Dennis Akers

South Florida at Syracuse: The Most Important Opponent Is the One Here and Now

We must respect our opponent that we are playing this week or anything else doesn’t matter…that other game you’re talking about doesn’t matter.” This week Taggart emphasizes the importance focusing on the opponent in front of you and not looking further down the schedule.

The Bulls are 2-0 for the first time in the Taggart era and look to improve to 3-0, a mark that the program hasn’t met since 2012. Standing in the Bulls’ way is the Syracuse Orange with a new coaching staff and a hurry-up offense, as they travel to Carrier Dome for their first away game of the 2016 season. 

Last season this exact game was the turning point for the Bulls as they came into that game with a 1-3 record, going 7-1 from that game on. With the high expectations that have been set for the 2016 Bulls, it isn’t hard to think of this week’s game as a “trap game” the week before the season’s marquee matchup against the Florida State Seminoles, but head coach Willie Taggart says otherwise when he hears someone refer to it as such.

“I think that it’s people that don’t play football, doesn’t coach football, that’s not in the organization and not putting in the work,” said Taggart. “People that’s not a part of our goals and what we’re about. I think that some of things they bring up, a ‘trap game.’ It’s only a trap game if you lose it…have you ever seen a trap game that you win?”

Syracuse’s new head coach Dino Babers has proven that where he goes, success follows. During his two previous head coaching stints at Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green State, quarterbacks under his tutelage averaged 4,248 yards and 36 touchdowns, in large part due to his hurry-up offensive play calling.

Babers’ most successful student was NFL quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo —currently slinging the ball for the New England Patriots as Tom Brady serves his four game suspension— tallying up 8,873 yards and 84 touchdowns in his two years as EIU’s quarterback.

In Babers’ first two games as the Orange’s head coach, the fast paced offense has proven to be effective. Syracuse’s offense ranks ninth in passing yards, racking up 730 yards through the air and completing 67-of-99 pass attempts. 

The numbers are skewed however, seeing as how 437 of those yard were accumulated in the Orange’s season opener against Colgate. In their second week match against then 13th ranked Louisville, Syracuse sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey threw for 255 yards and three touchdowns; only completing 25-of-51 pass attempts.  

While the Orange’s offensive numbers seem to be daunting for a defense, Dungey doesn’t appear to view the whole field with 313 of his 610 passing yards have gone to redshirt senior wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo; connecting with Tawo for three of his five touchdown passes. Etta-Tawo has pulled in 313 yards, good enough to lead the ACC and second in the nation. 

This is not the first time that the Bulls have seen Etta-Tawo on the field. Etta-Tawo is a graduate transfer from Maryland, where the Bulls held him in check for just one reception and nine yards.

If the USF defense can manage to utilize the depth that they have in their secondary, keeping fresh legs rotating on the field, then the physical stress of a hurry-up offense should be less effective on the defensive backs. 

It would appear that the Syracuse offensive line is not as well conditioned for the hurry-up offense yet, having surrendered seven sacks in their first two games. The Bulls’ defensive line will have to switch out just like the secondary unit and come in fast on the edges. The Syracuse offense has not shown a strong commitment to the run, so expect to see the Bulls’ linebackers blitz often in the gaps, putting pressure on the young quarterback to make a play.

It is important to note that Babers’ high-flying offense has a 17-0 record when his teams hold opposing offenses to less than 20 points. He has a tendency to prevail in shootouts as well with an overall record of 35-2 when the opposing team scores less than 40 points. Taggart is looking to have a similar styled offense, but with a defense that won’t allow its opponents within striking distance.

“We want people to say that we’re fast and always in attack mode, not sitting back and being reserved,” said Taggart about his own high scoring offense. “We want to be aggressive on both sides of the ball and try to score as many points as you can.”

While junior running back Marlon Mack is expected to play in Saturday’s game, the X-factor for the Bulls on offense to be Quinton Flowers. The junior quarterback had his coming out party against the Orange last year, showing flashes on the athleticism that Bulls have become accustomed to.

Flowers ran for 71 yards and a touchdown and aired out 259 yards for two touchdowns last season. The quarterback has a full season under his belt now with the trust of his teammates and the coaching; Flowers will show off his athleticism and burn the Orange defense at an opportunity. 

Last week Syracuse encountered a similar styled quarterback in Lamar Jackson from Louisville and remember Flowers from last year, so the Orange defenders are expecting to see familiar play calling. Expect to the speedy Adams on jet sweep in the red zone, lobs to big bodied receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Ryshene Bronson and the occasional check-down pass to pass catching running back D’Ernest Johnson on blitzing packages.


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