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Syracuse football: A view from the trenches against Liberty

There’s some positives here?

NCAA Football: Liberty at Syracuse Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

This is part of a weekly series in which I chart the line and rewatch the game with a focus on the big men on the offense for the Syracuse Orange. All of my game charts can be found here.

This week’s game against the Liberty Flames wasn’t a great look for the Syracuse Orange. That’s a definite understatement. When it comes to line play, however, this was a better week. All but one lineman graded out above the Mendoza line in the PFF stats, and the Orange were passing the look test against what was probably the worst defensive front they have seen all year.

Off the bat, even in the three and out to open the game, the line gave Tucker some running room and Culpepper had plenty of time to look downfield on the iso sideline pass. It was apparent through the first few series that the combination of Rex Culpepper’s decisiveness was going to contribute to make holding a pocket much simpler for the line against Liberty. Overall the pass protection looked better and folks were able to adjust when they did get beat. For example, the second drive, Carlos Vettorello gets bullrushed, but is able to work his man outside of Culpepper’s lanes and maintain the pocket.

Vettorello had some good looks, working double teams with Chris Elmore, and on the whole worked well this week. He did show some open-field blocking issues though, missing a linebacker on a wide open Taj Harris screen across the middle, we’ll keep an eye on that one.

TreShaun Clark had a solid game as an edge rusher for the Flames. Clark is 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds. He was the only member of the Liberty defensive front to consistently cause problems for the Orange, and was able to do it as a very undersized defensive end. It seemed the speed and versatility of a smaller rusher, as well as the leverage a smaller body has up against a lineman who sits too high in his stance, contributed to the mismatch on the right side of the line.

Most of the game, Clark was matched up against Airon Servais. The tackle had a bit of a tough time handling the different look from the smaller end, especially against the run earlier in the game. As Rex was making quick reads, it didn’t make as much of a difference as it could have in the pass game, but on a few run blocks, Clark stood him up and had him blocking a hole for Tucker. While both of the noted runs worked out because of Tucker bouncing them, the actual blocking wasn’t great.

The way double teams were executed on the right side is also telling that Darius Tisdale and Servais still need to work out some kinks on who and when a double team is left. As always, this is something that comes with familiarity and this is the second week the two have been working together. Both Tisdale and Servais looked good in screens and open field blocking scenarios.

As you can imagine, without mentioning Matthew Bergeron and Chris Elmore, they were probably the two standout linemen on the day. Bergeron had a good pass blocking day and was adequate in the run. Elmore showed that he had some nice hand work, resetting on some wipes, but learned why you need to keep punching and keep defensive linemen engaged, when his man batted a Culpepper pass in the third quarter.

What we learn from a game like this is that the line is functional, and can do a job, albeit against lesser talent. I feel like this is the sort of game we can expect to see against teams that don’t have elite edge rushing talent, as it felt similar to the Georgia Tech matchup. That said, this week the Orange will be travelling to South Carolina to face the Clemson Tigers. You may have heard of them?

Syracuse will face down some real talent this week, even with veteran defensive end Justin Foster down so far for the whole season, Clemson will be five-star packed and formidable. What is now becoming an experienced line, includes true freshman all-world recruit Bryan Bresee, who has lived up to his billing at the defensive tackle spot, as well as Tyler Davis, the incumbent starter. KJ Henry and true freshman Myles Murphy should give the Orange everything they can handle on the ends as well. Tune in next week to see how that goes.