Syracuse Football Roundtable: Penn State Review/Northwestern Preview

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the Syracuse football roundtable! This week, TNIAAM's esteemed panel reviews what went wrong against Penn State last week, while looking ahead to Saturday's matchup with Northwestern.

While the Orange are currently 0-1, there's still some optimism around these parts. The defense looked great against Penn State and the offense has to improve (doesn't it?), which is at least giving us a glimmer of hope against a ranked Northwestern team.

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...

So... come to terms with this whole ACC thing now that we've officially played a football game as members of the league?

Andrew Pregler: I won't be accepting of the ACC thing until the Orange actually finish year one of an ACC slate and the Orange haven't trounced around in Newark, NJ. Until then, I'm still looking at that obnoxious white patch on the shoulder.

The Invisible Swordsman: Still getting used to the new car smell, but when you are upgrading to the football equivalent of a Honda, you have to have modest expectations. Is it functional? Yes. Is it reliable? Yes. Is it prestigious? No...but it's a hell of a lot better than that crap heap we'd otherwise be driving, the AAC!!! I mean, can't we feel a little bad for UConn fans???

Matt McClusky: There's two reasons why the answer is no, I don't think I've come to terms with the ACC and Syracuse. No. 1, game one was against Penn State, not a "traditional" ACC opponent (if there even is such a thing anymore). And No. 2, even when SU plays the ACC Big Boys it won't be nearly as weird as watching Jim Boeheim's boys battling North Carolina or Duke. Syracuse has gone from independent, to Big East, to a "new" Big East, to the ACC in less than three decades. Change is normal here.

Jared Smith: I really enjoyed it. It was nice to watch and cheer on other football teams -- especially ones that can beat legit SEC teams. As the season progresses, I think other SU fans will slowly get used to rooting for other ACC teams. I mean, we all have to admit it is better than rooting for UConn and Rutgers. Yuck.

Sean Keeley: Couple things I realized this weekend. For a long time to come, I'm going to be rooting for teams from multiple conferences to keep losing. Those in the ACC and those in the AAC. I'm not one of those people who openly roots for conference mates (except maybe in bowl games) so I'm going to have a hard time with the whole, "The ACC is better than your conference because..." routine that I see a lot of. All I know is, those Clemson and Florida State games just got a whole lot scarier.

John Cassillo: I've been force-feeding myself the league for nearly two years now, but that didn't mean it was any less weird to see the ACC logo on our uniforms and in the endzone on Saturday. I think it really hit me that we weren't part of the Big East anymore when I could just laugh at the SUNJ and UConn losses from last week and know that I didn't have to worry about Syracuse's perception taking a hit as a result. So that was fun.

What was your biggest concern coming out of Syracuse's first game with Penn State?

AP: My biggest concern is this offense's direction. The pistol looked awful. Drew Allen looked like he was guessing out there. The wideouts couldn't get open. The offensive line wasn't able to open many holes. At the end of the day Ashton Broyld's comments sum it up: it's going to take time for the offense to gell. It's going to take time for the coaching staff to water things down and figure out what works. So essentially, this is going to be an issue every week.

TIS: George McDonald. Much of the focus has been on Drew Allen's performance, but for me, the formations, schemes and play calling suggested that we really didn't play to our strengths. I'll give George and the entire offense a pass following week one, but if we stick to that same plan against Northwestern, I'll start to get seriously concerned.

MM: Offense. The line didn't seem to open holes, or pass block very well, and the receivers didn't provide much separation. And that's not even taking into account Drew Allen. I wrote a column earlier in the week defending the Oklahoma transfer, but that doesn't mean I'm not concerned. I think he, along with the rest of the offense will eventually "get it," but we are clearly in a trial and error phase, which will cause more problems before things get better.

JS: The lack of organization by the coaching staff. To me, the biggest hiccup from SU was being unorganized and the feeling the offense was completely confused and lost at some points during the game. It is extremely tough to grade a quarterback's performance, if battling through play calls and organizing wide receivers at the same time. However, all of that can be first-game hiccups with a new HC, offensive coordinator, quarterback and young wide receiver. I think it is a fixable situation that everyone involved will eventually figure out.

