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TNIAAM Syracuse Football Roundtable: Previewing Clemson

We're facing Clemson this weekend; let's talk about it with the whole TNIAAM football staff.

Tyler Smith

Welcome to the Syracuse football roundtable! The Orange won last week, which is pretty nice. But their work is far from done. SU has to head right back down to the Carolinas this Saturday to face the Clemson Tigers and try to get back to .500 (remember .500?). It won't be easy, but we at least entertain the idea for a few minutes -- no matter how unlikely it may seem.

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 do you credit more with Saturday's win over Wake Forest: Syracuse's offense or Syracuse's defense?

Michael Burke: Good question. Though I liked what I saw from AJ Long and the offense, I’ll give more credit to Syracuse’s defense. They came up with two touchdowns of their own, and after that early touchdown drive, they never allowed the Deacons to get much going. Wake Forest’s offense is bad -- like, BAD -- but I was still impressed.

Ben Norowski: Syracuse's defense won the day for sure. I mean, it helped we knocked two quarterbacks out of the game, but the defense was relentless against the run and defended extremely well, sans that one drive in the first quarter. I was very encouraged with our line play. And that's not saying the offense didn't make its plays as well. AJ Long looks shockingly poised in the pocket and he could be a very good player if he keeps getting playing time. Our running game looked dangerous. Steve Ishmael might be our best WR since Mike Williams (no offense Alec Lemon).

The Invisible Swordsman: Our defense for sure! These guys may not be statistically in the elite of the ACC, but that had more to do with our offensive frailties and scheme than anything else. To see a pick-six and scoop-six in the same game by D linemen was entirely fitting given the defense's domination last week. Congrats big guys!

Matt McClusky: I loved A.J. Long's play, what with his being a true frosh starting his first game. But there's no questioning, after a shaky first quarter, the Orange defense was the difference in that game. Not to mention the two Big-Boned Guy Touchdowns! The secondary is still an issue, and, oy, the red zone (!), but I've been slightly impressed by that side of the ball for SU this season, at least the front seven.

Jared Smith: Has to be the defense right? 14 points scored, the until kept Wake Forest in terrible field position and helped out the offense a lot when it came to making plays. Sure, it was nice to see the offense do something, even score a touchdown in the redzone, but this has always been a team that needs it defense to play like that to win games going away.

Dan Lyons: It absolutely has to be the defense. The offense did some nice things, and probably would have put up more gaudy numbers and maybe more points if Wake Forest had kept things closer—we basically started milking clock with 11 minutes left in the game—but the defense made the biggest plays of the game an totally shut down the Demon Deacons offense after one long drive they managed. It was an impressive game for that group.

Sean Keeley: Defense all the way. Not only did they shut down the Wake Forest offense after that first touchdown drive but they also outscored their offense all by themselves thanks to two turnover scores. Even if the Syracuse offense did absolutely nothing on Saturday, the defense would have carried us to victory.

John Cassillo: The offense did a commendable job, but the defense set the tone with aggressive pressure on Wake Forest's quarterbacks and those two big touchdowns. The 14-point spot allowed the offense to relax a bit... and yet they still didn't take advantage as much as they should've. So thank you, defense, for helping us deliver that win.

I'm out of ideas... how does SU fix the red zone offense issues?

MB: Honestly, I don’t know. I’m out of ideas too. I’m legitimately starting to believe that we’re cursed or something. It’s incredible how atrocious the Orange offense is once it gets inside the 20. I guess they just have to keep doing what they’re doing, and hope the results change. Yeah, I know, that’s the definition of insanity, right? Maybe it was just me, but I didn’t find Tim Lester’s play-calling in the red zone noticeably bad last week. The offense just didn’t get the ball in the end zone. Let's hope that changes this week.

