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TNIAAM Syracuse Football Roundtable: Previewing Louisville

So, this is a must-win if you've ever seen one...

Andy Lyons

Welcome to the Syracuse football roundtable! After a very disappointing loss on Saturday, the Orange now deals with a short week before taking on the Louisville Cardinals, our once-now-again-conference brethren. Luckily it's a home game -- where the Cards have some bad memories -- but with a slew of injuries for Syracuse, nothing is assured here. You have every right to be concerned. This is very much a must-win game.

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:

Louisville QB Will Gardner is still questionable for Friday; will his status decide this game's outcome? (question asked prior to news he would not start)

Michael Burke: I don't think so. Syracuse has been victim of good quarterback play in back-to-back weeks, but that's not why the Orange are on a two-game slide. They're struggling because 1) Terrel Hunt and the offense have been unable to sustain drives, 2) they constantly shoot themselves in the foot with foolish penalties, and 3) the play-calling has been atrocious. Seeing Reggie Bonnafon (Louisville's backup quarterback) under center for the Cardinals might help the Orange, but it won't win them Friday's game.

Ben Norowski: While Gardner won't start, I definitely think he'll play if things threaten to get out of hand for Louisville. I don't think his status will decide the game's outcome, it will be like the Notre Dame and Maryland games in that if we play well and don't make simple mistakes we should be able to win the game. Regardless of who the quarterback is, if we don't get pressure we're going to be in trouble.

The Invisible Swordsman: I don't think it will. Freshman QB Reggie Bonnafon has been an adequate substitute for Gardner. The real outcome will be determined by whether Syracuse's struggling offense can overcome the best defense they have faced this far.

Matt McClusky: Gardner is no Teddy Bridgewater, but there is no doubting that Syracuse would be better off facing a backup rather than a starter. And don't forget, the Cards are already without DeVante Paker, too. Taking away weapons from Bobby Petrino's arsenal is a good thing, especially when Syracuse's only counters on offense is "Terrel, do something" and "BUBBLE SCREEN!"

Dan Lyons: It won't 'decide' it, but it certainly helps Syracuse that Reggie Bonnafon has to play instead. Gardner has looked solid as Louisville starter, and while Bonnafon led Louisville to a win over Wake Forest, he wasn't great, only completing 50% of his passes for around 200 yards. Wake may be better at the back end than Syracuse, but he won't be used to the kind of pressure that a Shafer/Bullough defense dials up. I'd give Syracuse a big edge there if the freshman is thrust into action in the Dome.

Sean Keeley: We know now that Reggie Bonnafon willl be the QB for the game. The freshman has proven he can handle himself and anytime SU goes up against a dual threat QB it's cause for concern. But I expect Chuck Bullough to blitz the crap out of him. We'll find out what he's made of pretty quick.

John Cassillo: Now that we know it's Bonnafon under center, it doesn't decide things, so much as change them. Bonnafon's mobile and that means Syracuse will be tested in some different ways than they would've been with Gardner (who's a better passer, on paper). But a very inexperienced passer gives Syracuse a chance to scare the hell out of a kid with its blitz early on, which should be a slight advantage (especically in the first half, before he gets settled in).

Obviously it's tough to find a lot of "good" things about SU's loss to Notre Dame, but are there any you noticed?

MB: I was pretty encouraged by what I saw from the defense. Sure, they had a front row seat to Everett Golson's near-FBS record 25 consecutive completions, but they also created five turnovers -- four more than the Irish had committed in their first three games combined.

BN: I liked the fight of our team to not give up, and I really don't think our defense played poorly. Hunt's ability to throw and complete the deep ball was also extremely promising and hopefully we'll continue to use that tool as the season progresses. I also liked that we were able to force turnovers against a team that had been extremely strong at protecting the ball this season and hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

TIS: Aside from our triple threat punter? Sure. Syracuse's defense has been good all season and once again they were good enough at least to keep us competitive and in the game. And to be fair, our D should have helped us to a 14-10 halftime deficit had it not been for a terrible call by the officials. If we could sort out our offensive and special teams woes (Riley Dixon aside), we'd be a very difficult team to play.

MM: Well, how about five forced turnovers? That wasn't so bad, right? Actually, despite the final score, I really liked how the defense played throughout the course of the game. The secondary looked much better, with Durell Eskridge playing out of his mind (a pick-six, recovering a fumble and recording nine tackles). There was no question Notre Dame was the better team, but the Orange defense made the Irish work.

DL: Syracuse was far more effective at moving the ball against a stout Notre Dame defense than any other team (Rice, Michigan, Purdue) that has faced the Irish, and showed the ability to throw the ball down field, which is nice, considering how 'meh' the screen game has been. It seems like the coaching staff is learning that as well, which is a good thing.

