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Syracuse vs. Florida State: Five things to watch

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That’s not a tackle. It’s a hug, guys.

Syracuse v Florida State Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange have had a rough go of it the last two weeks, and now sit at 4-6 (2-4), needing at least one more win to make it to bowl eligibility (by way of some APR help). Unfortunately, the Florida State Seminoles (7-3, 4-3) aren’t an accommodating foe for a win. They’re favored by 21 points at the moment. I wish there were more reasons for optimism here...

So what should we be on the lookout for going into Syracuse’s tough matchup with FSU? We identify five below:

1. Syracuse has to find an answer for the run game

This is a recurring theme, but most critical this week. Syracuse’s run defense is among the worst in college football (allowing nearly 200 yards per game), and 4.79 yards per carry. Making it worse is the fact that nose tackle Steven Clark is out for the rest of the year, which won’t help the front four get much of a push — even against a struggling Florida State offensive line.

So whether they’re bringing up a linebacker (possibly Zaire Franklin?) to try and stack the box, or utilizing more run blitzes, there’s a desperate need to plug the middle or else Dalvin Cook is going to run all over SU. Cook’s one of the country’s best backs, as you well know. He has 1,242 yards and 13 touchdowns on 214 carries this year. Cook can run well between the tackles, and is equally proficient to the outside. He’s also a receiving threat, so keeping track of his whereabouts is the only way Syracuse stands a chance.

If Cook is able to run downhill against Syracuse and pick up large chunks of yardage the way Matt Dayes was last Saturday, it’s going to be a long game for the Orange defense.

2. Generate pressure on Deondre Francois

In the previous bullet, we’d mentioned Florida State’s struggling line. That group has allowed 32 sacks to this point (one of the 10 highest figures in the country), and Francois has found himself under attack in most of this season’s games. FSU has been especially susceptible to pressure on blitzes, where they’re slow to pick up speedy pass-rushers (see: Clemson game).

The challenge for Syracuse here, on top of balancing run-stopping with blitzing, is the fact that the Orange haven’t really been able to generate pressure this year. The team’s 14 sacks are in the bottom quarter of the country, and just two plays (Chris Slayton, Franklin) have two sacks or more to their name. That ability to generate pressure has increased in the latter half of the season, sure. But the odds are not in SU’s favor to be able to create the pressure they’ll need.

Francois is no Jameis Winston, but he’s not Sean Maguire either. He can take off if needed, and with time, he can deliver passes on the money. Even if they’re not going to generate sacks, Syracuse needs to create hurries to disrupt his throwing.

3. Avoid third-and-long

Syracuse was 2-for-11 on third-and-five or longer vs. NC State last week. Creating third-and-long has been a problem all season for SU, but especially with Zack Mahoney at quarterback, the options become even more limited. Against the Wolfpack, he wasn’t able to put those quick screens to much use, and the State defensive front was able to crash the middle of the line to shut down anything he might’ve been able to do with his legs.

When SU faced third-and-short, they were 2-for-3 (with one of those being a touchdown). And the “miss” ended up being converted on fourth down anyway. This all traces back to execution on first down, too. As mentioned in this week’s play-calling breakdown, Syracuse had just three first down plays go for five or more yards (a season low by a considerable amount).

4. Get Alvin Cornelius some space

This could work for Amba Etta-Tawo too, of course. But as he’s the Syracuse offense’s primary receiving target, there’s a good chance he’s blanketed. NC State was able to stick to him in coverage, save the big 81-yard touchdown grab. So Cornelius, who was open a whole lot more, could end up getting some more opportunities deep as a result.

Against the Wolfpack, he had six targets (seven if you count the disallowed touchdown), and was regularly open deep down the field. While Mahoney doesn’t have an amazing deep ball, he has moments where he’s able to put it on the money, and he has a rapport with Cornelius from their shared time on the second team. Assuming Steve Ishmael can’t go, Cornelius will be starting once again. If FSU gets too distracted by Etta-Tawo and Ervin Philips, Cornelius will have his chances.

5. The battle of red zone proficiency

Florida State’s red zone offense is second-best in the nation, scoring on 44 of 46 tries inside the 20. Syracuse’s red zone defense is 24th-best in the country, allowing scores on 29 of 38 tries (third-most chances faced of teams that high on the list). They’ve stopped teams inside the 20 in seven of 10 games so far, and all but one game (Clemson) since the UConn win. Obviously Florida State’s offense is explosive, with a ton of options to go to in short yardage. But the crowded field inside the 20 serves to help the over-extended Orange defense.

FSU will get their points, of course. And there’s little stopping them from big plays in the Orange secondary (despite recent improvements). But SU’s best chance for damage control is forcing Florida State to try and beat them closer to the goal line.

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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 Florida State? Weigh in below.