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Syracuse vs. Clemson: Dissecting the Tigers’ passing attack

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The Syracuse secondary is in for a big challenge Saturday against Clemson.

Clemson v Florida State Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

This weekend, the Syracuse Orange will take on the no. 2-ranked Clemson Tigers. Fresh off a big road win over Florida State, the Tigers are well on their way to a College Football Playoff birth. Boasting one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country (Deshaun Watson) and some of the ACC’s best athletes at wide receiver, Clemson’s aerial attack requires special preparation. So this week, I wanted to take a look at how the Syracuse secondary plays their Tampa-2 scheme and how they’ll gameplan the Tiger’s offense.

Across the country, every college football team has a philosophy on offense and on defense. For some, it may be as simple as pound the rock and stop the run. For Syracuse, it’s attack with tempo offensively, and create turnovers defensively.

At this point, we all know Syracuse runs a very zone-heavy scheme, the majority being cover 2, cover 3, and cover 4. Two keys in this type of defense are movement and disguise; showing cover 4 but dropping into 2, showing cover 3 but actually playing man. Look for heavy rotation throughout the game by safeties and corners. This causes confusion for the quarterback and sometimes leads into errant throws, hesitation and often interceptions. Against a quarterback like Watson, constant communication is vital. Poor communication leads to games like SU’s losses to Louisville and Notre Dame.

Against Virginia Tech, the Orange did a great job putting the opposing offense into unfavorable third down situations. They did this by containing the run, running down perimeter screens and staying over the top on the deep ball. This was encouraging given the similarities between Virginia Tech and Clemson’s offense, and I think a similar gameplan will be in place this week.

Like Virginia Tech, Clemson’s passing offense will test more than just the secondary, but also the lateral ability of Syracuse’s linebackers and overall team pursuit. This has been strength for the Orange defense the last few weeks so it’ll be interesting to see this matchup on Saturday.

Individually, Corey Winfield is really becoming a standout player, regularly breaking up passes on a week-to-week basis now, and being solid against the run. This game will be a huge opportunity to take that next step as a corner because of the talent he’ll see this week. He’s one of the best athletes on the Orange, and to be competitive against a top team like Clemson, this defense will really need him to step up this week and make plays.

Being an underdog against an athletically superior team, discipline and technique will make or break this secondary on Saturday. Playing in a hostile environment such as Death Valley won’t make life any easier, but for the Orange to have any chance of making this a fourth-quarter game, the secondary must be disciplined with their eyes and sound in their technique. That means rerouting receivers passing through their zones, maintaining a steady back pedal in deep zones, and remaining alert for the play-action pass.

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Through eight games this year, Deshaun Watson has already thrown 10 interceptions (including thre in one game). In 2015, he had a tendency to lob the ball in the air downfield and read dropping linebackers poorly when attempting middle-to-underneath passes. In 2016, he has shown much of the same, so there will be plenty of opportunities for the Orange secondary. I’m predicting a middle-of-the-field safety to grab one because of his tendency to lock onto routes downfield. If Daivon Ellison or Rodney Williams can get a good read on Watson’s eyes, this defense will make plays.

Clemson’s offense is a ton of fun to play against as DB. Their route tree isn’t entirely complex and you know they’re going to put the ball in the air. They like to get their athletes on the outside in space so bubble and jailbreak screens are a big part of their offense. Combine that with a read-option rushing attack and you see where their offense gets tricky to defend.

That being said, the Tigers’ biggest threat to most defenses is their ability to test your eyes. Clemson quarterbacks are always crafty with their slight of hand on the play action, and their ability to make a lot of their plays look the same and taking shots downfield, can destroy overly aggressive secondaries. So this will be a huge test for Syracuse’s young secondary.

In my career, Clemson week was my favorite game of the season and the playing atmosphere in Death Valley is second-to-none. The smell of grass and BBQ is what college football is all about, and on Saturday I really hope to see this group come into their own and establish themselves as a unit. If they can maintain great eye discipline, play with well-rounded technique and minimize big plays, this defense could be onto something special.

What are you looking forward to seeing from this defense against Clemson?