BN: I think when we get in the red zone we should intentionally get penalties to get behind the 20 yard line and then we'll be fine. In all seriousness, I think we need a WR grouping of Ishmael, Jamal Custis, Adly Enoicy with Moore as a TE and Philips in the backfield and just run out of the shotgun and spread the field. That gives you a combination of size and athleticism that at least one of the 5 should get open.

TIS: There's nothing we can do... Spin The Red Zone Wheel of Terror and hide in the corner!

MM: Yeesh, your guess is as good as mine. Here's betting the more comfortable Long becomes at quarterback, the more fluid the offense becomes inside the twenty. For some reason, things just clamp up on the Orange in the red zone, which is really true of a ton of teams (Hi, I'm a Philadelphia Eagles fan). At this point in the season, the only way it's getting better is if Long, directly or indirectly, makes it better.

JS: Here's a crazy idea, let's have our quarterback actually keep the ball on a zone read; or design some plays to get him out of the pocket making a play with his legs or tossing to a wide receiver that gets himself open. I think that's what this offense needs to do inside the 20. I mean, let's remember back to last season when SU did score point with Terrel Hunt at quarterback. It was, mainly, because Hunt was making something happen with his legs or making something out of nothing. These guys are solid athletes, so let's let them get us in there.

DL: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I'm right there with you, there doesn't seem to be one glaring problem that prevents Syracuse from punching it in. The most obvious thing is getting rid of the constant holds and false starts that seem to plague the offensive line in the red zone. Maybe some of that comes with getting players healthy. Having a few bigger targets like Kendall Moore and Ashton Broyld get back into the mix may not hurt either.

SK: Short of just making guys drop to the ground at the 21-yard-line, I'm not sure myself. The issue, it seems, is that Syracuse immediately puckers up and wastes first down with a run up the middle that goes nowhere. That then makes everything else they do in the redzone completely predictable. Just mix things up without getting silly. No need for double-reverses when you're still just trying to make a smart play on first down.

JC: Since I wrote this question, the answer's sort of above. I have no idea what to do to fix this. Best bet is to avoid calling plays the same way they have been. There's an obvious wall this team hits inside the 20, so it's time they get more aggressive. Don't just pursue a first down or an easier field goal. Throw the ball into the end zone... like we've only done about four times or so all year.

Now that everyone's healthy again: Is there truly room for all five of the Orange's excellent running backs?

MB: I don’t think so. I’m open to the idea of trying it, but I think Lester and Shafer have to solidify a two-back system (maybe a three-back system) and run with it. I’m a believer in consistency, and I just don’t see how the offense can have any sort of consistency if the Orange are trotting out five different backs regularly. But maybe I’m wrong.

BN: The issue isn't that we have 5 excellent running backs, it's that we have 5 good running backs and zero excellent ones. We need one back to take the job by the horns and force himself to gain the majority of carries. Now that Devante McFarlane is healthy, he might be that guy. I think Erv has the potential as well but there certainly aren't enough carries for 5 RBs. Stick with the hot hand should be the strategy moving forward.

TIS: Technically, yes, but I wish our RB rotation was a bit tighter so the man with the hot hand can take the build of the carries. I feel we would be more effective with a 3 back rotation...

MM: In a word: no. In more words: at some point the stable has to be whittled down, at least a little. Attempting to get the ball to five running backs, all while keeping defenses honest and wide receivers happy, is close to impossible. Now, giving a couple of backs here and there to Devante McFarlane, Erv Philips and George Morris II isn't a bad idea, assuming Prince Tyson-Gulley gets the bulk of the work -- the senior has earned the carries. Pound with Tyson-Gulley and McFarlane or Adonis Ameen-Moore and then sprinkle in one of the young kids for a couple of long bursts, a la McFarlane's run against Wake.

JS: As crazy as it sounds (SU has a five-running back attack) I do think it is nice. Many times on Saturday we saw two-running back sets that went for big plays. It is nice to be able to toss out those kinds of formations to get mismatches on linebackers covering running backs or help out with the zone read. I like it, but you need to be smart with using it.

