As they head out on the road to familiar foe, Rutgers, getting both the offense and defense to perform well will be the challenge, a challenge that will come against one of the most successful defenses in the country.
History under head coach Kyle Flood
In his first season with the Scarlet Knights, Flood has helped to lead the team to a 5-0 record. Rutgers has won both of their conference games to get off to an early record of 2-0 in the Big East.
Saturday's match-up with the Orange will be Flood's first as the leader of the Scarlet Knights.
Going into the contest, Flood spoke on his opposition, as Rutgers prepares to play host to Syracuse.
Flood expressed that he does not define the Orange offense as strictly a no-huddle offense. "There's some no huddle, but that's not really the primary part of what they do," said Flood. "They play at a good tempo. They play a majority of the game in what we call an 11-personnel, one back, one tight end, three wide receivers."
He continued talking on the Syracuse offense, sharing that both the receiving game and running game have to be accounted for. "He's (Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib) got three really talented receivers, and they do a good job running the football. You cannot fall asleep in what they do in the run game. They've been very efficient running the football…all their primary ball carriers average over four yards a carry."
"They make you defend the entire width of the field," stated Flood.
Offensively for Rutgers
At the helm. Quarterback Gary Nova has lowered his mistakes as the season has progressed. After throwing an interception in each of Rutgers' first two games, Nova has kept the ball from connecting with the wrong jersey in each of the last three games. In those games, Nova has seven total touchdowns to zero interceptions.
He is a pocket passer. Any attempts he has made to move the ball on the ground have led to numbers he probably would much rather not see. Nova has accumulated negative yardage on the ground in two of the Scarlet Knights' five games. The most rushing yards he has gained in a game currently stands at three.
Syracuse's pass defense, though having less of an issue versus quarterbacks who are not double threats, are improving on stopping quarterbacks in general. The team has sacked the opposing quarterback at least twice in four of five games. The Orange recorded five sacks in two of those four games.
In front of Nova, the Rutgers' offensive line has allowed a mere three sacks through their five games. But, they will be tested, as the front line of the Syracuse defense has weapons throughout.
Syracuse defensive end Brandon Sharpe had four sacks last week versus another predominantly pocket passer, Tino Sunseri of Pittsburgh. Sharpe's other 1.5 sacks so far this season came against one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country, Matt Barkley of USC.
Newcomer, junior college transfer defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster has yet to attain a sack, but has been successful at hurrying opposing quarterbacks so far this season.
On the receiving end. Tim Wright and Mark Harrison both lead the team with 21 catches apiece. Harrison has done more with less, catching three touchdowns despite not having as many receiving yards as Wright, who has yet to score.
Brandon Coleman leads all receivers with 298 receiving yards and five touchdowns.
However, Coleman has been stalled in two of the past three games, failing to reach the end zone in those contests.
In his scoring absence, Harrison has achieved a touchdown in each of the last three games.
As a whole, the receiving core boasts of five receivers that have been in passing plays of more than 40 yards from Nova, which will call Syracuse's secondary to defend better in coverage.
Against the pass, the Orange secondary is between those who need to step up and those who have. Cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson still struggles in coverage and has not alleviated his play from pass interference penalties. Fellow corner Keon Lyn has not played a consistently strong coverage game throughout all season.
With challenges in coverage from Anderson and Lyn, free safety Jeremi Wilkes has stepped forward to help on each line of the defense. In Syracuse's last two games, Wilkes has gotten to the backfield to achieve a sack, guarded the end zone, and forced an interception that led to the deciding touchdown last week versus Pittsburgh.
Cornerback Brandon Reddish got his first opportunity to make an impact since playing Stony Brook, and he did just that against Pittsburgh, coming off the end on a blitz that resulted in a sack. His aid will be imperative to Syracuse having an opportunity to emerge from this contest with a victory, with Anderson and Lyn needing help preventing completions.
On the ground. Rutgers has been committed to the run, giving running back Jawan Jamison 130 opportunities to aid the offense. He has not disappointed, not only leading the Scarlet Knights but all of the Big East conference in total rushing yards, with 601.
Jamison has amounted more than 100 yards on the ground in each of the team's matches this season.
He has had 28 or more carries in the last three games, showing about an even split between running and passing for the Rutgers' offense.
He has also been utilized in the passing attack, catching at least one pass a game.
