The Final Breakdown

The biggest challenge for Clemson during Saturday's trip to the Carrier Dome will be their ability to keep Tajh Boyd protected.

WHAT: No. 3 Clemson at Syracuse
WHERE: The Carrier Dome - Syracuse, N.Y.
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 5 (3:36 p.m.)
SPREAD: Clemson by 14
TV: ABC/ESPN2

CLEMSON AIR ATTACK VS. SYRACUSE SECONDARY/PASS RUSH
The biggest challenge for Clemson during Saturday's trip to the Carrier Dome will be their ability to keep Boyd protected as Syracuse is one of the most aggressive teams in the country when it comes to blitzing opposing quarterbacks. And the Tigers' offensive line has given up its fair share of sacks through the first four games of the season -- nine, or 2.5 per game.


Tajh Boyd has thrown nine touchdowns with zero interceptions through the first four games of his senior season. (Roy Philpott)
However, even though Syracuse likes to apply pressure, it hasn't resulted in a ton of sacks this season. The Orange are seventh in the ACC with 11. Defensive tackle Jay Bromley leads the team with three. He's the only member of their defense with more than one sack this season.

As a team, Syracuse has struggled to stop the pass. The Orange are 12th in the ACC in pass defense, giving up an average of 228.5 yards per game. The pass defense efficiency rating of 132.2 is 10th.

Those Syracuse defensive backs will be put to the test on Saturday. Even if the Orange don't try to put a lot of pressure on Boyd, it could be a high flying, high scoring output by the Clemson offense.

If Boyd does see lots of pressure, it's going to be a risk for Syracuse to leave Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant in single coverage. That's downright dangerous. In the past, when other teams have left Watkins and/or Bryant in single coverage on the outside, it usually means good things for the Tigers.

So, assuming that Syracuse won't make too many drastic changes to their defensive philosophy, it could be a long afternoon for the Orange. And, well, that's also assuming that Clemson is able to give Boyd enough time to find his receivers.

Look for Chad Morris to counter that pressure with plenty of quick hitting passes and pressure release plays, like screens to both running backs and wide receivers.

There may not be many opportunities for shots downfield, but guys like Watkins and Adam Humphries could feast all day with a ton of quick hitting opportunities, which could eventually loosen things up in the vertical passing game.

Even if Clemson didn't get back on schedule in the passing game last weekend, it's still advantage Tigers. Syracuse doesn't have the type of athletes that will be able to stick with Clemson's throughout the course of a game.

ADVANTAGE:

CLEMSON RUN GAME VS. SYRACUSE FRONT SEVEN
Against the run, Syracuse is one of the top teams in the conference. Penn State opened the season with 57 yards on 38 carries. Northwestern followed with 230 yards and two scores on 44 carries. Wagner had 97 yards and Tulane had 155.


Roderick McDowell is averaging 5.4 yards/carry through the first four games of the season. (Getty Images)
On the surface, the numbers look pretty solid. The 109.25 yards per game allowed by the Orange run defense ranks 24th in the country. Not too shabby.

Clemson's run game will be the biggest test for Syracuse since Northwestern. The only problem, for the Tigers, is that starting running back Roderick McDowell was banged up last week with an ankle injury. He's expected to play on Saturday, but one has to believe that he isn't quite 100 percent.

Look for Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard to get more run this week, particularly if McDowell is unable to display the shiftiness that's allowed him to rush for a team-high 253 yards.

This could also be a game where Boyd is a little more effective as a runner. Between scrambles and designed quarterback runs, don't be surprised if he leads Clemson in yards, especially if the sack number is kept to a minimum.

Weak-side linebacker Cameron Lynch leads Syracuse in tackles with 5.5 per game [22 total]. Strong safety Durrell Eskridge is second on the team in tackles, so don't be surprised if he's playing closer to the box. Middle linebacker Marquis Spruill is third among Orange defenders in tackles and strong-side linebacker Dyshawn Davis is fifth.

This matchup could be dictated by the health of McDowell. With that in mind, we'll call it a push. An offensive series or two by Clemson will probably show which team could have the upper hand here.

ADVANTAGE: Push

SYRACUSE RUN GAME VS. CLEMSON FRONT SEVEN
Syracuse running back Jerome Smith is one of two Orange skill players to crack any of the ACC's top 10 individual stat lists. He's first in the league in touchdown scoring with seven, six of which are rushing.


Corey Crawford and the Clemson front seven will be tested by Terrell Hunt, Jerome Smith and a powerful Syracuse ground attack. (Getty Images)
Listed on the depth chart as a co-starter with Prince-Tyson Gulley, Smith leads Syracuse in carries [51], rushing yards [217] and touchdowns.

