Syracuse has one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the Big East in Ryan Nassib, who has thrown 10 touchdown passes to just two interceptions on the season. His 12-of-22 performance for 129 yards against South Florida last week might not look like much, but the sophomore from West Chester led the Orange on a game-winning 98-yard touchdown drive, that resulted in a three-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Sales. He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of the five games this season.
"Their philosophy on offense gives them a chance," Dave Wannstedt said this week. "They're not turning the ball over, they're not throwing interceptions. Playaction passing opens up the run game. I think they're reaping the benefits of it."
The Orange has a two-headed monster out of the backfield in the form of Delone Carter and Antwon Bailey. Carter leads the team with 524 yards and five touchdowns on the season, and is averaging over five yards a carry. Bailey has a third of Carter's carries (33 in five games), but is also averaging over five yards a carry. Bailey is a threat as a receiver too, averaging 14.3 yards a catch.
Last week, Bailey rushed for 81 yards on just nine carries, but added 48 yards on just three catches. Carter tacked on 105 yards against the Bulls.
"(Delone Carter), their running back, I think he's gotten a little bit bigger, even bigger than last year," linebacker Max Gruder said. "He's a very physical back. From what I've seen, they're a very talented offense. We have to come out and play."
In addition to Bailey, who's almost another wide receiver out there, leading the way is Van Chew and Alec Lemon at receiver. The Orange also uses a pair of tight ends in Nick Provo and Jose Cruz. Cruz is the brother of Pitt tight end Mike Cruz.
Chew is Syracuse's leading receiver, with 23 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Lemon has 14 catches for 147 yards and three touchdowns. Bailey has 11 catches on the year, as does the tight end Provo, who has 162 yards receiving. It's a very balanced passing attack, but anything the receivers do is set up off the running game.
"They don't really get in the shotgun," Wannstedt said. "Last year, they were more of a read team. They kind of abandoned that. They're up under center. They're handing the ball off, they're pounding the ball, they're using two tight ends and utilizing the play-action pass.
While Pitt changed up its offensive line after three games, the Orange has four new starters on the offensive line this year. They have come out with the same offensive line lineup in all five games.
At left tackle is sophomore Justin Pugh, a Pennsylvania native. The guards are sophomore Zach Chibane and senior Andrew Tiller. Right tackle is junior Michael Hay. The line is anchored by senior center Ryan Bartholomew.
So far this year, the line has opened the way for 163.8 rushing yards a game, and has allowed one sack for every 12 passing attempts. One thing is easily noticeable upon watching film, and that is the offensive line is a physical group.
"It reminds me of our offense, because it's more physical," defensive end Jabaal Sheard said. "It's a physical game. It's football. It's a man against a man. You have to line up and beat your man, if not two men, to get to the quarterback or the running back."
Like their offensive line, the Orange defensive line is a physical crew, which according to offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, is where it all starts.
"They get lined up," Cignetti said. "They're in good stances. They're in their gaps. They run to the ball. They hit you. It's a program where you can see Coach Marrone has going in the right direction."
Twice this year has the Syracuse defense held opponents to 10 points or less and kept them out of the end zone (South Florida, Akron). The defensive ends are Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich. Defensive tackles are Andrew Lewis and Bud Tribbey. Jones is tied for second with 3.5 tackles for losses, and tied for the team lead with two sacks. He leads all defensive linemen with 25 total tackles, and leads all Big East defenders with 0.40 forced fumbles per game.
The Orange has four linebackers who can make big plays, led by a pair of seniors. Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith are the seniors. Smith leads the team with 42 tackles. Last year, Smith led the Big East with four forced fumbles. He lines up in the middle.
Hogue, a one-time running back, has progressed even further since moving to linebacker when Doug Marrone took over. He finished with 72 tackles a year ago, and has 27 this year. The total might seem low compared to where he was a year ago. The only difference is that Hogue has more playmakers around him.
In addition to two seniors, the other producers at linebacker are a pair of freshmen in Marcus Spruill and Malcolm Cater. Spruill leads all Big East freshmen with 27 tackles, and also leads the team with four tackles for losses from his outside linebacker spot. Cater makes his plays primarily on special teams, but could also get in the game in the front seven.
"Their linebackers are coming down hill," Wannstedt said this week. "They're not giving up very many big plays, and they're playing the run extremely well. It's an aggressive style with their linebackers and safeties."
Syracuse leads the Big East in pass defense efficient (105.8), allowing five touchdown passes in five games, while producing four interceptions. Senior corners Da'Mon Merkerson (2 INT) and Mike Holmes (2 sacks, 1 INT) show something different--especially with Holmes coming in with an occasional blitz, but it's the safeties who have shown an ability all year to provide run support.
Phillip Thomas and Shamarko Thomas have primarily started at safety, but the Orange also has a talented senior in former Greensburg Central Catholic standout Max Suter, who was named Big East Defensive Player of the Week this past week. Against South Florida, Suter led the Orange with eight tackles, including three for a loss. On top of that, Suter had a sack and a forced fumble.
It's hard to say which area of the Orange defense is the strongest, but having experience and players with multiple abilites in the secondary, make it difficult to throw against, especially with a physical front seven setting them up to make plays.
"They've got three secondary guys back," Wannstedt said. "Their safeties are involved in the run game. They're kind of a veteran group, from a starters standpoint."