When asked about the Scarlet Knights' success running the ball, Flood gave credit to more than just the backfield, saying, "Offensive football is an 11-person event every play. There's no doubt. When you run the ball well, it's because your line is doing a good job with their assignments. Your fullbacks, your tight ends are fitting in where they're supposed to fit in. Then, your receivers are doing a nice job on the perimeter."
Flood continued, bringing up how the passing game has been assisted by the run with help from the team's receivers. "I think the other side of that are some of those passes we've caught off run plays have created some big plays that, you know, they go in the stats as passes but they're almost like run plays that don't get factored in, so I think they've had a big impact in our run game with their blocking and also with some of those passes," shared Flood.
Syracuse had been allowed 180 rushing yards per game early in the season. Against Stony Brook, the Orange defense allowed almost that amount in the first half alone. In the second half of that game, Syracuse's defense gave up a mere 45 yards on the ground.
Despite shutting down the Golden Gophers of Minnesota on numerous occasions and lowering the yards they allow to a little over 100, the Orange did not prevent them from crossing into the end zone for two rushing touchdowns.
In their last match-up with the Pittsburgh Panthers, Syracuse's defense held Ray Graham to 57 yards on 24 carries, although they did allow him one touchdown. Overall, the Orange gave up 27 yards on 37 carries, not allowing Pittsburgh as a team even a yard per attempt.
Defensively for Rutgers:
First line of defense. Jamil Merrell and Ka'Lial Glaud have been the most productive of all the linemen. Merrell has one sack and two hits on the opposing quarterback for the season, amounting 15 tackles, with 2.5 tackles being for a loss. Glaud has 13 tackles, with 1.5 being for a loss. He, like Merrell, has hit the opposing quarterback twice, but Glaud has also broken up a pass and forced a fumble.
Before the game, Flood gave his thoughts on another lineman, his freshman Darius Hamilton "Darius had to take on a little bit bigger role last week with Scott [Vallone] moving to the nose guard position, and I think he did a nice job with that," said Flood. "Now, every week is a new challenge for him because he's seeing these game plans go in one at a time. He hasn't been through this in a season as of yet, so every week is almost like a little test for him, playing that position and taking on more responsibility, but to this point he's done a good job." In five games, Hamilton has made four tackles.
The weakest link of Syracuse's offensive line has been replaced at right tackle by Sean Hickey with the return of Justin Pugh to left tackle. With Pugh and Hickey in the game together for the first time this season, the line allowed two sacks, but for the most part locked up the Panthers.
Aided most by Pugh and Hickey flanking the offensive line was the running game, which established itself more than in any other game this season. Credit goes to running back Adonis Ameen-Moore for his power running, but also to the line that helped him move the pile, and in right guard Rob Trudo's case, helped move Moore by getting behind him to push him into a first down. The offensive line improved with Hickey joining the starters this season, and has only grown with the continued success of left guard Zack Chibane, center Macky MacPherson, and right guards Trudo and Ivan Foy, which gave the offense protection even in the absence of Pugh. With everyone healthy, they pose a threat to Rutgers and any other team that attempts to break into the backfield.
At the center. Three linebackers reside within the top four players of the Rutgers' defense who have recorded the most total tackles. Khaseem Greene leads the entire team with 49. Jamal Merrell follows with 37 and Steve Beauharnais behind him and fourth overall with 28. Among these three linebackers, they have stopped opponents behind the of scrimmage for a combined 12.5 tackles for a loss. Both Greene and Merrell add an interception each.
Across the board, the most productive linebacker for the Scarlet Knights has been Greene, hitting the opposing quarterback six times, taking them down for sacks twice, and breaking up four pass attempts.
With or without a struggling passing games, the importance of establishing the run cannot be overstated. Breaking through the first line of defense and then making moves once they reach the middle of the defense where the linebackers lie will be imperative for the Syracuse running backs to open up the offense for some breathing room.
Rutgers has not allowed a 100-yard rusher in any of their five games. Even more impressive, the Scarlet Knights have not given up 100 rushing yards on the ground to any team in any game all season.
They held the Big East's second most productive running back behind their own Jamison, UConn's Lyle McCombs, to 32 yards on 12 carries in their last outing, which has been McCombs worst output so far this season.
On Syracuse's side is depth. But the team has only truly committed to the running game once in five games, that being last week, when Moore was brought in in a short distance to goal situation and to run out the clock at the end of the game. Before then, the play calling when the Orange are close to goal came into question with passes being forced in traffic and running backs getting tosses to the outside instead of trying to move the pile straight on.
