As we've discussed, Syracuse is in the Texas Bowl! Facing the Minnesota Golden Gophers! Based on the exclamation points, you can tell we're excited about it! Sadly, our opponents aren't all that thrilled (WHY DON'T YOU GUYS CARE?!), but we can't force it on them. Perhaps if we just keep previewing this game every single day, they'll come around. C'MON, GOPHERS. YOU CAN DO IT. We'll like bourbon more! JUST LIKE/HATE US!
Getting past all that, there are some key matchups worth highlighting in this game. At the moment, they have the potential to decide the outcome. Knowing how these things work, however, they'll probably end up not mattering at all. Don't hold that against me later on.
Texas Bowl 2013: Key Matchups
Minnesota Offensive Line vs. Syracuse Front-Seven
Syracuse blitzes a lot. It's how this team has worn down the offensive lines of subpar teams like Tulane and Wagner, as well as comparable squads like Pittsburgh and Maryland. You remember watching Tom Savage run for his life for much of our game against the Panthers, don't you? Well, if the Orange hope to beat this Minnesota team -- one that's better than that Pitt squad -- they'll need to figure out a way to generate similar pressure against a tough Golden Gophers' front. Minnesota's line isn't invincible, of course. They have allowed 23 sacks on the season. But you can chalk some of that up to a couple very tough defensive opponents (Wisconsin, Michigan State), as well as QB Philip Nelson's penchant for running with the football (more on that in a second). To win, Syracuse is going to have to get through this line at multiple points of attack. Jay Bromley will help the push in the middle, obviously, and pick a linebacker for pressure from the outside. This becomes more challenging because they'll need at least one LB to hang back and spy on Nelson, which brings us to...
Minnesota QB Philip Nelson vs. Syracuse Linebackers
Syracuse can contain mobile quarterbacks -- Tajh Boyd, Jameis Winston and C.J. Brown didn't do much on the ground against us -- but they've had their struggles as well. Obviously, Georgia Tech tore this team apart (thanks, odd switch to 3-4 scheme!), and Northwestern's two-QB system gave us fits all day. There was also that odd time when Chase Rettig torched us for 85 yards, but that wasn't in the scouting report. But with Nelson, it's well-documented he can run. He's the Gophers' third-leading rusher this season, and one of four Minnesota players to reach over 300 yards on the season. As discussed above, the linebackers will help generate some pressure on him during passing plays, but they'll be utilized even more in a spy role in the middle of the field to prevent him from taking off. With Cam Lynch, Marquis Spruill and Dyshawn Davis, we've got three linebackers who like to apply pressure, so just hanging back and waiting is no easy task. But it has to be done or else Nelson will shred this team up all day.
Syracuse Offensive Line v. Minnesota Front-Seven
So long as everyone's healthy (and right now, they should be), the Orange actually have a distinct advantage here. The surprisingly solid Syracuse line has managed to protect Terrel Hunt against most opponents this year. Minnesota, on the other hand, is not getting into the backfield against opposing teams. The Golden Gophers have managed just 17 sacks (102nd nationally) on the season, to go along with 68 tackles for loss (75th nationally). So not only does that give Hunt some time to throw the football, but it'll greatly assist the running game as well. Hunt should be able to grab chunks of yardage on designed runs, and OC George McDonald should be calling plenty of between-the-tackles handoffs to one of any of our running backs. BETWEEN THE TACKLES, GEORGE! Whether Prince-Tyson Gulley is back or not (I'm not sold he'll return), the Orange will be able to pound Minnesota with three different backs all game, which should help where down that group as we've done to others before (in both wins and losses, mind you).
Syracuse Wide Receivers v. Minnesota Secondary
If the last couple games are any indication (430 passing yards, 3 TD, 1 INT), I'm less worried about Terrel Hunt's ability to get the ball in the air, and more concerned about our wide receivers' abilities to get open. Things have opened up a bit since Jarrod West's injury, giving way to a new cast of characters catching passes, but as we saw in the Pitt game, they still have some learning to do. Luckily, this matchup with Minnesota does present some opportunities for SU's wideouts (and tight ends) to continue the growth we saw against Boston College. though. The Gophers rank 39th against the pass, but at least some of that is due to a steady diet of run-first opponents (which SU is as well). In terms of interceptions, there are no real ballhawks on this squad, though Syracuse's gameplan should probably keep an eye on Eric Murray. With 10 pass break-ups on the season, the sophomore's come on strong for Minnesota and has the potential for a whole lot more than that. Let's not make this his coming out party. Hunt shouldn't avoid throwing toward him, but be wary that he can and will get his hand on the ball. Our receivers have to be conscious of this as well, and don't be surprised if Ashton Broyld and/or Brisley Estime is sent his way purely as a decoy. If Murray's the strongest DB, that means there's softer spots in the secondary to exploit... so we're not just bubble screens.
Plenty more to watch out for in this game. And trust me, we'll get there. But wanted to get this early preview together as a bit of a primer for some more thorough breakdowns as we get closer.
Questions? Concerns? Any other matchups you'd like to see profiled? Share away in the comments.