Saturday’s 41-6 loss to Clemson didn’t sit well with the Syracuse Orange and the 50,248 fans looking on in the Dome. The highly anticipated showdown wound up a blowout, but the lion’s share of the blame was thrown on the offense. In fact, the general consensus was that the defensive outing wasn’t all that poor.
“I really think that we played well defensively,” head coach Dino Babers said after the game. “Offensively, we didn’t score enough points to really make it a game.”
However, the Syracuse defense that was supposed to anchor the 2019 squad has put up a pair of questionable outings followed a 24-0 shutout of Liberty in week one. This has been particularly true with regard to stopping the opposing run game. The Orange have allowed a combined 575 rushing yards in the last two weeks, good for about 7.8 yards per carry en route to a combined 104 points from Maryland and Clemson (not all on the ground, but the rushing success was integral in that).
With SU set to face Western Michigan on Saturday, the matchup presents yet another challenge. The Broncos are averaging more than 200 rushing yards per game and 5.8 yards per carry. The run is led by senior Levante Bellamy, arguably the fastest man in college football with a laser-timed 4.28 40-yard dash. Last year against Syracuse, the then-junior had 11 carries for 120 yards and two scores.
So it’ll be essential to stop him, in particular, to come away with a win on Saturday. Orange players said that if SU wants to halt the WMU ground game, execution will be the key (not surprising a week after “we didn’t execute” was the theme post-game).
“It’s just about being sound in our run fits,” senior linebacker Andrew Armstrong said. “Doing our 1/11th, not trying to make a big play. It’s not one guy being better than the other, we’re all just trying to do our job.”
Defensive back Trill Williams agreed with that sentiment in the immediate aftermath of the Clemson loss.
“As a whole defense we just have to execute from the first quarter until the last,” the sophomore added at the time.
Last year, Syracuse didn’t really start stopping the run well until a week eight matchup with UNC — one they’d wind up winning, albeit in overtime. But before that, things were a struggle as the linebackers adjusted and finally became a better run-stopping force. Unfortunately, both of those linebackers (Ryan Guthrie and Kielan Whitner) are gone following 100-tackle seasons. Combine that with the prolonged absence of tackle (and run-stuffer) McKinley Williams due to injury and you can see where the issues arise so far in 2019.
We don’t yet know if this year’s group will be able to turn it around with regard to getting stops on the ground, but the linebackers will be key, along with current starting tackles Josh Black and Kenneth Ruff. There have been flashes of success in the early going this year (they were actually reasonably effective in the first half against Clemson — a sign of game-over-game improvement if not for the Tigers’ talent level). So hopefully we start seeing similar moments against WMU.