Gulley is second on the team in carries [39] and yards [146]. He and starting quarterback Terrel Hunt are tied for second with two rushing touchdowns.

Smith, who listed at 6-foot, 226 pounds, is a powerful, between-the-tackles-type of runner. He won't run away from any defenders, much less make any miss, but he's a load to bring down.

Syracuse will dial up some zone-read plays for Hunt, a former three-star prospect that was ranked the No. 71 quarterback in the class of 2011 by Scout.com. He has 13 carries for 91 yards and two scores this season.

The Orange are equipped a couple of the top offensive linemen in not only the ACC, but also the entire country -- left tackle Sean Hickey and center Mackey McPherson, a third-year starter who's on the Rimington Trophy watch list. It's a physical group up front.

But so is Clemson's front seven. Anchored by Grady Jarrett, the line is much improved against the run in 2013. It also helps that Stephone Anthony is playing the best football of his Clemson career. He leads the team in tackles. His weak-side running mate, Spencer Shuey, is second.

And that's exactly how things are supposed to look under second-year coordinator Brent Venables.

Look for Syracuse to try to take the air out of the ball and keep the Clemson offense sidelined with long, sustaining drives. The only way they'll be able to do that is by operating a successful ground game.

There's one small problem. They're not a great running team. Syracuse is ninth in the ACC in rushing with 159.8 yards per game. But they are tied for third in the conference with 11 touchdowns on the ground. However, six of those scores were against Wagner and Tulane.

Clemson gets the nod in this matchup. We've seen too many good things from the Tigers' run defense this season to think otherwise.

ADVANTAGE:

SYRACUSE AIR ATTACK VS. CLEMSON SECONDARY, PASS RUSH
Hunt took over the starting quarterback job from Drew Allen in the Wagner game.


Terrell Hunt has taken over Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen and there's been no turning back for the Syracuse offense. (Getty Images)
In three games, Hunt has completed 33 of 43 passes for 462 yards with seven touchdowns and zero interceptions. Allen has completed 54 of 94 passes for 555 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions in four games.

The Syracuse offensive attack likes to spread out opposing defenses with three and four wide receivers. Ashton Broyld leads the Orange with 19 catches. But most of those are on quick hitting passes, specifically screen throws. He has 155 yards and no touchdowns.

Christopher Clark is second on the team with 15 receptions and 202 yards, but is first with three touchdown catches. The only other Syracuse player with more than one touchdown catch is fullback Clay Cleveland, who has two. The senior has just three catches this season, so keep an eye out for him when the Orange are close to the goal line.

Jarrod West is, possibly, the biggest downfield threat. With 11 receptions, he leads the team in yards [211] and yards per catch [19.2].

Vic Beasley, who's among the nation's leaders with six sacks, could have trouble sacking Hunt. There's a reason why Syracuse has given up just four sacks this season, and Hickey is large reason why.

The 6-foot-5, 291-pound junior left tackle could play on Sundays. Assuming he sticks around for his senior year, he could be mid-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft.

While Hunt's numbers are impressive, a majority of them were put up against rather inferior competition. Clemson's secondary has shown signs of improvement, but it continues to be the biggest question-mark on the team.

Not many folks will mistake the Syracuse receiving corps for being explosive. It's hard to imagine them getting much in the way of big plays against the Tigers.

That being said, we'll give the nod to Clemson, but it could be a little close for comfort.

ADVANTAGE:


Chandler Catanzaro continues his march towards All-American honors with a standout senior year. (Roy Philpott)
SPECIAL TEAMS
Neither team has done a whole lot in the way of returning kicks and punts. There just haven't been all that many opportunities to show one way or another. The same could be said when it comes to covering kicks and punts.

Where Clemson gets the nod in this matchup is place kicking. Chandler Catanzaro is very reliable. The all-time leading scorer in school history, kicking in that environment probably won't be very intimidating for him.

Plus, Syracuse's place kicker, Ryan Norton, has struggled to show consistency. While he does have a strong leg, he hasn't attempted any pressure-packed kicks this season. All of his attempts were against Wagner and Tulane.

As long as Catanzaro is lining up field goals and Bradley Pinion is available to boom kickoffs and punts, it's going to be tough for anyone [outside of Florida State and, maybe, Maryland] to get the nod over Clemson in the special teams battle.

ADVANTAGE:

PREDICTION: Clemson 35 Syracuse 17

CUTigers.com Top Stories