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Syracuse vs. LSU preview: Five things to watch

It’s worth paying attention to a few things, win or lose.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (2-1) head to Baton Rouge, La. this weekend to face the LSU Tigers (2-1). While both teams probably imagined they’d be undefeated at this point in the schedule, things don’t always work out the way we planned. LSU’s a heavy favorite here, and while it’s likely things turn out the way THEY plan on Saturday, there’s nothing wrong with keeping an eye on some smaller details in meantime.

So what should we be focused in on going into Syracuse’s matchup with the Tigers? We identify five things below:

1. LSU’s (lack of) defensive line depth

One of the big reasons for LSU’s surprising 37-7 loss to Mississippi State last week was that the line simply got bullied by the Bulldogs’ run game. That’ll happen when you’re thin in the defensive trenches, and then things go from bad to worse. The Tigers have one nose tackle (Greg Gilmore) with Ed Alexander injured. Defensive end Neil Farrell will miss the first half. Rashard Lawrence is questionable. Frank Herron’s also likely out at end.

LSU’s stopped teams reasonably well so far, with nine sacks and just 116 yards allowed on the ground per game. But eventually, having a short list of available players catches up to you — especially when you’re going up against tempo like Syracuse’s. That said...

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

2. Can Syracuse’s offensive line hold up?

After allowing six sacks and near-constant pressure against Middle Tennessee in week two, the O-line appeared to bounce back a bit for the Orange on Saturday. Eric Dungey largely had time to throw, and when he didn’t, he calmly rolled right and made the necessary play. The run game, while still inconsistent, also managed 300 yards on the game.

But the size and speed they faced in the first three games are nothing like what they’ll face in LSU’s blue-chip defenders. Even without much depth to lean on, the Tigers will be able to present a formidable pass rush and pull in linebackers (like Corey Thompson) to help aid the pressure. When Scott Shafer mixed things up similarly with MTSU’s defense, the results were unfortunate at best for the Orange. Syracuse will likely be dragging in an additional body like Chris Elmore or Ravian Pierce most downs to account for the rush and help Dungey get more time to release the football.

3. The Derrius Guice show

Two years ago, LSU went up to the Carrier Dome and pounded Syracuse for 268 yards on the ground, on just 42 carries. Leonard Fournette led the way that day, with 244 of his own -- and he could’ve had more if not for a few penalties. Despite hiring former Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada in the offseason, this offense hasn’t changed much from that one. They’re still going to run the ball down your throat. So can Syracuse stop it?

Guice is averaging 5.3 yards per carry on 57 rushes this year, which is a step off from last year’s blistering 7.6 yards per to the tune of 1,387 yards and 15 scores. He’s been dealing with a slight injury this week, but it’s unlikely to slow him down much. If the team chooses to lean on him (likely), the Orange will need to keep him inside and hope that Chris Slayton can continue to work his magic as a run-stuffer. After several seasons of struggle stopping the ground game, SU is only allowing 84 yards per game so far (10th-best in the country).

Don’t expect that figure to hold up. But anything close to it could help slow up the Tigers’ Guice-centric running plans.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

4. Sean Riley’s found his place(s) in this offense

Among the biggest positives coming out of an encouraging 41-17 win over Central Michigan was the emergence of Riley, the sophomore, as a threat in all parts of the field. His presence in the kick game has teams avoiding even getting him the ball. His breakout efforts running jet sweeps and even running deep routes seemed to electrify the offense last week in a way they hadn’t been in the first two games.

Riley’s no former five-star recruit, but his speed is similar to one. LSU’s secondary is fast in pursuit, and should be able to close on Orange pass-catchers quickly. But Riley’s presence should at least help even things out a bit for Syracuse, giving them a competitive weapon in the open field. Since Steve Ishmael’s not overly fast or sure-handed, the vertical passing game’s success could rely on Riley this week.

5. DJ Chark doesn’t need to put up big numbers to change this game

We know Syracuse has struggled in pass defense lately, even when taking into account this year’s improvement. The secondary is young, missing Antwan Cordy and a work in progress. But you are starting to see some of the pieces come together. Last week’s efforts by both Scoop Bradshaw and Christopher Frederick, particularly, should give us some hope that the group is improving... despite the occasional big play allowed.

DJ Chark can be a magnet for big plays, even if this offense doesn’t necessarily allow him to put up the sorts of numbers Orange receivers can. With 10 catches for 203 yards, he’s the Tigers’ best receiver by a mile. He’s also a strong punt returner — another aspect of his game to watch out for.

Last time around vs. LSU, Syracuse sold out against the run, and still got hammered. Plus, they allowed then-quarterback Brandon Harris to average nearly 20 yards per completion on just 8-of-16 passing. Current QB Danny Etling’s not a star, but if Syracuse gives him room to find Chark, he will.


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 LSU? Weigh in below.