SK: That this team is going to take too long to figure itself out. I'm concerned that because it's such a work in progress, the offense might never gel and they'll be too much pressure on the defense for them to handle. We really need to use the Wagner and Tulane games to work out the kinks because after that, there aren't very many easy stretches.

JC: Offense... Christ. I was fine with the whole "closed practice" thing last season, since it resulted in the hurry-up offense we installed early in the year. If you're going to try something interesting, closing practice is a great option, since it allows you to take your first opponent by surprise. But why would you close practice for what we saw on Saturday? Referring to the play-calling as "vanilla" would be putting it mildly. Penn State knew it right away, even without any hints as to what it might look like beforehand. Hopefully this is just a rough start before McDonald unveils the "real" offense.

Do you expect to see more of Terrel Hunt in this Saturday's contest?

AP: Listen: I think anyone calling for Allen's butt on the bench is an idiot. He had one bad game with a transitioning offense with players who didn't execute against a very good defense. Allen deserves at least four games to show us what he's got and he'll improve. The offense will get in synch and there will be a comfort level that develops that should help Allen out. Can we just stop this conversation for a bit?

TIS: Perhaps a little, but I wouldn't expect to see Terrel take a meaningful percentage of snaps until we're in the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome against an overmatched Wagner defense. This is still Drew Allen's offense, and he needs time to shake off the rust.

MM: No, and truthfully we better not. Not unless Allen totally goes into the tank or gets hurt. Otherwise, there's a reason Scott Shafer and George McDonald felt comfortable enough to name Allen the starter. And that should be something that lasts longer than six or seven quarters. I don't want my coach to be too hardheaded -- the opposite of hardnosed? -- that he can't admit being wrong, but I also don't want a wish-washy guy too afraid to stick to his convictions.

JS: Unless, Drew Allen comes out in the first quarter and throws two terrible interceptions like he did late in the game versus Penn State, I say noway. I think the coaching staff will be a lot of the blame on themselves and try to make it easier on Allen, who needs some time to get accustomed to everything.

SK: No. I think Drew Allen has earned the starting job and has to do more than one lousy game to lose it. That just doesn't seem fair and it seems like it would undercut Allen's confidence. I think at the very least, you have to let Allen see things through to Wagner. He's starting his stint with two very tough games and he might not get a chance to look good in either. If so, he's going to need a cupcake to showcase that he can get things done in a game situation. If he absolutely can't get it going in that game, I'm all for giving Hunt some reps against Tulane.

JC: Echoing everyone else's thoughts, I'd hope that Allen gets another full game (if not more) to really show off what he can do. Even if it was just for one play, bringing in Hunt does more bad than good since it creates an atmosphere of controversy. I'm optimistic that Saturday was just first game jitters, and that he's much crisper against the Wildcats. Showing himself able to throw the ball to a second or third read would be some nice progress, and will turn down the volume of those clamoring for him to be replaced already.

With injuries piling up for Northwestern right now, does that create an opportunity for SU on Saturday?

AP: Of course it does. Northwestern's best cornerback is out in a decent secondary. Kain Colter gave SU fits last year. Essentially, SU can take the air out of the Wildcats' sails if they can score quick and rattle Trevor Siemian. This is a flip game if the offense can take advantage of their opposition. However, I'm not sure if they gell quick enough.

TIS: Any time you lose starters, particularly marquee starters, you have an opportunity. As the week has progressed though, both Kain Colter and Venric Mark appear to be ready to play on Saturday, and their backups Trevor Siemian and Treyvon Green played very well against Cal, so I am not sure just how big the opportunity really is for the Orange.

MM: There's an opportunity, injuries or not. Syracuse's defense really did shutdown Penn State - outside of Allen Robinson. And with another effort like that, especially from the front seven, Syracuse may have its chances to win an ugly, slop-fest type of game. Of course, if the Wildcats are without their starting quarterback, and a variety of other starters, that will only help the Orange case. I think most Orange fans have counted this game as an L since the schedule came out, so most of them probably just want to see improvement and a close game. (I know, I know, I'm not honoring my contract).

JS: Of course. The name of the game is to stay healthy as best you can. Last season, Syracuse took on Northwester without OT Justin Pugh, I believe, and it ended up being a big piece on how Syracuse finished up overall. In college football it is all about getting to that 6-win mark, and we don't care how we get there.