SK: Cam Lynch continues to be a star in the middle of the malaise. And while the secondary got absolutely torched, Durell Eskridge has made good on his potential as well. The defense as a whole might not have it figured out but there are gems in that rough.

JC: Hunt's deep ball, which I'm openly pining to see more of. He didn't throw it a ton, but when he did, Hunt delivered some pretty great strikes nearly every time. Considering what a disaster the bubble screens are (and how our top players for that call are both injured), that provided a sliver of hope in that game, and for the rest of the slate.

At the one-third mark in the season, who's your MVP of the Orange thus far (any position)?

MB:*Strongly resists the urge to pick Riley Dixon.* I'll go with Prince-Tyson Gulley. He's averaging seven yards per rush (25th-best in the country) and has ran for 100 yards (or more) twice in four games this season, once against Villanova and again in the loss to Maryland. But it's my hope that, four weeks from now, my answer to this question will be a different one. The Orange need Terrel Hunt to be their MVP if they want to win football games.

BN: The offensive MVP right now would have to be Terrel Hunt, without him we'd be winless and would have been blown out by Maryland and Notre Dame. Besides him, no one on offense has been consistent enough to really make an impact. But I think the team MVP is clearly Cameron Lynch. He's been a rock on defense, has been involved in so many big plays and is the leader we all expected him to be out of high school. I wish he was 3 inches taller so he could get the respect from NFL teams he deserves, but if that was the case I don't think he'd be playing for SU either.

TIS: Riley Dixon in a landslide.

MM: I'll take the easy way out and say the MVP is N/A right now. Offensively Hunt has proven he's probably the most important piece to the puzzle, but he's obviously been inconsistent. Defensively things looked good against Notre Dame and, going back a few weeks, Central Michigan. But, my gawd, that Maryland game. So, I'll decline to pick anyone specifically yet, not until we find out a little more about this team. (Which, isn't that always the case around here? Syracuse never seems to show itself until mid-October.)

DL: I'll go with Cam Lynch. He's been one of the most productive players in the entire ACC, and I don't see him slowing down. Terrel Hunt should also get consideration, but he almost cost us the Villanova game by getting tossed for a really stupid facemask-punch, so...Cam gets this arbitrary fake award from me.

SK: Riley Dixon. You think I'm kidding? He's doing an A+ job at his position, the only real consistent bright spot on special teams. And then there's his game-winning touchdown pass and game-high 42-yard run against Notre Dame. Is there anything he can't do? No. No, there isn't.

JC: Cam Lynch has been such a tone-setter on defense, causing havoc each game so far and really dominating in the blitz. With 5.5 TFLs (4.5 sacks), he's really become the heart of the pass-rush, pulling pre-snap attention away from the middle, which has allowed those players (Marqez Hodge and Eric Crume, in particular) to get even more penetration. Without him, this defense is an abject disaster.

Where can Syracuse show improvement the most -- versus Louisville and overall, going forward?

MB: Syracuse has to start finishing some drives. The offense hasn't had trouble moving the ball (it averages 451 yards of offense per game) but it's almost like Terrel Hunt and Co. forget how to play football when they cross the opponent's 35-yard line. That has to change.

BN: The offense and defense have both done enough to have won every one of our games so far this year, the issue solely lies in some untimely penalties, turnovers, mistakes, and poor play calls. Correcting these small mistakes will allow us to right the ship and put ourselves in a position to make a bowl.

TIS: While our defense has played well enough to keep us competitive, our offense has been a well-documented big disappointment. We seem obsessed with attacking the edges of the defense whether the bubble screen or freeze option, and our predictability has allowed opposing defenses to attack the line of scrimmage free from concern about being countered with effective mid- and long-range passing. I desperately want to see us attack teams north/south and I still feel we have the backs, receivers and veteran line to do that effectively.

MM: Syracuse has to do better with its offense. Clearly there is an over-emphasis on bubble screens and far too often it looks like Hunt is option 1, 2 and 3 on plays. We can all debate George McDonald's game plan, but something has to change -- either McDonald's expectations or player's execution. I'll go with a little of column A and a little of column B.

DL: It has to be efficiency and smart play in scoring range. Check out these stats, from Stephen Bailey at Syracuse averaged 7.9 yards per play outside of its opposition's 30-yard line. Plays snapped at the 30 and in registered an average of just 3.4 yards. Syracuse was whistled for a penalty on one of every 4.1 plays inside the opposition's 30-yard line. SU was whistled for a penalty on one out of every 16.3 plays snapped outside the 30. That is insanity. It sure seems like some of it is mental, especially with the penalties. The sooner the team overcomes that, the sooner this offense will become legitimately effective.

SK: Can we put together a series of successful drives that end in scores? Because that would be a fantastic start. Even if its field goals, let's put together three consecutive drives in which we drive down the field and score points, preferably in the first half. We just need this offense to start clicking sooner than later. Otherwise, later won't matter.

