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Saturday Spotlight: Syracuse Linebackers vs. USF Short Passing Game

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There are a whole lot of matchups to ponder for tomorrow's game. This could end up being the most important one.

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

On paper, South Florida's passing offense may look a bit underwhelming at 108th in the nation. The team has largely relied on the run to move the football and when they do pass, it hasn't gone incredibly well. But they do excel in one area: short passing. So if Syracuse is going to grab its fourth victory of the season this Saturday, it's going to need to reverse a trend that's been well-established since the Wake Forest game...

USF's found passing success to running backs and tight ends

Between Quinton Flowers and Steven Bench, the Bulls have completed 59 passes on the season. Over half of those (37) have been thrown to tight ends and running backs, and all but one of the team's seven TDs through the air have also been caught by one of those positions. Flowers doesn't have a great arm, but he can avoid pressure, and will find safety valves if given the chance. Running back D'Ernest Johnson, in particular, has shown a penchant for finding himself open: he leads the team with 14 catches, 223 receiving yards and four scores through the air (including a 71-yarder). If you can shut him down, fellow running back Marlon Mack's another option (nine receptions), as is tight end Elkanah Dillon (six catches for 156 yards and two scores).

Syracuse's linebackers have struggled in coverage

Brian's mentioned it a few times when discussing the defense, and it's worth repeating: this year, the Orange linebackers bite pretty hard on play action and overall struggle a bit in coverage... especially when compared to last year's veteran group led by Cam Lynch and Dyshawn Davis. If we see more of the same from the middle of the field this time around, that could lead to a lot of quick passes to safety valves (see above), and some big gains on broken plays. As you probably figured from some from of the USF receiving averages, these aren't dink-and-dunk pass-catchers. These players can fly if given open field.

The USF run game will help spread the Orange front seven thin

Syracuse's linebackers typically sell out to stop the run this year, which is what's led the defense to being 17th overall against opposing teams' ground game. And with a back like Marlon Mack lining up for the Bulls, they'll probably need to do so again to stop him from gashing the front line into exhaustion by the end of the afternoon. That'll open up space in the flat, especially -- prime territory for running backs and tight ends to pull down short passes, and rack up yards after the catch before the secondary comes to help. As much as it could backfire, SU may need to pull back against the run in order to prevent the pass beating them for another week.

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This isn't to paint a dire picture for the Orange, or in particular, the Orange defense. But USF does have some tools to use at the skill positions, even if quarterback is their weakest link overall. We've seen how this goes before, albeit against a much better LSU team. Selling out against the run leaves the defensive backs on an island, and the results are not pretty. Even with lesser athletes than the Tigers, the Bulls are primed for some success throwing the ball if Syracuse's game plan resembles the one from two weeks ago.

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Beer of the Week: Cigar City Jai Alai IPA

As mentioned on the podcast this week too, Jai Alai is one of the better readily-available IPAs around when fresh. Whether in cans or bottles, the refreshing Tampa favorite is an affordable bit of excellence that you can find throughout most of the Northeast just as easily as you can in Florida. Big, with notes of pine and citrus, it's a great complement to your other 3:30 p.m. kickoff activities that'll keep you drinking more.

What John's Drinking: Bathtub IPA Modern Times Lost Horizon

The excellent Modern Times, located down in San Diego, just released its first bottled double IPA. There's a bottle in my fridge and I'm very much looking forward to cracking that open ASAP. Among other things, there's a bottle of Deschutes Black Butte XXVII, which is being saved for a (hopeful) victory on Saturday.

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How about you? What are you drinking to enjoy this Saturday's matchup, whether you're in-person or not? And what do you think of USF's ability to throw the ball to non-wideouts? Should we be concerned at all, or is this just a small hiccup en route to a successful afternoon for Syracuse?