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Syracuse vs. Boston College preview: Five things to watch

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Maybe you don’t really care about this game anymore, but you should, if only for rivalry pride’s sake.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (4-7, 2-5) won’t be looking at a bowl game this year, but there should be a real desire to send the seniors out with a win -- and also beat the rival Boston College Eagles (6-5, 3-4). We like winning rivalry games, don’t we? Of course.

BC’s already bowl-bound, but beating them could maybe prevent something like a Pinstripe Bowl trip. I stress maybe here, however, since the game also has limited viable options in the ACC. Being a spoiler of any sort is fine with me.

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

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Boston College Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

1. BC’s going to run the ball... but they’re actually good at it now

You’ve probably noticed the Eagles’ offensive resurgence about mid-way through the year, and a lot of that is due to a very effective run game (assisted by quality offensive line play). While we expected Jon Hillman to get the lion’s share of carries this season, it’s actually been freshman AJ Dillon who’s led the way. Dillon has 1,239 yards on 245 carries — and 545 of those have come in the last three games. The high-water mark was a 272-yard effort vs. Louisville (not even included in those last three).

Since that Louisville game, the Eagles have had at least 47 carries per game -- which makes for a lot of slow tempos and a lot of ball control. That’s a tough strategy to stop, especially if Syracuse is going to struggle the way they have recently against the run.

After starting out reasonably well stopping the run, the Orange’s run defense has fallen off a cliff. Through 11 games, Syracuse has allowed 2,027 yards (5.13 yards per carry) and 24 touchdowns. Over 800 of those were in the last two weeks alone. Granted, BC doesn’t have the same mobile threat at QB we saw against Wake or Louisville. But still, stopping the run is a major concern.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

2. Can any (available) Syracuse quarterback play consistently within this offense?

With Eric Dungey very likely to miss his third straight game, the reins will be tossed over to Rex Culpepper or Zack Mahoney. Neither player showed much of a mastery of the system over the last six quarters of football, and if SU has any chance against Boston College, they’ll need to improve quickly.

Since Mahoney’s a senior, I’d bet we see Culpepper get his first start, and that likely means he’s been working with the first team all week too. Thrown in last week, he missed on some easy passes, but receivers also contributed a few drops. He also showed himself a capable runner, even if not on the same level as Dungey (or even Mahoney).

Culpepper doesn’t have to put forth a record-setting effort, but something around 200 yards with reasonable accuracy would be good if balanced with an effective rushing attack would be ideal. Whether you’re banking on Tommy DeVito as the future or not, it’s nice to know we have multiple QB options if called upon.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

3. Giving the ball to Moe Neal works, so let’s do that more?

Neal’s played second fiddle to Dontae Strickland in the backfield all year, but given his first real chance to carry the load last week, he looked plenty effective. The sophomore contributed a career-high 98 yards on 19 carries, and was able to consistently move the sticks and get critical yardage even on the interior part of the line.

While Neal is never going to be a short yardage back, he’s clearly a talented athlete with the ball -- and one that has the potential to carry a backfield on his own. We won’t ask him to do that this weekend, as he’ll get some help from Markenzy Pierre and Chris Elmore. But the offense has shown its effective while leaning on the run (before it’s inexplicably abandoned too early). Let’s put his 5.06 yards per carry to the test and see what he can do with a second straight heavier workload.

4. Steve Ishmael’s looking for a bounceback effort

Against a poor Louisville defense last week, the senior was largely shut down. He had just two catches for 29 yards. Versus Jaire Alexander, he showed a significant amount of frustration while the offense sputtered around him.

One game doesn’t make or break a season or an NFL Draft resume. But with a chance to face a strong Boston College pass defense (allowing just 192 yards per game with 17 picks), this would be as good a showcase as ever for him to show everyone how much he can excel against better teams.

Also, just for his own sake, an exclamation point game would earn him multiple Syracuse records and potentially seal up his All-American status. That latter part is important for the program’s recruiting efforts too, as it would be two straight (along with Amba Etta-Tawo) since Dino Babers took over.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

5. Can the Orange defense rebound, even slightly?

The offense has frequently been the talking point during SU games this year, but it was the defensive improvement that really allowed this program to take significant steps forward competing with more talented outfits. The collapses in the last two games have been key to why the team’s appearance has downgraded significantly.

There could be some hope vs. Boston College, though. BC’s a miserable team on third down (36.32 percent), giving the Orange ample opportunities to re-establish the once-vaunted third down defensive stopping ability we’d raved about. Despite the run game’s resurgence, the overall offense has still been based on bleeding other teams out, rather than running past opponents. That’s become doubly true since losing QB Anthony Brown too.

If Syracuse allows BC to throw the football with any success, this could be a runaway victory for the Eagles. But keeping them entirely one-dimensional (without much of a mobile passing option) has its upsides. We’ll take the L on the traditional run game if the Syracuse offense can just score some points and pace the game a bit.

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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 the Eagles? Weigh in below.