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Syracuse vs. Wake Forest preview: Five things to watch

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The Orange and Deacs meet on Saturday night. Here are some things you should be aware of in advance.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange fell to Notre Dame last week, knocking their record down to 2-3 on the year. Next up are the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, who suffered their first loss of the season last week (to NC State) and now sit at 4-1. The game’s down in Winston-Salem in primetime on Saturday. You’re excited.

So what will be some of Syracuse’s biggest challenges against Wake Forest? And what are some key elements of the game to keep an eye on? We give you five below:

1. Could bad weather undo the Syracuse offense?

This has less to do with Wake Forest and more to do with the realities of the weather conditions in the Southeast. Current projections show Hurricane Matthew steering clear of that area of North Carolina, but residual rain and wind could still roll into Winston-Salem. For what it’s worth, Syracuse seems to be preparing for the worst case when it comes to weather this Saturday.

Even if prepared in terms of the center-to-quarterback exchange on a shotgun snap, however, it’s not going to make it any easier to throw the football. The Orange have the country’s seventh-ranked passing offense, and 111th-ranked rushing attack. You can see where this might go wrong. Short passes aren’t even the most ideal option since a slippery ball thrown behind the line of scrimmage could create potential fumbles.

Whether in a downpour or just a light drizzle, expect Syracuse to at least try to run the ball directly at Wake, to see if they can set up the ground game for once. The Deacons are the 20th-ranked rushing defense, which makes this no easy feat. Perhaps we finally get a look at Jordan Fredericks before the fourth quarter this week. It can’t hurt, right?

2. Still, attack the Demon Deacons’ corners

When we spoke to our pals over at Blogger So Dear this week, one potential weakness they called out was the decline in cornerback play this year. This year’s pass defense is ranked 96th in the country and though the DBs have managed six picks, they’ve also allowed seven scores thus far (SU has allowed seven passing TDs by comparison). Even if the weather’s unfavorable, Syracuse will find targets down the field, most importantly Amba Etta-Tawo.

Finding open receivers is actually the one thing the Orange have really been able to depend on all year. Louisville’s defense aside, Eric Dungey’s had a some pretty fair chances at amassing high completion numbers against every SU foe. Even teams with “better” corners (HI, UCONN!) were victimized by the pace of the offense and the skillset of its receivers. Again, that list highlights Etta-Tawo, but it doesn’t mean others won’t be heavily involved as Syracuse attempts to replicate the type of success NC State had vs. Wake by earning a quick lead.

3. Create opportunities without being handed mistakes

Syracuse doesn’t create very many turnovers or sacks, and Wake Forest doesn’t allow many either, which creates a bit of a challenge for SU. Obviously that still requires the Deacons to move the football. But Wake’s four lost turnovers are among the fewest in the country, and at 12 sacks, they’ve also been able to protect quarterbacks John Wolford and Kendall Hinton.

So how can the Orange switch the field on defense without play-making ability since they’ve failed to generate turnovers or sacks this year either? They’ll need to rely on the linebacker corps. again. Parris Bennett has tallied over 30 combined tackles in the last two weeks, and his presence within this defensive scheme has increased. Zaire Franklin, while still no pro at dropping back into coverage within the Tampa-2, is able to generate stops in small spaces, and can lend an assist on a rare turnover opportunity.

The scheme doesn’t call for them to be overly aggressive from the linebacker spot, but there is some evidence that playing to these players’ strengths and letting them be a bit more active (rather than staying at home) can pay dividends. We’ll see what defensive coordinator Brian Ward has them doing on Saturday.

4. Don’t let Wolford complete short passes

Wake is among the least explosive teams in the country when it comes to the passing game, with just 36 completions of 10 yards or more on the entire year. Wolford, who will start this game, averages just 5.91 yards per attempt. While he can make some downfield throws, he’s not overly accurate deep, and unlike previous years, he doesn’t really have much in terms of quality targets at the receiver spot. The only way he’s going to beat you is with the type of short throws that Dungey actually thrives on as well.

This can be problematic for Syracuse because they have a tendency to get beat by screens of late (and this year, really beat by any pass at all). But if they focus on preventing those short throws, it could force Wolford to take more time on passes (allowing a modest pass-rush to develop) and make him throw where he’s less comfortable (deep). The Orange are easy to beat over the top anyway, so might as well force him to try that, than play to the strength of the Deacons’ passing game.

5. Syracuse front four needs to stop Matt Colburn

The Orange have been shredded on the ground this year, allowing 204 rushing yards per game (101st in the country). That’s not great, but it’s also a product of SU facing mobile quarterbacks who happily tore them up. Wolford can run if he’s given a lane outside the pocket, but otherwise, he’s going to be a more typical pocket passer. That helps Syracuse in one sense, but that won’t put a stop to Colburn, the team’s leading rusher so far this season (337 yards on 82 carries).

This is a new wrinkle for the Deacs, who have yet to really present a running game against Syracuse since at least 2011, if not the 2006 game. Colburn isn’t an overly large back (5-foot-10, 200 pounds), but that sort of size hasn’t prevented other backs from running all over the Orange front. Poor weather conditions or not, Syracuse will need to make stops in the trenches and force Wake’s offense to throw the ball downfield. As mentioned in the previous bullet, it’s a risk that plays to SU’s weakness. But they stand a much better chance doing that against Wake Forest than allowing them to methodically dink and dunk their way down the field.

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These are some starting points for conversation, but plenty of other angles to take a look at, too. Any other key matchups or narratives you’re focused in on in advance of Syracuse’s game against Wake Forest? Weigh in below.