The Syracuse Orange (4-6, 2-4) are on the cliff, as Dino Babers put it on Saturday and desperately in need of a win. Standing in the way of a critical fifth victory are the Louisville Cardinals (6-4, 3-4). Armed with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson, it’ll be a tall order -- though not an impossible one.
Key in all of this is whether or not Eric Dungey plays for Syracuse, obviously. And even if he does, how the Orange find a way to win on the road after getting shut out to this point in the season.
So what should we be focused on going into Syracuse’s game against the Cardinals this weekend? We identify five things below:
1. How does one contain Lamar Jackson?
Really, no team has this season, as the dynamic quarterback has managed over 300 yards in every single game so far. Florida State probably came the closest, at less than 340 yards and two scores -- but the ‘Noles still lost that game by three. Boston College, on the other hand, was fine to let him gain yards at will, but also managed to outscore the Cards anyway.
The final four games of 2016 provide some hints, albeit small ones. Either be much more talented (LSU) or find ways to generate pressure on the internal line (as Houston did to perfection with Ed Oliver). Now, Syracuse doesn’t have Ed Oliver, or anything like him. But with players like Chris Slayton, Kayton Samuels and McKinley Williams, there’s a chance they can create pressure and collapse the pocket on Jackson a little. The Cardinals’ offensive line has struggled all year, allowing 26 sacks. And while SU is far from the best team at rushing the passer, they’ll be able to create pressure.
All of this doesn’t mean they’ll contain him, however. It just means that there’s a way to try and do so.
2. Syracuse must attack Louisville’s secondary early and often
The Cardinals allow big passing plays pretty frequently, with 9.8 plays of 10 yards or more per game allowed through the air. By comparison, SU allows 9.2 -- though also faces more plays per game by way of its own up-tempo attack.
Louisville has also a whopping 19 passes of 30 yards or more, which is one of the highest figures in the country.
We’ve seen what teams do to Syracuse when given the opportunity to attack blown or poor downfield coverage, and we’ve also seen what the Orange have been able to do to teams that can’t cover them downfield. Steve Ishmael’s been able to abuse nearly every corner he’s lined up against. Syracuse has more passing gains of 10 or more yards (127) than all but a handful of teams in the country. (Assumed starter) Zack Mahoney has shown he can find receivers in single coverage downfield to some extent, even if that limit’s around 30 yards. That could work reasonably well for what’s needed against Louisville.
3. Keep your eyes on Reggie Bonnafon
You probably remember Bonnafon’s name from the time he quarterbacked the Cardinals to a 28-6 win over SU in 2014. Well, he’s still on the team and now serves as a versatile pass-catcher and running option. Along with being the team’s second-best rusher, he’s also hauled in 19 passes this year too. Oh, and he’s still one of the fastest players in this offense.
So... how have teams avoided getting burned by the former QB with all eyes on Jackson? Well, Louisville hasn’t really used him as much as you’d think they would. Bonnafon has hit double-digit touches in just four games all year, and the Cards are just 2-2 in those contests. Last week, he only saw the ball three times for eight yards on the ground.
Still, I’m tempted to believe they’ll use his speed to exploit and stretch out SU’s defense a bit, similarly to how MTSU used Richie James earlier in the season. Louisville’s offense can’t go one-dimensional (with just Jackson running the show). So a win will need someone else to step up. Why not him?
4. Time for Syracuse to execute in the red zone
And by that, we really mean touchdowns. The Orange actually converted on 4-of-5 trips last week, and three of those were touchdowns. Still, SU is among a handful of teams with touchdown percentages below 50 percent on the year from within 20 yards.
Lucky for them, Louisville has one of the worst red zone defenses in the country. Not only have they allowed scores 89.66 percent of the time, but the Cardinals have given up the fifth-highest TD rate in the country, all the way up at 75.86 percent.
Considering how many drives got within the 40 last week (more than 10), it’s tempting to believe Syracuse can push things a little further against a worse defense. Trips inside the 20 seem to be automatic vs. Louisville, which could provide a nice change of pace for an Orange team that typically settles for field goals far too often.
5. Louisville presents another third down test for the defense
Louisville’s third down conversion rate is in the top third in the country at 44.2 percent, though just one of the last four games has seen them above 40. At one point, Syracuse was a vaunted third down defense. They still might be, though last week’s complete collapse against Wake Forest certainly raises some doubts. SU is still third in opponent conversion rate at just 25.37 percent, however.
Just two teams have found success against the Orange on third this year, but both did so in very different ways. LSU simply ran the ball well with its running backs on those downs, while Wake Forest utilized John Wolford’s legs. As we’ve seen for years, Syracuse struggles against mobile quarterbacks — and couldn’t do much to shut down Wolford on Saturday. Jackson’s a better and faster option there, which should present some severe challenges.
I’m willing to bank on the Wake disaster being an anomaly for now, versus the new normal as we close out this campaign. But it seems highly likely Jackson will be able to find success one way or another on third -- even if it doesn’t top the 50 percent mark.
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 Louisville? Weigh in below.