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Syracuse vs. UConn preview: Five things to watch

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Before SU heads to PAWS ARF, here’s what you should be keeping an eye on...

NCAA Football: Colgate at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (1-2, 0-1) head down to Connecticut this Saturday to take on the UConn Huskies (2-1, 0-1). Syracuse is coming off a one-sided loss to the USF Bulls last week, while UConn grabbed a tight victory over Virginia. These programs are polar opposites in terms of style right now. It’s safe to assume you also know very little about the Huskies’ current team.

So what will Syracuse be up against when they take the field against Connecticut? And what are some key elements of the game to keep an eye on? We give you five below:

1. Syracuse’s offensive pace setting the tone again

Through three weeks of action, the Orange have run more plays than any other team in the country, at 279. UConn, on the other hand, has run just 198 (88th in the country) in the same stretch. The Huskies are far from a fast team, which won’t do them any favors against the Orange.

We saw what happens for Syracuse when they quickly overwhelm an opponent with pace to start the game. Against USF, SU looked completely in control early -- and they were according to the scoreboard, which had them up 17-0. The problem there was that the Bulls had the talent to play at a similar pace and eventually match and surpass Syracuse’s output. UConn doesn’t have that.

While the Huskies’ defense may be better than South Florida’s, the Orange’s ability to quickly move down the field is a distinct advantage that can and will change the gameplan for UConn. Fast teams are fine with going fast to catch up or increase a lead. Slow teams (like UConn) want the game to come down to as few possessions as possible. Dino Babers knows this and will try to establish tempo early to force the Huskies out of their comfort zone right from the opening whistle.

2. Will Dontae Strickland carry the load once more?

Scoring may have gone down for SU last week, but overall offensive production went up, in part because of the increased output on the ground. While not always efficient, Strickland managed 127 yard on 30 carries to at least create the threat of a run game for the Orange. If this offense is going to continue to develop, it’s going to need a similar (if not better) effort from him going forward.

UConn’s defense doesn’t look great at stopping the run according to the raw numbers (56th in yards per game), but that’s also deceptive after facing a run-heavy team like Navy. Get rid of that output (235 yards) and the Huskies allowed just 180 yards combined to Virginia and Maine — an average that would be top 20 in the nation.

The Huskies can create problems up the middle for Syracuse, especially without a “big” back to hand the ball to. Even if gains are minimal, SU will have to keep at it and avoid going to the one-dimensional passing attack we saw against Louisville.

3. Bryant Shirreffs is a mobile quarterback

Three games into the season, and SU has faced three mobile quarterbacks with varying degrees of abilities. This Saturday will make it four when they line up against capable UConn dual-threat Bryant Shirreffs. No, he’s not Lamar Jackson, or even Quinton Flowers. But the QB can run (he’s currently the team’s leading rusher), and it’s not as if the Orange have a sterling record trying to stop mobile passers, even if they aren’t Heisman frontrunners.

When Syracuse last faced Shirreffs (2013, when he played for NC State), he utilized designed runs as well as scrambling when necessary to continue moving that offense. Now, he’s not running by design as much as he’s using his legs to escape pressure, but he’s still quick enough to avoid tacklers if he gets outside of the pocket.

Shirreffs isn’t a major playmaker with his arm. He’ll make throws, and he’s reasonably accurate (will note, 71 percent on the season right now, though). Unfortunately for the Orange, that’s been a recipe for success for opposing quarterbacks. Especially ones with high-quality receiving options. Which brings us to...

4. Noel Thomas is a very good wide receiver

Sure, he’s not Amba Etta-Tawo, but few players really are. For UConn, Thomas is the equivalent, however, and in an offense that doesn’t really try to do much but score enough points to help out the defense. His 26 catches and 277 yards (plus a TD) show him head and shoulders above the rest of the squad, which makes him an easy mark for opposing defenses. Since that hasn’t stopped Thomas from putting up numbers so far, how can SU change the outcome?

For the Orange, they’ll need to balance allowing him to get his catches while also daring the Huskies to throw to anyone else. The next-best pass-catcher for UConn is Hergy Mayala, with seven for 96 yards (41 of those coming on one reception). Daring Shirreffs to try elsewhere is a risky strategy given how much Syracuse has struggled covering receivers in the open field this year. But given the disparity here, it’s a worthwhile one that could potentially grind Connecticut’s offense to a screeching halt.

5. UConn does not have a play-making defense

Syracuse can and has been undone in the past by turnovers and forced errors by aggressive opposing defenses. UConn is not one of those at all. They want to grind you down in the trenches, slow the game and force you to win in the ugliest fashion possible. We discussed how the Orange can use pace to combat that. The other side is finding ways to balance risk and playing it safe against a steady defense.

The Huskies have forced two turnovers all year. They have three sacks and 12 tackles for loss. They don’t create turnovers and luck and big plays. They’re opportunistic when those plays arise. UConn isn’t going to take risks to turn the tide of a game. They let you do that to yourself.

By avoiding hits early and keeping his cool in the pocket, Eric Dungey can help Syracuse avoid costly errors that would hand Connecticut the game. Last week, three turnovers hurt. This week, three turnovers only happen by way of unnecessary risk. Dino Babers’s offense is predicated on some risk, sure. Still, SU can keep its offense moving by sticking to the inside run game and screens, and then letting the deep ball develop instead of trying to force it. Even if Syracuse has to play from behind at some point, it won’t be by much. With the number of possessions they should have in this game, there’s ample time for patience when attacking the UConn defense.

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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 UConn? Weigh in below.