something will likely have to give in Houston. If Cobb has his usual day on the ground the Gophers win, if not, SU is probably going to take {the} Texas {Bowl}.

SK: Seems as though as David Cobb goes, so goes Minnesota. If he puts up his usual big numbers, it will set the tone for a Minnesota-controlled game. And we do not want that.

JC: "If Cobb gets hot..." It's probably David Cobb, though I do think the Orange are well-suited to contain the Minnesota run game. So I'm going with quarterback Philip Nelson instead. No, he hasn't been tasked with doing a whole lot this year, but against a weak Syracuse secondary, he could be the X-factor. If he carves up the SU defensive backs, the running game becomes an afterthought. It doesn't appear to be in the Gophers' makeup to air it out, but I'd keep an eye out for it.

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