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Syracuse vs. Clemson preview: Five things to watch

What should you be keeping an eye on going into this Friday’s tough matchup with the Tigers?

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (3-3, 1-1) earned a victory over Pittsburgh last week. Their reward? A Friday night date with the No. 2 Clemson Tigers (6-0, 4-0) at the Carrier Dome.

Last time these bitter internet rivals met, Clemson shut out SU 54-0 and knocked Eric Dungey out for the season. At the bare minimum, let’s just make sure that neither of those two terrible things happen again.

So what should we be focused on going into Syracuse’s game against the Tigers this Friday? We identify five things below:

1. How is Syracuse going to stop Clemson’s pass rush?

More than anything else, this is likely to dictate what the Orange can and can’t accomplish tomorrow. The Tigers have tallied 22 sacks in six games, and they’ve done it against their quality opponents just as much as their lesser ones. Auburn was buried from start to finish in week two. Wake Forest found itself under fire for much of last week’s matchup. I’d argue at least one of those teams has a better offensive line than Syracuse does.

The Orange have been susceptible to pressure all season, but through a combination of adjustments and Eric Dungey’s mobility, have still found ways to move the football (MTSU game aside). Dungey’s been sacked 14 times already this year, but you’ve seen second half changes find ways to protect him a bit more. Despite a rocky start vs. Pitt in week six, SU ended up holding the Panthers back for much of the second half, resulting in the strong finish for the Orange offense.

Clemson’s a far better pass rushing team than Pitt -- especially up the middle -- so expect to see Dontae Strickland or Ravian Pierce pulled in more to help deal with that.

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

2. Orange can’t be one-dimensional, but may need to be

One way to avoid an impressive pass rush is by not throwing the football, but that’s not really an option for the Orange. On top of SU’s own paltry averages (3.65 yards per carry on 233 attempts), Clemson’s only allowing 2.82 yards per carry, and has 47 tackles for loss on the season. That doesn’t mean we’re going to completely abandon the run game. But you’re likely to see a whole lot more passes to avoid wasted plays. You get limited opportunities against teams like Clemson. Even with the threat of pressure, we’ll make the most of our chances by throwing the football.

3. How mobile will Kelly Bryant be?

That’s going to be the biggest question for this defense, since the Clemson quarterback will definitely be playing against the Orange. Bryant can throw well, but his biggest asset is his running ability and he’s the team leader there with 401 yards on 97 carries (plus seven touchdowns).

Syracuse’s only experience against a true mobile QB this year was Ben Dinucci and he seemed to keep the Orange defense a bit out-of-sorts with the threat of taking off during his limited action on the field. SU has had all week to prepare for Bryant -- a better athlete than Dinucci -- so one would think they’re at least a bit more ready to deal with a quarterback who can run.

Bryant’s injury last week was to his ankle, so perhaps he’s not as quick as he normally is. We’ll find out very early whether or not he’s up to speed (and whether the Orange are up to the task of stopping him).

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

4. Avoid getting beat over the top

Syracuse has improved considerably in the secondary, but that doesn’t mean they’ve completely avoided allowing big plays. They’ve allowed 21 passes of 20 yards or more this year, and six of 40 yards or more. There are some obvious caveats there for the number of attempts opponents are likely to get against the Orange (vs. other schools playing at slower paces). However, it’s still highly likely Clemson is successful on a shot or two down the field.

You saw some progress from Scoop Bradshaw on the coverage front last week as he made some big plays deep to help avoid major gains. SU’s safeties need to provide more help over the top, though. This is where Antwan Cordy’s presence would assist. Hopefully Jordan Martin can continue the quality work he’s put in, and get assists from Rodney Williams and Evan Foster.

5. Cut down on unforced errors

As mentioned, the margin for error is already razor-thin for Syracuse in this one if they have any shot of keeping it close. You have to play a near-perfect game to catch the Tigers, even on the road.

One place where SU can help there is in terms of penalties -- a long-time issue for the Orange, but one that’s become even more pronounced in recent weeks. Syracuse is averaging 7.5 penalties per week (for 60 lost yards), while Clemson is one of the 30 or so least-penalized teams in the country. Tigers opponents haven’t even been penalized that much this season. But for a Syracuse team that has been losing games by single digits, those extra few yards in either direction could be the difference.


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 Clemson? Weigh in below.