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Syracuse vs. Louisville preview: Five things to watch

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Observing the Orange this Friday night? Here are some things worth paying attention to...

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

The Syracuse Orange start the season 1-0 after a 33-7 victory over the Colgate Raiders that showed off parts of the excitement that the Dino Babers era can deliver. This Friday, they’re aiming to improve to 2-0 (and 1-0 in the ACC), but that will take a win over the Louisville Cardinals. The Cards are also 1-0 after beating Charlotte by a score of 70-14 last Thursday. They’re ranked 13th/15th in the polls right now, so yeah, not the easiest task.

A steep road ahead doesn’t mean it’s an impossible one, however, and there are still plenty of reasons to watch as SU tries to upend Louisville. We give you five below:

  1. How much of Syracuse’s playbook was left out last week?

Speaking to Syracuse.com’s Stephen Bailey this week, Orange receiver Ervin Philips said that the gameplan against Colgate was “basic,” and that it failed to show fans a whole lot. Considering the results (554 total yards on 81 plays) that’s almost tough to believe.

If the effort against the Raiders was only a precursor for what’s to come, though, it presents some thrilling possibilities for what this team could accomplish against a clearly better Louisville team. They’ll obviously be faster, but what else will be different? Additional formations? Trick plays? More receivers getting trotted out to the field than last week (just six caught a pass vs. Colgate)? Bringing a host of new looks along could help complicate matters for the Cardinals and assist SU with a fast start -- critical to them getting any shot at an upset.

2. Orange containment on Louisville QB Lamar Jackson

If we’re considering some level of offensive execution a given for SU, then stopping Jackson becomes paramount to that production turning into a chance at victory. Jackson laid waste to Charlotte in week one, with over 400 total yards and eight scores. Most of that came from a failure to get containment, as the speedy QB made the 49ers pay to the tune of 119 rushing yards. SU has been trying to use walk-on Mo Hasan this week to get a feel for what they’ll be up against with Jackson in terms of mobility.

That’s just one part of the argument in favor of Jackson, however, and you have to wonder how well Hasan could recreate the Louisville passer’s throwing abilities. While Jackson is no prolific arm, he can be accurate inside or outside of the pocket, and has a long list of receivers to get the ball to at any moment. Keeping him in the pocket will be key to avoid him taking off. But keeping him there AND allowing him too much time to throw could also have disastrous results. It’s a tough balance since forcing him to throw is Syracuse’s best chance of shutting him down. Blitzing, on the other hand, could get to him, it’s also an easy way to send him running toward the edge, where he’s very effective at turning the corner.

3. Syracuse’s (hopeful) run-game resurgence

Syracuse passed twice as much as it ran against Colgate, and a lot of that throwing success was predicated on a successful play-action fake from Eric Dungey. If you’re not running the ball, you’re not going to get defenses to bite on the fake. Colgate bit, but was also trailing for much of the contest.

If you take out Moe Neal’s 49-yard touchdown run, the Orange averaged just two yards per carry on the game. Neither Neal nor starter Dontae Strickland are real between-the-tackles runners, but they’ll need to be if SU wants its ground game to become a bigger factor (critical to the offense’s success so defenses can’t just drop eight DBs back to defend the pass). Jordan Fredericks is another option to run the football, and would be the best “power” runner to change pace. But in game one, he wasn’t utilized until late.

With offensive line issues still to sort out (especially on the right side where the team struggled to gain yardage last week), there are no guarantees the Orange fix the entire run game this week. But the passing game’s success against a very good defense is heavily reliant on improving last week’s figures. Dungey was efficient and accurate against Colgate while using play-action and the run game as tools against the defense. That will need to continue for him to put up those types of numbers again.

4. Louisville’s susceptibility to big passing plays

Despite having a pretty stout pass defense, the Cardinals have shown themselves able to give up big passing plays. When they’re successful, most of those are of the 10- to 19-yard variety. When they aren’t, those end up being plays of 20-plus yards through the air. This year, they’ve already given up two of those. Last year, many of the same players on defense allowed 41 such plays (69th in the country).

Syracuse’s offense may run on a dink-and-dunk scheme that uses screens and quick passes to move down the field, but those big-chunk plays are really what makes it so dangerous. The Orange had 13 plays of 10 or more yards (22nd in FBS) last week, and seven for 20 or more (tie for eighth best in the country). If SU can suck the Cards’ defense in with its short passing game, likely led by Erv Philips again, those big plays may be open like they were for portions of last week. That’s when Amba Etta-Tawo (and this passing attack) gets cooking.

5. Shaky Syracuse secondary vs. glut of Cardinals receivers

Amazingly, 16 different players caught a pass for Louisville last week — something that’s both a product of a first half blowout, and also an indicator of just how well-equipped that team is with wideouts. We know Syracuse’s secondary was miserable last year in a scheme predicated on turnovers, rather than coverage. Now they’re coverage-focused in the Tampa-2, but that doesn’t automatically mean they’re blanketing receivers on every route.

The diversity of targets utilized by Jackson and backup Kyle Bolin also masks the fact that the Cards still have a significantly talented upper tier of receivers. Those players — Jamari Staples, L.J. Scott, James Quick, Jaylen Smith and a few others too — could make life pretty difficult for the SU secondary, just as they did in last year’s matchup. With a healthier group of defensive backs, coverage should be more manageable. But still, this is a formidable receiving corps that will find ways to get open, with or without pressure from the Orange front four.

If SU corners can keep in front of routes and prevent the type of 10- or 20-yard gains Charlotte was giving up at will last week, that will go a long way toward dictating how much time Syracuse can stick around in this game. Yes, Syracuse currently sits at 15th in passing defense. But that was just against Colgate. The ghosts of 2015’s 101st overall ranking don’t just vanish overnight.

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These are some starting points, but plenty more angles to dive into on this game too. Have any other key matchups or narratives you’re focused in on in advance of Syracuse’s game with Louisville? Weigh in below.