The Syracuse Orange (2-2, 0-0) are on the road for a second straight weekend, this time down in Raleigh to face the NC State Wolfpack (3-1, 1-0). NC State’s coming off a very nice victory over Florida State, however Syracuse played very well in a close loss to LSU. While the Wolfpack are favored, there’s always a chance the Orange could pull the upset. These two teams have played fairly close in recent years, despite the Pack winning the last three matchups.
So what should we be focused on going into Syracuse’s game against NC State this Saturday? We identify five things below:
1. Can Syracuse stop NC State’s front seven?
Specifically, can they stop Bradley Chubb? Dino Babers isn’t even so sure, responding with a slightly sarcastic “IDK” during Wednesday’s teleconference. Chubb, NC State’s senior defensive end, already has 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss on the season. The Orange have already allowed nine sacks, a figure in the bottom half of the country. We haven’t seen an injury report, so we don’t know if Cody Conway can go. However, if he can’t, expect SU to pull in Ravian Pierce or Dontae Strickland as an extra blocker to protect Eric Dungey.
Even if Syracuse can hold off Chubb, the rest of this group can also get after the quarterback. The team has 10 sacks, including four against Florida State last week. If the Orange pull in an extra blocker, that’ll help. But it’ll also undermine the passing attack a bit. Speaking of...
2. Syracuse has a chance to exploit NC State deep
While the Wolfpack’s front seven is among the country’s most effective, that also helps make up for the secondary’s occasional issues. NC State is allowing 260 yards per game and eight yards per attempt right now. Just three teams have allowed more than the Pack’s nine passing plays of 30 yards or more.
One potential hold-up here, of course, is that Syracuse fails to have a go-to deep option. While the Orange are among the best in terms of gaining 10 yards or more via pass, there’s a considerable drop-off when you’re looking for the truly big plays of 20 yards or more. Steve Ishmael, Sean Riley and Devin C. Butler keep auditioning for the role, but none have mastered it. Hopefully we start to see a downfield option emerge this week.
3. Don’t let Ryan Finley dink and dunk
Finley is not a big play quarterback for NC State, but he’s brutally efficient most games. This season, he’s completed 74.2 percent of his passes for 1,217 yards and eight touchdowns (to zero picks). Receiver drops have knocked those numbers down from the even greater heights they could be at. It’s nothing flashy. He’s just very comfortable in this offense, which can take on some West Coast elements.
That’s problematic for Syracuse if you remember the Middle Tennessee game. The Blue Raiders were able to dink and dunk their way down the field, albeit with a very fast receiver in Richie James. State’s Jaylen Samuels may not be James in terms of speed. However, the jack-of-all-trades already has eight touchdowns and over 350 total yards. He’s caught 38 passes, but averages less than 7.5 yards per catch. If SU allows him to operate in the flat, he’ll abuse them all day.
4. The Syracuse defensive front continues to flourish
All the talk going into this game will be on NC State’s front seven and its ability to generate pressure. That’s fair, though you can’t just ignore what the Orange have been able to put together with some slight scheme tweaks and a few JUCO additions this year. Notching just four sacks may not look impressive, but Syracuse also has 27 tackles for loss already (more than half way to last year’s total). And even if they’re not getting to the passer all the time, it’s been noticeable how much the Orange have rushed opposing QBs.
When breaking down the defense this week, Julian noted a more explosive group that was dictating aspects of other teams’ gameplans. Even against a top opponent like LSU, there were key moments where they simply collapsed the opposing line.
5. Can Eric Dungey translate first down success to second and third down?
Here’s something you may not have known: While Dungey completes 76.2 percent of his passes on first down, he completes just 56.5 percent and 56.8 percent on second and third down, respectively. Ends up he’s also brutally efficient on third and short (77.8 percent completions). So what’s causing the huge situational gap?
Highlights from tonight's game at LSU pic.twitter.com/2TwyuRaKbs— Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) September 24, 2017
Part of it is likely the team’s lack of success on second down. Last week vs. LSU, just six second down plays went for more than five yards, and a good chunk of those second down plays were incompletions. Of the 37 times he’s thrown on third down this year, nearly half have been with the team needing seven yards or more. Better second down effectiveness would increase third down effectiveness, and then everything wouldn’t rest on first down like it does now.
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 NC State? Weigh in below.