DL: Probably not for everyone to be a focus every game, but I'm sure they'll all have their moments from time to time. We know that Prince-Tyson Gulley and Adonis Ameen-Moore have their roles as the featured back and the power back. Between Ervin Phillips, DeVante McFarlane, and George Morris, I think we'll see the team stick with the hot hand. That was Phillips against CMU, and McFarlane against Wake Forest...hopefully we get something out of Morris soon as well. Obviously the coaches want to keep everyone happy and involved, but I'd rather have too many backs to worry about than too few.

SK: Yes and no. No, there isn't room for all five of them to get a decent number of carries and looks on a consistent basis. Yes, there is room for all of them to step up and prove themselves and so long as they continue to do so, I feel like we have worse issues to deal with.

JC: Sean's right. We have worse issues to deal with. But I am a bit concerned about each of these backs' respective abilities to get going on a limited number of carries. Without diving fully into the numbers, I'd contend that PTG and AAM can get started pretty quickly, while Erv needs a carry or two to get warmed up. George Morris and Devante McFarlane need a couple drives to really get into rhythm and as you'd guess, those two have really suffered the most in this setup.

If the Orange could get back one currently injured player at full strength, who would you pick?

MB: Ivan Foy. It’s a boring answer, I know, but Foy was a rock at right tackle last season (he started all 13 games) and I want as much protection for my true-freshman quarterback as I can get.

BN: The answer here has to be between Brisly Estime or Ashton Broyld. While I like what Ashton has done, I think Ishmael might do what he does better, and Brisly is a more dynamic player. Getting Brisly back in this Tim Lester offense would be extremely interesting and I think he could singlehandedly make our offense twice as dangerous.

TIS: Ivan Foy. AJ Long has played very well so far, and to help his development further, I'd be more comfortable with big Ivan offering the O-Line that extra depth that is needed while we hit the most critical portion of our season.

MM: I love the frosh-to-frosh connection of Long and Steve Ishmael, and I can't help thinking how that combo will benefit once Ashton Broyld is back on the field. Plus, Broyld has prove himself an X Factor on the field, able to take some carries and definitely catch some passes. Add Long's talent to Broyld's game and I think SU's offense could be, dare I write, exciting to watch!

JS: Ashton Broyld. He is a guy that can make plays and, especially the way the team has struggled in the red zone, the Orange need more guys like that.

DL: Give me Brisly Estime. He's one guy that really has a unique skill-set that I imagine a lot of things in the offense were built around, namely, screens and other plays to exploit his speed. He adds a new dimension to the offense that guys like Steve Ishmael, Adrian Flemming, and Jarrod West, while all good players, don't bring. I'm really interested to see how he is integrated.

SK: Give me Brisly Estime so we've got another weapon to throw into the offensive mix. The offense needs as many quality options as it can get and if we can another speedy player that A.J. Long could throw to, that'd be huge.

JC: Ivan Foy seems to be the clear choice here (to me). The offensive line's continued errors and hot-and-cold play (by the way, hi Clemson!) have caused some issues for the Orange, and Foy's return would at least help mitigate some of those.

Syracuse can pull off the biggest upset of the Scott Shafer era by doing (fill in the blank) this weekend...

MB: If Syracuse wants to shock the college football world on Saturday night, the defense has to build off of last week and keep Clemson mostly in-check, like Boston College did a week ago. For some weird (and probably irrational) reason, I’m giving Syracuse a chance to win in Death Valley. Maybe it’s because I think the new offense (under Lester at O.C. and A.J. Long at quarterback) is better than it actually is, or maybe it’s because I just haven’t been that impressed by DeShaun Watson-less Clemson. But I’m definitely feeling hopeful.