Moore was successful in his only attempt from close to goal this season, but Syracuse's staff has to stay with the running attack throughout the game.
In short yardage situations, especially close to goal, and in drives where they want to run down the clock, Moore continues to be a viable option.
Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley also must be utilized, as they have had success in each of Syracuse's games, not only in the running attack, but also as receivers. Smith's biggest presence comes through the middle, where he can move through traffic and gain the yardage that aids the Orange in getting to the redzone. Gulley has shown that he can run down the middle and to the outside, but he also is there for the pass, and Nassib, especially in hurried situations, looks to Gulley who has very trustworthy hands.
Syracuse's best opportunity to combat a strong linebacker core as well as the rest of the Rutgers' defense is to use all of the weapons that they have in the running game and stick with what works, as they did against Pittsburgh, which resulted in a victory.
The secondary. Marcus Cooper leads all Rutgers' defensive backs with 14 tackles, one being for a loss, to go with one pass breakup and an interception.
Teammate defensive back Wayne Warren has helped Cooper and the defense by amounting two interceptions and one pass breakup to go with seven tackles, one for a loss. "Wayne is one of the most valuable players on our football team," said Flood. "He does so many things for us throughout the course of a game from playing safety in our base defense to playing in different spots in our sub packages to playing on all the major special teams. He's an extremely valuable guy and he's been that way for three years now. When You have a guy like Wayne Warren, ultimately whenever it is you have to replace him, it's almost like replacing two or three different people."
The Orange offense has faltered through the last two games. With so much depth at wide receiver and an offensive line that has offered Nassib the best protection he has had in his career at Syracuse, there is no excuse for the Orange to not move the ball through the air.
With so many different options, the Orange create issues in coverage for any team because the ball is never going to one dominant receiver. Choosing to utilize double coverage would leave a trusted target open, giving Syracuse an advantage in having to get open against typically not more than one defender.
Speaking of advantages, though the Orange have many targets, the Scarlet Knights have been strong against their opponents' passing attacks, intercepting the ball 10 times in their first five games. Eight of those 10 interceptions have come by the hands of the Rutgers' secondary. Besides Cooper and Warren, Brandon Jones (2), Logan Ryan (2), and Duron Harmon (1) have all provided takeaways through interceptions.
Nassib has thrown six interceptions in Syracuse's first five games, including one that took away the offense's entire body of work on one drive last week against Pittsburgh where the Orange were inside the redzone. The Syracuse offensive general must make better decisions, especially against a team who has condensed their opponents' production to less than two touchdowns in all but one game.
In three of their five games, Rutgers did not allow a single passing touchdown. A struggling Nassib does not make that hill any easier to climb. Add in defensive back Lorenzo Waters, who has two sacks so far this season, and an Orange offense who has been beating themselves will now have to overcome that and a challenging secondary when they line up opposite Rutgers.
Special teams notes for Rutgers
Kicking. As far as Rutgers' starting kicker Kyle Federico, who injured his hip during last week's game against UConn, Flood shared, "We brought another young man out [on Wednesday morning] in Joe Behnke…who's a senior here at Rutgers. He's actually tried out for us a couple different times and we didn't have the need that we have now, so we're excited to have him out there."
"We've got a healthy competition going on and I wouldn't rule anybody out at this point," Flood continued, as redshirt sophomore Nick DeLouisa and redshirt freshman Nick Borgese join Behnke in the quest to attain an opportunity to play versus Syracuse. But Flood made himself clear about what will happen if Federico indeed does practice this week. "Kyle is plan A and everybody else is plan B," expressed Flood.
Syracuse has yet to challenge an opposing kicker. Kickers that have lined up for field goal attempts against the Orange have been their own worst defense, missing their tries, resulting in the ball moving into Syracuse's hands.
Orange kicker Ross Krautman was not called on for more than two extra points in Syracuse's win over Pittsburgh, so how he will perform moving forward with field goals is still in question. A trusted foot last season has turned into a questionable one at best this season, with Krautman missing three field goal attempts in seven tries, showing less productivity the farther he is from the goalposts.
