Inside the Orange

Curious for an insider's perspective on Syracuse, Purple Reign reached out to Syracuse Post-Standard sports writer Donnie Webb. Webb, who knows as much about the Orange as anyone, was kind enough to indulge PR with a little back-and-forth email exchange. Inside, see what this 'Cuse insider had to say about Saturday's matchup, as well as his on-the-record prediction for the game.

Purple Reign first sounded the warning bell about this Syracuse game back in July. During those Dog Days, the Orange apparently looked to some Wildcat fans like just another cupcake in Northwestern's sweet-tooth-satisfying non-conference schedule.

Indeed, there seemed to be a collective shoulder shrug from the NU rafters about Syracuse.

And I guess that makes sense. After all, Syracuse got lambasted by the Wildcats in Evanston last season. In that game, the Cats had 25 first downs to Syracuse's 11; 484 yards to Syracuse's 225; 215 passing yards to Syracuse's 103. Oh, and 30 points to Syracuse's 10.

So yeah, in more ways than one, Syracuse may have looked the part of a pushover this summer. You know, a hapless outfit that had won just 10 games the past four seasons, a team so bad that the coach was fired and the senior quarterback benched.

But…While I don't have polling data to prove it, I reckon Cat fans are taking the Orange a bit more seriously nowadays. With NU's nail-biter against Eastern Michigan and Syracuse's decent showings against Minnesota and Penn State, surely fewer people are sleeping on Syracuse than before. That's an anecdotal, not empirical, presumption. But Syracuse has looked a bit better than many thought they would, and Northwestern maybe a bit worse.

So, because there are more ears perked and eyes peeled this week, Purple Reign is pleased to welcome sports writer Donnie Webb from the Syracuse Post-Standard. If anyone can help break down Syracuse, it's Webb, who covers the Orange beat for the Post-Standard and authors an excellent Syracuse blog.

Purple Reign: Alright, Donnie, let's have at it. One of the first things that I want to ask about – and one of the things that first got me thinking that Syracuse could be a viable opponent come Week 3 – is the Orange's schedule. Especially compared to Northwestern's.Syracuse, of course, has played Minnesota – which went 8-4 last season – and Penn State – which went to the Rose Bowl last season. What's more, the Orange took the Gophers into overtime, and the Penn State game was, if not close, at least competitive, ending in a 28-7 defeat. Those are two pretty heavy hitters to open with, and two pretty good showings by Syracuse to boot.

And then look at the Wildcats, who started out the season with pity-inducing Towson, a team that probably couldn't beat Northwestern's incoming recruiting class. Then, after the Towson massacre, NU welcomed in Eastern Michigan, a 3-9 team a year ago that was supposed to be easier than the last-second-field-goal drama that the Eagles ultimately produced.

Thus, I am curious what (if any) impact you think these totally different schedules will have on this Saturday's game. Yeah, Syracuse lost to Minnesota and Penn State. But it seems from afar like that sort of experience would have to help a team like Syracuse.

Might Northwestern seem a step slower and a few pounds lighter after going toe-to-toe with mighty Penn State? Or am I dumping too much sugar on what was ultimately a 21-point loss?

Donnie Webb: Syracuse players wear a T-shirt that says this on the back, "The Hottest Fire Makes the Strongest Steel." It's an expression former Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni used and one that the players believe is relevant going into the game against Northwestern. This is the anti-cupcake school when it comes to non-conference games. Sometimes, it can be a bad thing, especially when you have a program down like Syracuse that may have benefited from playing a couple of openers like Northwestern. At the same time, this team has yet to learn how to win. Northwestern learned a great lesson last week by letting Eastern Michigan score twice in the fourth quarter, then rallying for a long field goal at the end of the game to win. Syracuse desperately needs that feeling. I can promise you, it's a hungry bunch.

I'm not sure what to make of Penn State. Are the Nitts really the No. 7 team in the country? Daryll Clark makes such a difference and at times, looked unstoppable. Yet you look up at the scoreboard at halftime and it's only 14-0. Penn State has the best talent in the Northeast year after year. That said, it's all about executing. If Northwestern executes its offense and defense, then it's difficult, just like Syracuse.

PR: Well, luckily for Syracuse, NU has had some trouble executing its offense; against EMU the O scored just 14 points (with seven coming off a pick and six coming from field goals.) So we'll see if anyone scores on Saturday at the Carrier Dome.

Which brings me to another questions: What do Orange fans make of this team? It seemed like a pretty good atmosphere up there against Minnesota. Syracuse leads the nation in basketball attendance every season, but does this school have the capacity to get nutty over football? And if so, is that happening now? Domes are inherently weird, even if they're not full. But what kind of environment should NU expect when the Cats roll into the dome?

