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Syracuse vs. USF preview: Five things to watch

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Before you watch the Orange take on the Bulls, here are some things to keep an eye on...

NCAA Football: Syracuse at South Florida Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

After a difficult 62-28 loss to Louisville last week, the Syracuse Orange regroup for their latest opponent, the USF Bulls. SU comes in at 1-1, while South Florida is 2-0 after big wins over Towson and Northern Illinois. They’re also receiving votes in the polls. So yeah, they’re good. And they’re coming to the Carrier Dome on Saturday in a game the Orange may need to win (despite the odds) if they have a realistic shot at a bowl.

So what is Syracuse up against? And what are some of the key elements of the game to keep an eye on? We try to come up with five below:

1. Can the Orange secondary recover quickly?

Last week, Syracuse gave up 431 passing yards on just 21 completions to Louisville’s Lamar Jackson (and one by Kyle Bolin). This week, they’re very likely without two of their best DBs in Antwan Cordy and Juwan Dowels. SU must now find ways to correct the mistakes that plagued last week’s performance while also digging further and further down the depth chart. It will be no easy task.

The change in scheme is a major culprit, clearly, as a good number of these defenders were recruited for a system that is the polar opposite of the Tampa-2. But for many of the younger players on the roster (especially the freshmen), the glut of injuries and lack of familiarity with the old regime’s methods present a golden opportunity to learn on the job.

In some ways, that’s glossing over a serious issue. But at this point, the only way this secondary improves is by the team adapting to and getting better within the Tampa-2. And who is better equipped to do so than the freshmen? Expect to see more of names like Carl Jones, Scoop Bradshaw and maybe even Christopher Fredrick as the team continues to test solutions.

2. Is Quinton Flowers another Lamar Jackson?

No one’s creating a direct correlation between the talent levels of USF’s Flowers and Louisville’s death machine, Jackson. But the skill sets they present do hold some similarities. Flowers is quick, has shown improvement throwing the football and has also seen much of the personnel on the Syracuse defense before — even if in a different scheme.

Last year down in Tampa, Flowers accounted for 314 total yards and three scores while slicing through the Orange D with ease. With another season under his belt and his own strong start to the year (637 total yards, eight TDs), Flowers could very well replicate portions of Jackson’s output if the defense isn’t prepared to shut down the same threats we saw on Friday night vs. the Cardinals.

For Syracuse, they’ll be relying on pressure to both attack the USF passing game and also keep containment on Flowers to force him to throw the ball. As he’s completing just 56.9 percent of his passes in 2016, you’ll take your chances there, especially on a hurried throw. Disrupting his progressions can also help make up for any potential secondary issues the Orange may (and probably will) encounter. There’s a risk in the blitz, obviously. And Flowers could easily find himself around the edge and in open space if Syracuse isn’t careful. It’s a risk worth taking, however, based on last week’s results. Expect a different strategy from SU after the one to take down Jackson failed pretty spectacularly.

3. Syracuse needs to establish a run game

The Orange have amassed just 238 yards on the ground on 75 carries this year -- ranked 102nd in the country, which... is pretty awful. While Dino Babers arrived with a brand new passing attack, that element’s success is also predicated on successful carries between the tackles to draw the defense in. Averaging just 3.17 yards per carry (a number inflated by a couple Moe Neal runs and some garbage time yardage vs. Louisville) is not going to help this offense move at the pace it needs to, via both the ground and air.

As pointed out in the play-calling breakdown on Tuesday, play-action was far less effective in game two because the fear of the run was vanishing as the game wore on. Louisville could simply blitz on the pass and drop back the defense in coverage to do the rest of the work if the front four didn’t get to Eric Dungey. They largely did, since the offensive line failed to truly protect the SU quarterback for much of the night -- and just as bad, they failed to open up space for the Orange’s shifty backs to run.

If we see a third straight game of SU failing to get things going, I’d be extremely concerned for the rest of the year.

4. Getting Steve Ishmael more involved

While Amba Etta-Tawo and Ervin Philips have spent the last two weeks near the top of the FBS leaderboard for wide receiver statistics, the much-heralded Steve Ishmael has brought in just 10 receptions for 101 yards. Though his usage rate is still far better than the dreadful numbers we saw in the various Scott Shafer-era offenses he participated in, it’s still glaring that the junior breakout candidate’s been fairly quiet through two games.

That can change if Dungey is afforded a little bit better pass protection. Forced to make quick decisions, the QB’s first read has been Philips in both games, and then a glance downfield where Etta-Tawo can typically be seen streaking deep toward the sidelines. Ishmael, while able to fill either of the roles those two do, typically runs more intermediary routes that need more time to develop. He’s able to get himself open. He just needs Dungey to have more time to find him. Or at least, help break him of the current habits of his Philips-then-Etta-Tawo-then-scramble progression.

5. Playing from behind

It may seem like light years ago, but Syracuse started the Colgate game down 7-0 after the opening drive. It was still early, however, and the team calmly took the field in its new offense and marched down the field to tie within minutes. They never looked back, scoring 33 unanswered to close out the victory.

The Orange fell behind on the first play from scrimmage vs. Louisville. Then the offense sputtered to start, the defense allowed another quick touchdown, and within minutes they trailed by 14.

The scenarios above present two different outcomes for the same problem -- a problem Syracuse may find itself in once again against USF on Saturday. The response against Colgate got them right back into it and helped spur on the remainder of the game’s production (albeit against lesser competition). The former response against Louisville resulted in a disaster, and a hole the offense simply couldn’t climb out of, despite a pretty valiant effort trying to do so in the second quarter.

You never want to fall behind. Just like you never want to start a game with an unsuccessful offensive series, especially in this offense. The Orange need to focus heavily on execution in the early stages of this contest if they have a shot to win. The Bulls run a pretty speedy offense themselves (155 plays through two games, both of which were decided early), and they won’t necessarily be worn down by pace. Even if they’re down, they need to keep plays quick and crisp, and match USF blow for blow.

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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 Saturday contest with USF? Weigh in below.