SK: Absolutely. Anytime your opponent has injuries that take major players out of the lineup, that disrupts their gameplan and makes it easier for you to disrupt it further. That said, the injuries are nothing to make assumptions about. We should expect Northwestern's best on Saturday.

JC: Not so sure the injuries end up meaning much at this point. Everyone appears to be progressing toward full health (or very close to it). Plus, the only person who's really indispensable is Venric Mark. Teams can be beaten by either quarterback (as we, ourselves, have proven), so it comes down to Mark's ability to run all over you. Basically, just gameplan for everybody playing, since it's now likely to be the case.

What's the biggest key to Northwestern beating Syracuse?

AP: Do exactly what Penn State did on defense: stop the run and force Drew Allen to win the ballgame. If the running game fails to produce, Syracuse won't be able to play their conservative style and stay in the contest as NU will put up points. Therefore, you force Allen to win the game by going deep with wideouts who can't really separate from coverage vertically.

MM: Winning the defensive line battle. Right now, given Syracuse's state of play on offense, SU doesn't have the cohesiveness and experience. Penn State was able to take advantage of that and mostly stuff the Orange run game and the Lions forced Allen into multiple questionable throws. It's easy to throw Allen under the bus, but the line play last Saturday was sub-par, too. Beat up the Bigs on the front line and make life miserable for Allen and Northwestern will win.

SK: Keep the Syracuse offense off-kilter. Clearly, this unit is still figuring out what it is. While George McDonald and Scott Shafer try to figure it out, the best thing Northwestern can do is keep Drew Allen guessing, keep Jerome Smith off the field and keep Ashton Broyld under wraps.

JC: Shutting down the running game will be big, as it will force Drew Allen to pass more, which to this point is not our offensive forte. Basically, if they mimic Penn State's defensive style and if Allen keeps struggling to divert from his first read, SU is in some deep trouble.

What do the Orange need to do in order to beat NU?

AP: Abandon the pistol and smash the ball down the throats of the Wildcats. Northwestern can't stop anyone with their front seven and the best defense against them is to keep the ball in the Orange's hands. Jerome Smith and PTG are definitely hungry and the offensive line should have an easier go of it this week.

TIS: I think the defense needs to stay aggressive and accept that there will be big plays. They need the offense to do their part, and frankly I'd like to see Drew Allen get an opportunity to get his rhythm passing by spending less time running zone reads from the pistol. Shelve that stuff until the Wagner game, get behind center, and let Jerome and PTG run downhill between the tackles where they are most effective. We have to get our running game going to force NU to put safeties in the box, thereby freeing up necessary space for our receivers.

MM: Clearly another strong defensive performance from the guys up front, along with the secondary, which is sure to be tested. But, as we saw Saturday, Syracuse isn't likely to win many games without some consistency on offense. Allen has to play better, the line has to be more assertive, and Syracuse needs sustained drives. Preferably amounting in either three or seven points. (On top of all that, a little luck on the road never hurts. Maybe a sleek field creates some fumbles for the Orange, or one of the walking-wounded doesn't play for Northwestern?)

JS: Play outstanding defense like they did against Penn State and turn the tides on those big plays. Syracuse's defense is going to keep them in games all season, and it is going to be the big plays that play a difference in a win or loss. The Orange lost the big-play battle on Saturday. If they can win it this weekend then it will bode well in terms of a win or loss.

SK: Find an offensive identity and then use it. Syracuse has a lot of weapons on offense but finding ways to effectively use as many of them as possible is the problem. Scott Shafer talked about creating more opportunities for Broyld and Brisly Estime, but I hope he doesn't forgot to help establish Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley and the other wideouts as well. Lots of moving parts and if we can figure out how to give Drew Allen time to use them, we're in business.

JC: Stay aggressive on defense, and don't let last week's loss diminish the fact that that group played out of their minds for the large majority of Saturday's game. If SU can prevent big plays and force a few turnovers, they should be able to keep this one a bit closer. If it turns into a shootout, the Orange don't have the firepower to keep up with Northwestern just yet, so their best chance to win is a low-scoring affair.

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