DW: Some fans are patient. Some are not. It's the nature of the beast. Most people here realize this program did not get to its sad state overnight and won't revive overnight either. That said, people are very excited about Doug Marrone. He says all the right things; has put himself out in the community preaching the gospel of the Orange and people desperately want to get behind a winner again. Great, great atmosphere at the Dome for the opener against Minnesota. They'll be fired up for the Wildcats. The Dome can be stuffy, humid and claustrophobic. Fans are right on top of the field. When they get going, it's a tough place for visiting teams.

PR: Yeah, that's what I remember from the Minnesota game. The Orange made a little run right before the half, and the crowd went bonkers. For a second, it looked like Greg Paulus forgot that he wasn't at Cameron Indoor and started waving his arms to the student section and jumping up and down. He had this look like he had just gotten a steal and layup to force a North Carolina timeout.

Speaking of Paulus, what are your thoughts? During the Minnesota game, a friend of mine said, "You know, people were talking so freaking much about this whole Paulus thing, and now that I see him out there, it's really not a big deal." Is that your impression? Is this just old hat now? I hate to beat a dead horse, but really, it's a pretty interesting story.

DW: At this point, it's not that big a deal. I think some in Syracuse would like to see a quarterback controversy emerge because the team is 0-2, but Paulus has played pretty darn good. He was 14-of-20 passing at Penn State and had three dropped passes - one in the end zone for a touchdown and another that bounced off the receivers hand and was intercepted. It took a lot of courage for Greg Paulus to put himself out there, and he did not do it to fail.

PR: Hmm. Talk a bit more about the Syracuse offense. I get a kick out of how unabashedly conservative and methodical (and boring?) the passing game is.

This is interesting: While Paulus completes a respectable 64.7 percent of his passes – which is currently better, for instance, than Florida's Tim Tebow and Kansas' Todd Reesing – Syracuse's yards per completion numbers are third-party-candidate low. The Orange's average of 8.2 yards per catch is 114th in the nation out of 119 teams. It's flares and screens and dumps and – if they're feeling risky – maybe a slant. What's with the an apparent aversion to go downfield? (Or am I using "aversion" when I should say "inability"?)

DW: Syracuse has not created any type of vertical passing game at this point. Some of us wonder if it's a question of Paulus' arm strength or if they're still waiting for him to get his arm back into playing strength. Again, he's only been playing quarterback for about six weeks after a five-year layoff.

PR: Fair enough. But does this offense have the potential to put up points? I mean, they're averaging just 13.5 points per game – not good – but might some of these dink-and-dump passes go for more yards against an easier opponent than Penn State?

DW: The running game is much, much better than it's shown. Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey could play for anybody in the Big East. It gets back to the team's greatest issue - the offensive line. If they get that going at all, I think the passing game begins to flourish more and this team will start scoring points.

PR: OK, so that's the offense. Now, what about the defense? That unit forced Minnesota's Adam Weber – who completed 64 percent of his passes last season – into a 19-for-42 outing; he was 20-for-29 the next week against Air Force. And while Penn State won handily, the Lions only had 28 points. They scored less than 34 points only four times in 2008 (and had 55 against the Orange). The defense seems to be a strength, yeah?

DW: No doubt about it. Syracuse traded defensive coordinators with Michigan. The Orange got Scott Shafer and the Wolverines got Greg Robinson. Shafer has done a tremenedous job with the unit. They have more speed at linebacker. They've been more physical and aggressive and they're getting some pressure on the quarterback. The Orange held Penn State to 108 yards total offense in the second half, 14 points in the first half and had a goal-line stand. The defense is the strength of the team at the moment.

PR: Yeah, that's the impression I got. Kind of scary for an NU team that had oodles of trouble scoring last week...again Eastern Michigan, no less.

Anyway, I was hoping to get you to go on record with a prediction. Personally, I think this is going to be a low-scoring affair – or at least not a shootout. Northwestern's offense looked pretty pedestrian last week, plus the Cats have yet to face a legitimate defense. And after watching Syracuse bottle up (for the most part) Minnesota and Penn State, it looks like they have a legitimate defense. Someone is going to score on defense…maybe a special teams plays…I'll say 24-21 Northwestern. How's about you?

DW: Before the season, I picked Northwestern. Two games in, I'm changing my mind. I just think Syracuse is due. Somethilng about the way Northwestern muddled its way through against Eastern Michigan is concerning. Syracuse's defense is playing good enough to win and I think it's just a matter of time before the Orange offense gets going. I'll say 24-21 Syracuse.

Thanks again to Donnie Webb of the Syracuse Post-Standard. Again, his blog can be found here, and if you need to reach Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.


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