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Syracuse vs. Miami preview: Five things to watch

What should we keep an eye on before this game kicks off?

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (4-3, 2-1) are riding high after defeating the Clemson Tigers last week. Now, with a national audience tuning in, they’ll get a chance to prove it was no fluke. SU faces the No. 8 Miami Hurricanes down at Hard Rock Stadium at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.

The Orange and Hurricanes haven’t faced off on the football field since 2003, an ugly 17-10 victory for Miami. It’s easy to forget these programs are in the same conference, but yes, they are.

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

1. Third down efficiency (or lack thereof)

One of the biggest reasons for Syracuse’s defensive turnaround this season has been its efforts on third down. The Orange have allowed just 22 conversions in 92 attempts (23.91 percent), which is the third-best rate in the country. Clemson was just 2-for-11 on third last week, while Pitt was 3-for-13. Obviously, SU hasn’t just padded its numbers against scrubs this year. They’ve held Power Five opponents to a 30.61 percent conversion rate overall.

That could come in handy against Miami, whose been pretty lackluster on third downs overall this year. The Hurricanes have converted on just 34.48 percent of tries this year (97th in the country), though it’s also worth noting they don’t really get into these situations very often. Through five games, they’ve faced just 58 third downs, but were 2-for-12 last week. That figure was bad, and it was also against the top-rated third down defense in the country. This is something worth focusing on.

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

2. Miami’s going to bring pressure

Nothing new here for Syracuse, but Eric Dungey is going to be facing quite a bit of pressure once again this weekend. Miami has 17 sacks in just five games, which amounts to 3.4 per game (fourth-highest rate in the nation). The Orange, on the other hand, have given up more sacks than almost any other team in 2017. After Clemson’s seven-sack effort on Friday, SU’s now allowed 21 on the season -- only eight teams have allowed more.

Though Syracuse’s offensive line has been under siege in just about every game this season, they’ve also found a way to improve over the course of games. That could come in handy against Miami, which has been a second half team this season. But whenever that improvement occurs, it’s probably going to revolve around similar tactics to what we did against Clemson.

Early on against the Tigers, the Orange used screens to exploit the blitz, and Dungey was quick to run if forced out of the pocket. Matters were complicated when Clemson brought pressure up the middle. Miami’s RJ McIntosh can bring a push like that from the interior line. With luck, SU won’t have to pull in Dontae Strickland or Ravian Pierce to run-block (pulling a receiver out of the open field).

3. Miami’s big plays (on both ends) could decide the game

Syracuse is among the country’s most big-play focused teams, with 114 gains of 10 yards or more so far. But the Orange have also allowed more big plays than most. That stands in contrast to Miami, which gets its big plays on offense, but doesn’t allow a ton on the other end.

What’s most worrisome for SU is that the Hurricanes have been especially adept at shutting down long passing plays. They’ve allowed just 39 (just under eight per game) throws of 10 or more yards this year. Though the secondary is far from the strong suit of this Miami defense, that stat could be critical to the Orange’s success (or lack thereof). Even before Dino Babers arrived, this offense’s chances were largely defined by what they did on first down, and the big plays they’ve been able to amass. If a team can shut down the major gains, a West Coast offense for Syracuse (see: what we did vs. MTSU) doesn’t really work.

Despite playing in just two games so far, Miami receiver Richards has been the team’s fourth-leading receiver with 175 yards on just seven catches. According to this week’s injury report, he should be ready to go for Miami. That sort of big-play ability (see above) will open up the offense far more than what the ‘Canes have seen of late. Games without Richards have largely relied on the shorter gains of Braxton Berrios, along with the late heroics of Darrell Langham, but the passing game hasn’t been as dynamic.

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

4. Can Syracuse turn pressure into sacks again?

After pushing for weeks, Syracuse’s front seven finally broke through last week, grabbing four combined sacks against Clemson’s Kelly Bryant and Zerrick Cooper. The numbers are still pretty low for the year (just 10 so far), but the Orange have been able to generate pressure pretty consistently. Losing Kendall Coleman and Josh Black for extended periods now has also slowed down the pace a bit.

I’m not banking on Coleman or Black returning at 100-percent this week, but there’s still a chance Syracuse can collapse the pocket against Malik Rosier and get hits on him (which was the key to stifling the Tigers’ offense). Miami’s allowed 2.2 sacks per game — something we’ll be keenly aware of.

5. Miami can run the ball without Mark Walton

You probably noticed already that the ACC’s top running back, Mark Walton, is out -- something that doesn’t make the Hurricanes’ rushing attack better. However, it hasn’t really made it worse, either. Travis Homer is averaging over eight yards per carry, and Trayone Gray could get some burn in the backfield as well. But Homer’s ability to pick up big chunks of yardage should be worrisome, even given last week’s results allowing big Clemson runs and still earning the victory.

Miami’s unlikely to confusingly lean on one aspect of its game and should bring a much more balanced attack than Clemson did. Last week, the Tigers passed frequently despite having a better rushing attack by comparison. So Syracuse largely held them in check. If forced to pass, Miami has options there. But their run game is also not predicated on the quarterback taking off (like the Tigers’ is). It’s just enhanced by Rosier’s mobility. SU will have its hands while trying to stop both aspects of the offense.


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 on in advance of Syracuse’s game against Miami? Weigh in below.