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Syracuse vs. Liberty preview: Five things to watch for

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NCAA Football: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange (or what’s left of them) complete their three game homestand when they welcome the Liberty Flames for the only non-conference game of the 2020 season. With the Orange looking to avoid a 1-4 start we give you our things to watch for on Saturday.

Kevin: Rex n Effect

Lots of Syracuse Orange fans are ready to see what the freshmen quarterbacks have to offer, but why can’t we give Rex Culpepper a chance to see if he can get the offense moving. Culpepper hasn’t shown great accuracy but he’s a player that the roster will rally around. I’m looking to see if the coaches dial up something special early on to try and get some emotion from the Orange.

Christian: Give Rex some help

In a similar vein to Kevin, Rex should be given all the tools necessary to succeed. That falls on his receivers. Nothing will drop Culpepper’s confidence more than all the dropped catches that we saw against Duke. Syracuse’s receivers need to settle down a bit: Culpepper isn’t DeVito. Don’t ask Culpepper to make a throw DeVito can. Instead, put yourself in a position to make an easy catch. Some of that is on the play calling, but some of that is on the receivers themselves. The chemistry between quarterback and receiver is going to be closely analyzed for this game.

Also, speaking of receivers that could help Culpepper, I know of two rather unknown commodities that the Orange could use in the receiving game. I understand that the fans, and potentially some of the coaches, don’t know who these players are, but I think they could help Syracuse get some decent yardage in the passing game. Those guys are named Aaron Hackett and Luke Benson. Maybe they could provide some additional hands for Culpepper to give the ball to.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 19 Syracuse at Pitt Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

John: Linebackers vs. mobility

While there are exceptions to this, Syracuse’s defense has seemingly struggled for over a decade against mobile quarterbacks, no matter the scheme. Having a young linebacker corps. that’s already pretty banged-up seems unlikely to help matters there. But they’ll still have another opportunity to shut down a fleet-of-foot QB in Malik Willis on Saturday.

Willis has been deployed pretty liberally with designed runs, and especially bootlegs where he quickly makes his move to run, and is into the second level of the defense virtually untouched. Syracuse’s run defense struggles last week came from both a breakdown up front, as well as linebacker issues wrapping up. The Orange’s linebackers will have more speed than what Liberty’s seen from previous foes. However, they will still need to read and react quickly in order to contain him both inside and outside the tackle box.

The biggest challenge will be containing him inside the pocket while also not allowing him time to throw. Willis is a capable passer (completed 60% of his throws for 595 yards, two touchdowns and one INT this year), so pressure must get to him, and flushing him out doesn’t serve much purpose. Linebackers need to balance staying at home and quickly plugging gaps — especially around the edge, where he’s shown himself extremely dangerous.

Andy: Can the young secondary support run stuffing?

Georgia Tech and Duke have exposed Syracuse’s greatest defensive weakness: run stuffing. Liberty (and every team on the schedule) will test this early and often, and the Orange need to make adjustments. With a battered linebacking corps and secondary, this is probably going to remain an issue, but I want to see Tony White get creative with solutions. The secondary has the most bodies on the field, and a player like Trill Williams has shown he can be a disrupter in the backfield. Safety Aman Greenwood is the 5th highest rated player in Pro Football Focus run defense for ‘Cuse with Ben Labrosse and Williams not far behind. Trill is the highest rated defender for the Orange and Liberty will undoubtedly be basing line reads on where he’s located. Let’s see how White positions his young players, and if they can make plays to help alleviate this issue.

Steve: Which defensive line is having the better day?

As seems to be standard now, I’ll let everyone else deal with the “skilled” positions. This week, I think which defensive line proves to be the better unit will determine which team ends up on top. Liberty is the least talented defensive line that the Orange have faced on the year and can be a litmus test for where the Syracuse offensive line actually stands. If they perform like they did against Georgia Tech, I think Syracuse can open this up a bit. If they struggle, then this will be much closer than we want to see. While Rex is quicker at reading and reacting than DeVito was through the early part of the year, it’s also not optimal if Rex is forced to have to read and react quicker.

On the other side, the Syracuse defensive front will be tasked with occupying their gaps to allow the freedom of the young linebacking corps, and likely an additional safety to read and react to what Malik Willis is doing. Be it designed runs or improvising, Willis is dangerous, but if Josh Black, McKinley Williams and Kingsley Jonathan can maintain their gaps, be disciplined and not break any contain that they’re responsible for (though that will likely fall to linebackers), it will leave the linebackers free to react to what he’s doing with the ball.