The Syracuse Orange had a second opportunity to start their season off strong when their Big East Conference schedule opened two weeks ago versus Pittsburgh, but after a win against the Panthers, the Orange dropped their next opportunity for a win to the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers last week.
They come into the game with two wins in six attempts, with only one of those wins coming against an FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision), a.k.a. Division I-A, team.
Syracuse enters the game with a strong defense and a struggling offense. Opposite the Orange, the Huskies enter to match with the same dilemma, as Paul Pasqualoni returns to the Carrier Dome for the first time in a game since he was fired from his position as Syracuse football head coach.
History under head coach Paul Pasqualoni:
After rejoining the Big East Conference last season for the first time since ties were cut with the Syracuse Orange, Pasqualoni led the UConn Huskies to five wins in 12 attempts. Ironically, Pasqualoni's team posted the same record as his old team, the Orange, ending the 2011-12 campaign at 5-7.
In his second season at the helm of the Huskies, the team has posted a 3-4 record overall, but have yet to win a game in the Big East, losing to Rutgers and Temple in their last two games.
Offensively for UConn:
At the helm. Since taking over the reins from Johnny McEntee, who faced Syracuse last season, Chandler Whitmer has struggled, amounting six touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Whitmer has thrown two or more interceptions in three of UConn's seven games.
Since completing more than 60% of his passes for three straight games, he and his receivers have not been on the same page. In the Huskies' last two games, both against Big East foes, Whiter has completed 36 of 71 passes.
Affecting the passing game is the UConn offensive line, which has allowed 20 sacks in the team's seven games, giving up close to three sacks a game. Without protection, Whitmer has less time to make decisions, which tends to result in making the wrong ones, hence the double-digit interception output.
It does not get any better for the offensive line and Whitmer in this match-up, where they are facing an Orange defensive line that is only becoming more of a nuisance to their opposition.
The Syracuse frontline has had different players have strong games at different times, something defensive line coach Tim Daoust said is a result of what the players around that player are doing right that week.
In his first season with the Orange, defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster has provided pressure, doing what veterans are expected to do: call attention to themselves to open up the game for their teammates. You will not always seem Pierce-Brewster show up on the stats sheets, but those that do can thank him for catching on to the NCAA Division I game so quickly coming from junior college.
One of those players that can thank Pierce-Brewster is fellow defensive end Brandon Sharpe, who continues to increase his output, en route to his best season of his career.
Veteran defensive lineman Jay Bromley began the season on a slow start after wearing a boot over his left foot for part of Fall camp. Daoust believes there still might be something plaguing Bromley, but even if that is indeed the case, Bromley has improved to become a factor in Syracuse's last two games.
On the receiving end. When Whitmer does get the ball off and to his receivers, the depth becomes clear. Six different players, be it receivers or tight ends, who have double-digit receptions, are averaging more than 10 yards per reception.
Tight end Ryan Griffin has found the endzone more than any other receiver in the passing game for the Huskies this season, with three trips to a football player's favorite destination.
Wide receiver Geremy Davis has been targeted more than any other receiver by Whitmer, coming into the match-up against Syracuse with 24 catches for 370 yards.
The Orange secondary continues to be the defense's weakest link. Throughout last week's game versus Rutgers, Gary Nova found gaps left in coverage to get the ball to open receivers. Cornerbacks Ri'Shard Anderson and Brandon Reddish have yet to become good cover corners, with Keon Lyn being the best option to use when needing a corner to stay on a receiver. However, Lyn has not given up his Jekyll and Hyde nature, preventing passes while getting beat.
Free safety Jeremi Wilkes came over to help Anderson, Reddish, and Lyn numerous times in Syracuse's match with Rutgers, but was too late most of the time. But, you cannot put too much of a blame on Wilkes, as he has tried and been successful helping the defensive line, linebackers, and secondary, but he just simply cannot do it all.
The Orange secondary is ripe to allow a few big pass plays a game and that is what Whitmer has been productive doing. The secondary's best chance to stop the offense is the defensive line causing Whiter to make some bad decisions, which he has already done this season.
In the backfield. Early in the week, Pasqualoni said that it is "very, very probable" that Lyle McCombs will be on the field for this contest, after recently injuring his hand.
Despite having a touchdown in four of UConn's seven games, McCombs has not been consistent. He has one 100-yard rushing game this season among seven opportunities.
If McCombs is still plagued by his hand injury or is not performing well, Max DeLorenzo may be called upon, as he was versus Temple. DeLorenzo had four carries in both of the games he played in when McCombs was healthy, so his opportunities are contingent on McCombs.
No matter which of them likes up in the backfield, the Syracuse defense has been increasingly more productive in their rush defense, which if past is prologue, McCombs and DeLorenzo will struggle.
In their last two games, Syracuse shut down Ray Graham of Pittsburgh, giving up a mere 57 yards on 24 carries, and then became the first team this season to prevent the Big East's leading rusher, Jawan Jamison of Rutgers, from achieving 100 rushing yards in a game.
