The Orangemen (1-2) come into Saturday night's contest well rested after an off week following a big 63-17 win over Rhode Island back on Sept. 14 inside the Carrier Dome. Dropping the season opener at BYU 42-21 and the home opener 30-22 to North Carolina, the Orangemen needed a confidence builder and the Rams were the perfect opponent to do just that.
Guiding the Orangemen onto the Plains is veteran Paul Pasqualoni, who is in his 12th year as the head coach at Syracuse. With a record of 92-41-1, including a 4-3 record against SEC schools, the fiery Pasqualoni is one of the more underrated coaches in the nation.
Syracuse has been very good this year on the offensive side of the ball where quarterback R.J. Anderson leads a balanced attack that has moved the ball on everyone. Averaging 403 yards per game of total offense and 35.6 points per game out of a multiple attack that uses both the option and spread attacks, the Orangemen have the potential to give the Tiger defense fits and that begins with Anderson.
A 6-1, 233 junior whohas the ability to beat you with both the run and the pass, Anderson has accounted for 174 yards of total offense per game this season, but it is with his arm that he's most dangerous. Currently ninth on Syracuse's all-time passing yardage list with 2,140 yards, he is 12-4 as a starter and is coming off a very strong performance against Rhode Island when he threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns on just 13-of-18 passing.
The loss of James Mungro at the tailback position hasn't been a big one as a pair of talented players have taken up the slack for Syracuse. Tailbacks Walter Reyes and Damien Rhodes have become a one-two punch to be feared by opponents. Reyes (5-10, 205, So.) is the starter and will get the first opportunity to take on the Auburn defense. On the season he has 272 yards rushing and has scored four touchdowns.
Rhodes, a 6-1, 193, Fr., has been the surprise of the team with 239 yards and four touchdowns. The two have combined for eight of the 12 rushing touchdowns scored by Syracuse this season and will be the focus of the running game despite the threat of the option from Anderson.
At wide receiver Anderson looks to junior Jamel Riddle when he wants to make a play downfield. With seven catches for 227 yards and two touchdowns, including an 87-yard strike against Rhode Island, the 5-7, 175 Riddle is the most explosive target out of a group of talented wide receivers. With almost half of the total of 548 passing yards and both touchdowns, he'll be the player Auburn will have to contain in the passing game.
Other threats are the trio of David Tyree, Joe Donnelly and Johnnie Morant. With 14 total catches for 210 yards, all have been involved in the offense, but have yet to have that breakout game. The player to watch is Morant. A 6-4, 223-pound junior, Morant was one of the most sought-after players in the country three seasons ago but has yet to live up to expectations. The tight end position is used mostly as an extra offensive lineman as neither starter Lenny Cusumano or reserve Joe Donnelly has caught a pass this season.
Up front the Orangemen are playing with a nearly fully rebuilt line from last season's 10-3 squad with center Nick Romeo the lone returning starter. A fixture on the offensive line since his redshirt freshman season, the 6-1, 298 Romeo has started 27 consecutive games and was named to the Big East All-Academic team last season. A very strong player, Romeo will be a challenge for DeMarco McNeil, Spencer Johnson and the rest of the interior line for the Tigers.
Joining Romeo on the offensive line are first-year starters Adam Terry (6-8, 300, So.) at left tackle, Erik Kaloyanides (6-4, 310, Sr.) at left guard, Matt Tarullo (6-5, 313, So.) at right guard and Kevin Sampson (6-4, 300, Jr.) at right tackle. While inexperienced to begin the season, the group has matured nicely and has allowed just five sacks through three games.
Defensively, the front seven for the Orangemen were thought to be the strength of the team coming into the season, but that hasn't been the case so far. A terrible 114th in the country in total defense, giving up an average of 499 yards per game, you can bet Syracuse used a much-needed off-week to shore up some of the problems on defense.
Those problems begin up front where left end Josh Thomas (6-7, 288, Jr.), defensive tackle Louis Gachelin (6-1, 285, Jr.), nose tackle Christian Ferrara (6-4, 302, Jr.) and right end Ryan LaCasse (6-2, 248, RFr.) have failed to produce like expected this season. Gachelin has been the most productive of the unit with 13 tackles and two sacks, but behind him the trio combined has just 13 tackles and two sacks combined, both coming from LaCasse.
Clifton Smith went over the 300 tackle mark for his career against Rhode Island.
Linebacker Clifton Smith is the unquestioned leader of the defensive unit. The MVP of last season's Insight.com Bowl win over Kansas State, he has picked up where he left off last season. Leading the Big East Conference in tackles through three games with 34, including four behind the line of scrimmage, the big 6-3, 251 Thomas will be the player to key on for the Auburn offense. His running mate at strong linebacker, Jameel Dumas (6-2, 220, Jr.), gives the Orangemen perhaps the top one-two linebacker combination Auburn will see this season. Dumas has 31 tackles and one sack this season and can make plays from sideline to sideline. Joining them is junior Rich Scanlon (6-1, 240, Jr.), who has 20 tackles on the year.
If there is a definite weak spot for the Orangemen it's in the secondary where cornerback Latroy Oliver is the only returning starter from last season currently in the lineup. Giving up an enormous 284 yards passing per game, this unit will be tested early and often by Daniel Cobb and the Auburn passing game. Oliver, a preseason All-Big East selection, is a solid cover man, but at just 5-7, 194 he will be tested severely by a big group of Tiger receivers. On the other side redshirt freshman Steve Gregory (5-11, 178) has been the player teams have thrown at this season as his 17 tackles this season shows.
Sophomore free safety O'Neill Scott (6-0, 198) has the size to handle himself, but he is still learning the ropes after playing sparingly last season and collecting just seven tackles. At strong safety Will Hunter (5-11, 193, graduate student) has been solid this season with 19 total tackles through three games. A player the Orangemen will move all over the field and blitz a good bit, he had four sacks last season and although he doesn't have a sack in 2002 expect to see him in the Auburn backfield Saturday night.
This is a game Auburn should win, but don't let the numbers fool you. This Syracuse team is a dangerous one for the Tigers Saturday night. With unproven talent playing key positions, the Orangemen have yet to put it all together, but following an off-week that could happen. Expect a battle Saturday night from a team that is looking to jump-start its season in a similar fashion to 2001 when a 1-2 Syracuse team rode a victory over Auburn all the way to a 10-win season.