After Friday’s win over the Liberty Flames that saw the Syracuse Orange hold Malik Willis in check for most of the game, people outside of Syracuse started paying attention to Tony White’s defense and their success.
Explosive play rate, defense (vs FBS)— ️♈️ (@ADavidHaleJoint) September 26, 2021
1 Clemson, 4.37%
2 Ark, 5%
4 UGA, 6.76%
6 Penn St, 7.35%
10 Syr, 7.69%
15 Okla, 8.87%
18 NCSU, 8.99%
55 Ohio St, 11.18%
70 UNC, 11.87%
78 Bama, 12.63%
Aside from the very funny realization that Syracuse is doing something significantly better than Alabama, Hale’s tweet underlines a key reason for success this season: the Orange don’t allow big plays very often. On average, ‘Cuse is holding opponents to just 4.2 yards per play, the 12th best mark in the entire country. This kind of success with a below average turnover rate (the Orange are forcing just 0.8 per game) illustrates the consistent success the defense has had without relying on offensive mistakes.
Where has this improvement come from? Improved run defense is the most obvious statistical change from last season. When adjusted for opposition, the Orange have the 5th best run defense per attempt in the entire country. If you’re a fan of raw numbers, their 2.3 yards per rushing attempt is also 5th in the country. Teams who can’t run become predictable, and predictability always plays into the benefit of the defense. While the pass defense has been less stellar (28th in total pass defense, 79th in adjusted yards/pass attempt), it hasn’t impacted the Orange’s overall defensive efficiency; The Orange are 43rd in S&P+ defense, 49th in SRS, and 12th in raw yards per play.
If you don’t want numbers, here’s an observers take on the whole thing: Syracuse has adjusted the 3-3-5 to be less aggressive and more intelligent. The Orange are blitzing less, but being more effective at disrupting the offensive protections and blocking with their defensive line and different pre-snap looks that cause offensive misreads. The linebackers led by Marlow Max and Mikel Jones have dramatically improved at reading the backfield, stuffing gaps on runs and assisting the defensive line in pass rush.
With less bodies needed to cause just as much chaos, the Orange defense can keep more bodies back and limit plays over the top or one on one plays in space that an offensive player can turn into a big play with a single move. All of that is helped by the Orange playing less zone and more man to man, with Garret Williams and Duece Chestnut mostly holding their own against top weapons in the passing attack, and open field tackling improvements helping everywhere.
So yes, the Orange defense is pretty good. It’s going to stay pretty good if they limit big plays in ACC play, which could vault the Orange into more fun lists with perennial defensive powerhouses.