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Syracuse vs. NC State preview: Five things to watch

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You’re watching, but now we tell you what you’re watching FOR.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Things did not go well for the Syracuse Orange (4-5, 2-3) last week against Clemson. But they have a chance to right the ship again this Saturday when the NC State Wolfpack (4-5, 1-4) come to town. There’s no line on this one because we don’t know Eric Dungey’s status just yet. Still, there are some constants for SU in this game with or without him.

So what should we be on the lookout for going into this important matchup for both Syracuse and NC State’s bowl hopes? We identify five below:

1. Syracuse must limit the running game

The Orange are allowing nearly 200 yards per game, and almost five yards per carry on the ground -- putting them in the bottom quarter of the FBS in the process. Last week was a prime example of what happens when they can’t shut down the run, too: Clemson managed 195 yards on 44 carries. Wayne Gallman led the way with 63 yards, but four other players topped 20 on the game.

Another look at Gallman’s numbers, though, shows some progress. Other than the 30-yard gain he had, his other nine carries picked up less than four yards per. Prevent the big play, and SU’s front four paints a much more capable story.

NC State doesn’t possess an amazing run game (just 147.44 yards per game), but they do have one very good ball carrier who can terrorize defenses. Matt Dayes has 831 rushing yards on the year, and is averaging five yards per carry. When he can move the football, it’s a table-setter for this Wolfpack offense. SU needs to keep him confined between the tackles, and prevent big plays. State won’t give up on the run if thwarted, but forcing them to pass could yield some more positives.

2. Keep NC State receivers from creating big plays

Stopping big plays will always be a key for this Syracuse defense, but against NC State’s passing game, it becomes a larger concern. State quarterback Ryan Finley does have an arm, and while he doesn’t have a single home run threat to rely on, the team has nine different players that have caught passes of 25 yards or more. The Wolfpack are in the top third in the country in completing long pass plays from scrimmage — something that could prove problematic for the Orange.

SU, as you’re likely aware, gets carved up on long passing plays with some frequency. The 38 passing plays of 20 or more yards they’ve allowed rank among the 20 worst figures in college football. However this defense schemes to shut down the State passing attack, it’s essential they find ways to keep these receivers in front of them.

As mentioned, there’s no clear-cut deep threat, but Stephen Louis (446 yards on 23 receptions), Bra’lon Cherry (297 on 19) and Kelvin Harmon (289 on 18) all seem like players that need to be locked down right at the line of scrimmage. If not, expect Rodney Williams and Daivon Ellison to have busy days at the safety spots.

3. SU’s offense needs to keep the tempo up

While Syracuse’s offense is one of the fastest in the country on a plays-per-game basis, they do have some down games, especially when the opposing defense begins to alter the gameplan. Injuries, as we saw last week, also slow up the Orange — something that simply can’t happen this week with or without Dungey.

In terms of plays per game against, NC State’s facing nearly 70 per game, which is tied for 44th-best in the country. Their defense has been able to force teams off the field without turnovers, and to a point, have dictated the pace of games. When pushed a bit more (see: East Carolina, Louisville), the defense can look out-of-sorts and both sides of the ball struggle to keep up. Syracuse’s goal is always to push tempo, but that could obviously become a big challenge with Austin Wilson or Zack Mahoney running the show.

Even in an altered state, this SU offense needs to push, and force State to keep up. They don’t play at tempo on either side of the ball, which can only serve as an advantage for the Orange. Without Dungey, the offense’s production may not be on the same level as it is with him, but it’ll have to come close to really test this defense.

4. Syracuse needs to force more punts (and specifically, returns)

On a per-punt-return basis, Syracuse is second in the country, averaging 18.5 yards on 12 attempts. State doesn’t punt much (less than four times per game, on average), and also doesn’t allow a ton of returns (just four on the year). As you may have also figured, the Orange don’t force a lot of punts either.

But if they can... It has the opportunity to create a much better field for this offense, no matter who’s at QB. Assuming Brisly Estime, one of the country’s top return men, can go vs. the Wolfpack, getting the ball in his hands is critical. If he’s out, there’s a drop-off, though you can also see the promise of freshman Sean Riley there too.

“Force more punts” is an obvious tactic to win for most teams. But SU has a unique weapon in Estime, since he sees the field in a way few other return men do. The Orange pushing the pace (as addressed in the previous bullet) could help create more opportunities here, even if the percentage of drives that end in punts is still pretty low.

5. Just pass the damn ball

Again, obviously easier with Dungey at QB, but NC State’s defense has not really managed to challenge opponents that chose to throw the ball. Through nine games, they’re allowing over 250 passing yards per game (92nd in the country), 61 percent completions and 18 touchdowns. Given the array of receivers Syracuse has at its disposal, any quarterback we have back there should be able to exploit this weakness for State.

Expect a lot of what we’ve seen in previous weeks: a two-to-one called pass-to-called run ratio, a lot of attacking through screens on first downs, and some throws over the top, especially if Dungey or Wilson is under (behind) center. Dungey and Amba Etta-Tawo created a very solid connection over the course of the offseason and into the fall. If Wilson’s the guy on Saturday, it’s likely the redshirt senior receiver has been working with him on timing all week to help create more deep throws in rhythm. If State leaves him single-covered, look out.

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