JC: Channeling all those good vibes from big plays and turning them into more big plays directly thereafter, instead of waiting another quarter before another throw downfield. This team has done a great job with plays of 10 yards or more this year, but typically follows them up with plays of three yards or less. ATTACK! Especially in the red zone, where this squad is starving for some actual execution against a quality opponent.

What do the Cardinals NEED to do in order to beat the Orange in the Dome this Friday?

MB: Louisville has to start limiting its turnovers. The Cardinals have turned the ball over nine times in their last three games, and while Notre Dame got away with committing five turnovers against Syracuse, I can't see Bobby Petrino's group having that same luck in the Dome.

BN: The Cardinals need to protect the ball, score early to put the Orange on their heels and take the crowd out of it, and then hope the Orange do what's become an alarming trend and make mistakes in big spots. They also need to put their true freshman quarterback in a position to succeed by making safe play calls and high percentage plays.

TIS: I think the Cardinals' defense is the best we'll face this season (even over Florida State and Clemson), so if the Cardinals can get even average production from Reggie Bonnafon and their offense, we are going to be in big trouble.

MM: With a fairly inexperienced quarterback under center, the Cardinals will have to establish the ground game early against Syracuse. Brandon Radcliff is coming off a monster game against Wake Forest (129 yards rushing on just 17 carries, to go along with a couple of scores) and could create problems for Syracuse's front line of defense. Petrino is a coach known for putting up points, but this year he may have to dial it down and win some mud-stompers. This one on Friday could get muddy.

DL: Louisville isn't a great rushing team, they rank 82nd in the country in yards on the ground. If they can take advantage of Syracuse's weaker, and less deep secondary, they'll have a good shot at knocking off SU. They certainly have the receivers to do it, even without DeVante Parker available. Quarterback play is the big question, as we addressed above.

SK: Study everything that Notre Dame's defense did against our offense and duplicate it. And then just cut down on the turnovers and you're all set.

JC: Utilize Bonnafon's speed and your receivers to complete quick passes in the flat (hi, screen passes!) and let our defense's ineptitude in the open field do the rest. Bonnafon will be under pressure, of course, but if he stays poised, it'll be to his advantage since that leaves at least a player or two wide open. If Louisville turns this one into a barnburner, you probably don't like Syracuse's chances to stay with them scoring-wise (despite their offense's recent struggles).

What's essential for Syracuse in order to pull a mild upset over Louisville and temporarily right the ship on this season?

MB: Terrel Hunt needs to be far better he has been. It's obvious what he's capable of -- remember the two beautiful deep balls he threw a week ago? -- but he's struggled greatly with consistency. He's the main reason the Orange have been so bad at finishing drives, which is something they'll have to do to beat the Cardinals.

BN: For the Orange to pull a mild upset over Louisville, they need to make good play calls inside their own territory. Once we get inside the 10 yard line we're excellent, but between the 40 and the 10 we have been atrocious. We also need to control the lines of scrimmage, the offensive line's run blocking was the worst I've seen in years. The defensive line getting pressure on the quarterback is what makes or breaks our secondary. Finally, we need to stop leaving points on the field, whether it be missed field goals, turnovers, or general stupidity. If we do that, we win.

TIS: We need to play mistake-free football on special teams and when approaching scoring territory on offense. That is the absolute minimum. Our defense can keep Louisville from putting up more than three TDs, so we just need some offensive discipline and efficiency, and we'll have every chance of walking away with a critical win.

MM: Eliminate the three-and-outs on offense. Syracuse takes too long to figure things out it seems, which allows opponents to grab early-game momentum. Notre Dame couldn't find itself offensively last week but the Orange couldn't take advantage. The week before that, Maryland came out and hung points on the board early and often. SU has to be the aggressor on offense this time around and put a Cardinals team that may have trouble scoring in a hole quickly.

DL: Get back to running the ball effectively. Notre Dame is excellent against the run, so it wasn't totally shocking that they were able to bottle up that part of the SU offense. By the numbers, Louisville is even better, and that includes a game against Miami and Duke Johnson. Of course, when Wake Forest puts up all of -22 rushing yards against you, your ranking will be inflated a bit, but Louisville is tough to run on nevertheless. Hopefully Syracuse gets its offensive line healthy, and can get back to what it was able to do on the ground earlier in the year.

SK: Somehow found a way to make this offense work and do it without Ashton Broyld and Brisly Estime. Not sure how you do that.

JC: Getting pressure on Bonnafon sort of seems like a given (and hitting quarterbacks hasn't guaranteed wins so far), so the focus shifts to offensive execution. Don't rest on just getting into field goal range, and punch it into the end zone! Touchdowns are good things. Score more of them -- hopefully before it's too late to win this game.