Did you really forget about the last time Northwestern played Syracuse? Yeah, me neither.
Just as a refresher, the Wildcats opened up their 2012 season with a simultaneously thrilling and nauseating 42-41 win over the Orange at Syracuse's Carrier Dome. Northwestern's offense struggled early, Venric Mark's 82-yard punt return touchdown ignited a spark, and the Wildcats ran up a 35-17 lead by the middle of the 3rd quarter.
And then they lost it. Quarterback Ryan Nassib would light up a hapless Northwestern secondary for 470 yards and four touchdowns through the air, leading the Orange to a 41-35 lead with 2:40 left in the game.
With Kain Colter hindered by an injured shoulder, Trevor Siemian came in to lead the game winning drive, saved by a successfully drawn roughing the passer penalty on a failed 4th down conversion and cemented with a nine-yard fade to Demetrius Fields in the left corner of the end zone.
What's changed for Syracuse
After an 8-5 season capped off with a 38-14 win over West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl, head coach Doug Marrone left central New York for western New York to take over the Buffalo Bills. Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer took his place. The New York Giants would draft quarterback Ryan Nassib, and Oklahoma transfer senior Drew Allen won the starting job in camp.
Northwestern's secondary may not be in the best shape right now with the loss of Daniel Jones, but I would be shocked to see this Syracuse passing attack come even close to what last year's did. In the Orange's 23-17 loss to Penn State last Saturday, Allen and his receivers never quite got on the same page, save for a 55-yard bomb to wide receiver Jeremiah Kobina. Syracuse's receivers also had trouble creating separation from the Penn State defensive backs, leading to a 16-for-37, 187 yard debut for Allen.
In a Tuesday teleconference, Shafer praised Allen's attitude and composure while highlighting the excellent communication he fostered on the sidelines. Making sure it doesn't stop when the passing game starts up will be a key to Syracuse's success.
The Orange can also rely on a stable of highly capable running backs to help get rolling Saturday, with senior Prince-Tyson Gulley leading the unit. Gulley is a useful weapon in the backfield for Syracuse, earning over 1000 combined rushing and receiving yards last season. However, he only tallied 24 yards on 12 rushes against Penn State, and Shafer said Penn State's constant interior penetration of the offensive line hampered his team's ability to run the ball.
We should plan to see frequent substitutions in and out of the backfield for both squads Saturday, as Shafer said he plans to spell Gulley with Jerome Smith (who rushed for 73 yards on 16 carries last weekend) and occasionally George Morrison and DeVante McFarlane. Shoring up the defensive line will be key for Northwestern, as Syracuse was only able to net 72 yards on the ground thanks to the might of the Penn State interior linemen.
To put it bluntly, the only reason Syracuse came as close as they did to beating Penn State was because of their defense, even though it allowed Penn State's true freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg to burn them for 278 yards.
The key was the four turnovers the Orange were able to snag—two interceptions and two fumbles—one of which gave Syracuse the chance to win the game in the 4th quarter. Hackenberg, badly deceived by a zone blitz, threw a misguided pass right into the hands of defensive end Rob Welsh at the 31-yard line, who came just three feet short of scoring on his own. Syracuse would score on the next play, but then blew a chance at a game-winning drive with a pick of their own with 1:06 left in the game.
Back to my earlier point, the (albeit highly touted) true freshman Hackenberg was able to pass for 278 yards against the Syracuse secondary, finding receiver Allen Robinson seven times for 133 yards. For most of the Cal game, Siemian looked excellent, routinely firing perfectly placed passes to Christian and Tony Jones, while minimizing his mistakes. Barring a setback, Colter is also expected to play, giving Northwestern the full benefit of its dual quarterback system.
A solid, consistent passing game may be more critical than we would expect it to be Saturday, as Syracuse was able to limit Penn State to 57 total rushing yards. Even without Venric Mark, the combination of Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy should be enough to keep the Orange honest, but if Syracuse can manage Northwestern's rushing attack like it did Penn State's, Colter, Siemian and the receiving corps will need to shine.
The final verdict
Syracuse is a team with several talented pieces, but don't match up well against Northwestern in any particular area. The Orange pass offense showed major flaws, while the defense capitalized on turnovers—something Northwestern is fairly good at preventing. Barring an anomalous implosion in the secondary or more key injuries, Northwestern should be able open its home season with a comfortable victory.