BN: Clemson was pretty terrible against BC last weekend. Granted, it was on the road, but BC just challenged Cole Stoudt to beat them through the air and he couldn't do that. While I don't think that should be our strategy, we need to attack on defense and force turnovers, because they are on the table. We also need to get rid of the ball quickly on defense or AJ is going to get killed by an excellent defensive line. Clemson's defense is very good and it will be tough to generate points with a long field so special teams will be very important here as well.

TIS: Getting TD production in the two or three red zone trips we will hopefully make and getting penetration in Clemson's backfield to disrupt their passing game. That is asking a LOT though...

MM: Stop the Tigers ground game like the Orange did against FSU and Wake. Clemson is playing without a ton of starters on offense, which can only help a defense that is improving and gaining confidence (I assume). Should Syracuse make Clemson's backup quarterback beat it, well, the Orange will have a chance to win. Oh, and Long cannot implode on offense, too. That part is important.

JS: I think so, but I am not going to get my hopes up. I am going to watch the game being very guarded and expecting the worse, but if early on I see SU doing what they SHOULD do then I'll get excited. This is college football. There's always a chance for something crazy.

DL: Turn Cole Stoudt over, and score points on defense. To be honest, I don't have a ton of faith in the Syracuse offense flipping a switch against Clemson, which has one of the toughest defenses in the country, especially on the road. I do think that Syracuse's defense can get after Cole Stoudt and force him into compromising situations. If SU can force the Tigers to turn the ball over a few times, and shorten the field for the offense (sigh) or even score like it did against Wake Forest, we might have a ball game.

SK: Playing another spectacular defensive game and, somehow, someway, finding a way to score points.

JC: Avoiding mistakes, getting after Cole Stoudt and actually scoring points. That last one is probably the most important in terms of Syracuse pulling an upset. Clemson can't score points the way they used to -- if anything, they're struggling to even come close to that -- so the best way to beat them and their top-notch defense is to score.

What does Clemson need to do in order to put this game away by halftime?

MB: The Tigers have to get better quarterback play from Cole Stoudt than they have in the past two weeks. In that span, they’ve beaten Louisville and Boston College by six points and by four points, respectively. Since Watson went down and Stoudt was inserted at quarterback, Clemson has stopped blowing out teams. That won’t change this week unless Stoudt’s play is better.

BN: Clemson needs to stop the Orange run game and force AJ Long to beat them. They also need to keep it simple and pay attention to how FSU and Louisville used their athletes on offense. They also need to get points on the board early, otherwise there could be a nervous Death Valley crowd after last week

TIS: I see a Clemson win for sure, but I do not see them being able to put this away at halftime. Their best chance will be to pressure SU into multiple turnovers. If they do that, and handle SU's defensive pressure, they could grab large chunks of yardage through a WR corps who should have the upper hand against The Orange secondary.

MM: Get to Long early, remind him he is a true freshman playing on the road in DEATH VALLEY. Get a couple of early turnovers (picks and fumbles), score off them directly or indirectly, and get the coffin in the ground before we head back to Bristol for your Taco Bell In Studio Updates sponsored by Ace Hardware.

JS: Cause a few turnovers and convert them into quick points. If the Tigers do that then it will be very hard for Syracuse to come back.

DL: Stretch the Syracuse defense with the passing game, and get after A.J. Long. Clemson's running attack is not great, and Syracuse is solid up front, but if Stoudt can hit on some big passes down the field, the Tigers will give SU trouble. On the other end, while A.J. Long has been impressive, he has thrown some risky balls, and got away with a few against Wake Forest. Clemson should be able to pressure him with its elite defensive line. If they rattle Long, it will be a long day for Syracuse.

SK: Just show up on defense. As many injuries as they've had on offense, they've still got plenty of talent to keep things in check. If their defense shuts us down, we're not gonna be able to win with defense only.

JC: If Clemson can cause a few turnovers and largely keep the Orange out of the end zone (more than SU already takes care of on its own), then this one will be wrapped up in short order. The Tigers' defense is as good as we'll see all season, and if we let them show that fact off, there's no chance Syracuse wins.