Punting. Flood responded to before the game to what his take is on punter Justin Doerner's inconsistency through the first five games. "I don't worry about too many things, but I think consistency at every position's really important to me, so I'm concerned about it," stated Flood. "Now I really believe he's going to get into a groove here as we get into the season and he's gonna start performing more like the punter we had last year than maybe what we've seen through the first five games. Because he's an older player with an established resume so to speak, I'm concerned about it, we're coaching him through it, but I really feel like he's gonna come out of it."
Syracuse's special teams can relate to Rutgers' situation at punter with Jonathan Fisher failing to pin opposing offenses closer to their own goal through the first five games. Fisher's lack of hang time to go with his lack of distance has given opposing offenses a shorter field to get to the Orange goal, which more often than not has contributed to Syracuse being on the losing end at the closing whistle.
Keys to the game
Rutgers: Keep doing what they are doing on defense. The Scarlet Knights allow under 11 points per game on average. They have silenced their opponents' passing games in three of their five contests. Against the run, they have yet to allow 100 yards by one rusher, or even cumulatively among an entire opposing team.
In each line of defense, Rutgers has athletes that have caused problems for the offenses that have attempted to score against them. Even in a tight situation with Arkansas, the defense allowed enough separation to keep the Razorbacks from cutting into their undefeated record.
Trust the ball in Jamison's hands. Jamison has a little over 600 yards on the ground already through five games. He has been a factor in the offense doing enough to win against everyone they have faced so far.
Though Syracuse has had positive moments versus the run in the second half against Stony Brook and in last week's game versus Pittsburgh, more running attacks have found success against the Orange than not.
Use success running the ball to open up the whole offense. As previously stated, Syracuse typically struggles against the run, so establishing the run can only help Nova to find receivers. When the Orange get beat on the run repeatedly, they begin to expect it, and that tends to leave receivers open, especially down the middle of the field.
Challenge the secondary. Anderson and Lyn continue to be destructive to the defense because they tend to have a few good plays, rather than good games. With three wide receivers who have caught at least 18 passes and comfort airing it out deep, Nova should be able to capitalized in coverage more often than not to get downfield.
Syracuse: Stay committed to the run. For the first time all season, the Orange staff went to the ground repeatedly throughout the game, and it resulted in a win. Smith, Gulley, and now Moore have all shown that the ball in their hands can help to keep drives going, taking pressure off of Nassib and aiding the Orange to move the chains against defenses like that of the Scarlet Knights that have been successful attacking the pass.
Choose the right personnel. Moore made a close to goal situation in the redzone look easier than any other player that has been on the field for Syracuse so far this season. From three yards out or less, an option like Moore who can take and make hits and keeps his body moving forward should no longer be left on the bench, but instead at least get a crack at the end zone after showing what he is capable of.
As a blanket theme, the Orange should let the back that is performing at that time continue to challenge the defense. Sometimes when Smith has been moving the chains, he is taken out for Gulley, or vice versa. Keeping with what is working sounds simple, but sometimes coaches move too quick to show defenses a different look that they may not need to yet. There is nothing wrong with using the weapon that works and remembering that you always have another waiting in the arsenal.
Reestablish the pass. Nassib is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the entire country and he has easily one of the deepest receiving cores in the country.
It is up to the passing attack to focus solely on Rutgers and not harp on what they have done or failed to do recently. Nassib have shown his ability to throw on the run as well as from the pocket. He has had success with a quick release, has surveyed the field better with experience, and shown the positives he can bring using his feet when needed. Put simply, Nassib has to get back to being Nassib to give the Orange an opportunity to win.
Keep the defense turned up. Syracuse's defense kept the team in the game against Minnesota and helped secure the victory last week versus Pittsburgh, where they scored the deciding touchdown and then went on to overcome the offense not scoring for the final three quarters of the match.
Each line of defense has had players who have stepped up, none more than Sharpe on the front line, Siriki Diabate in the middle, and Wilkes in the secondary. As these players continue to grow, they open up opportunities to their teammates. The better they perform, the less focus will be on others in the Syracuse defense, giving those players chances to positively affect games, including this week versus Rutgers, and they need to make the most of those moments.
Rutgers comes out early and scores through the air. Then, Jamison takes one in on the ground. Syracuse goes into halftime down 14-3. After the half, the Orange score on the ground to make it 14-10. The Orange take the lead off of a Nassib touchdown pass, making it 17-10, but Rutgers ties with Jamison scoring again to make it 17-all.
The game will go into overtime with Syracuse winning by a field goal 20-17.