Jamison, outside of a 12-yard run late in the game, had to fight little gain by little gain to move the ball, with Syracuse grabbing Jamison for numerous tackles for a loss. This is a stark difference from an Orange team that had little answer to the rushing attacks of Northwestern and USC, as well as against Stony Brook in the first half of that match-up.
With Whitmer struggling and the offensive line not providing good protection, the run may be the go-to for the UConn offense, and if Syracuse continues their defensive evolution, the Huskies go-to may become a no-go, stunting their offense.
Defensively for UConn:
The frontline. Defensive end Trevardo Williams not only leads his team, but also is atop the entire Big East Conference in sacks with 7.5 through seven games, averaging at least one sack per game.
Fellow defensive end Jesse Joseph has also gotten to the opposing quarterback for a sack this season. In total, five defensive linemen have achieved sacks in the 2012-13 campaign, with UConn defensive tackles Ryan Wirth, Angelo Pruitt, and Tim Willman joining Williams and Joseph.
With Sean Hickey providing protection from the moment he became a starter this season, how well he is adjusting to the right side of the line is too soon to tell, as the offensive line in total has allowed more defensive pressure through since the team had their bye week.
However, this line has given Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib more protection and, as a result, time to throw the ball than any other offensive line he has had in front of him while a member of the Orange.
If the offensive line can do better locking up defenders, especially at the right guard position, where Rob Trudo and Ivan Foy have struggled, Syracuse should get back to the superior protection they have had.
But both Hickey and left tackle Justin Pugh will have a true test of wills with whoever draws Williams, who has overpowered offenses more than they have overpowered him.
In the middle. Syracuse will have to also have eyes on linebackers Sio Moore and Yawin Smallwood on blitzes as both have attained multiple sacks this season. Moore leads the duo with 4.5, with Smallwood close behind with 3.5 sacks.
Extending out from mere sacks, Moore and Smallwood account for 20 tackles for a loss accumulated by the UConn defense.
Smallwood does lead Moore and all others on the UConn defense with the most tackles, currently at 75, amounting five or more tackles in five of the team's seven games.
Jory Johnson joins fellow linebackers Moore and Smallwood in the top four for most tackles through seven games this season for the Huskies.
With a strong showing from the three aforementioned linebackers to go with a defensive line that has had five players break through opponents' protection, the improved Orange offensive line may very well have their toughest contest of the season thus far.
Where UConn may struggle is against the run. They have allowed just under 100 yards on the ground per game. With Syracuse's talented arsenal of running backs Jerome Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley, and the newly-instituted Adonis Ameen-Moore, they should be competitive against any opposition, including one in UConn, who has had trouble preventing the run.
Play-calling is going to be of highest importance for Syracuse because they need to establish the run, especially with the passing game not being as productive as it was earlier in the season. Moore from inside the opponent's five-yard line should not need much thought. He has two touchdowns on three attempts in the red zone. His involvement in the game will be important in breaking down the defensive line and getting them to respect the run so that the passing game will have its opportunities.
The secondary. The Huskies' secondary has accounted for all four of the team's interceptions on the season, with defensive back Byron Jones, cornerback Dwayne Gratz, and safety Ty-Meer Johnson each having at least one, Gratz leading with two.
Gratz also leads not only the secondary, but the entire UConn defense in pass breakups with seven. He has also forced a fumble.
Nassib needs to be aware of the UConn defense, avoiding ill-advised throws. In the past three games, Nassib has thrown five interceptions to two touchdowns. Some of his interceptions have come off of tipped passes and lack of help from his receivers, but others, especially those more recent, have simply been poor choices.
The player Nassib will have to be most aware of is Gratz because of his successful reads this season on where the ball is going and then getting there to stop the pass and sometimes give possession back to his team.
With the depth the Orange have at wide receiver and the talent Nassib has exhibited over this season and last season, it would be easy to think that this offense should dominate, but no matter how close they get, the passing game in the red zone has been obsolete, and that needs to change in order to give Syracuse a chance.
Keys to the game:
UConn: Challenge Syracuse's secondary. The Orange give up big passing plays each game, typically lagging in coverage. Whitmer and many of his receivers have been capable of connecting for double-digit yards, and with the subpar coverage by Syracuse's corners, they should be able to move the ball through the air in this game.
Attack the right guard position. With Hickey moving to right tackle two games ago, the right guard position became the weakest link. Trudo and Foy are allowing defensive pressure to break through the middle of the line, and with five players capable of reaching Nassib, attacking the right guard is their easiest way to get to him.
Hurry Ryan Nassib. Nassib had shown last season that one of his strengths is rolling out of the pocket and throwing vertically while running horizontally. However, in the last few games, Nassib has not been throwing well on the run.
When he has been hurried, he either takes too long and is sacked or throws the ball into potential interception territory. If he continues to struggle when there is pressure, the more UConn gives the better.
Syracuse: Be consistent throughout drives. When Nassib is connecting with his receivers and/or the running game is getting upfield, Syracuse has put together some nice drives. But when they get into the red zone, the positive moves they have made are overshadowed by the fact that those moves have not resulted in points. Going with what is working and not becoming a different team in the red zone than they are outside of it, will give the Orange better opportunities to get their offense out of their drought.
Establish the run. Smith and Gulley have both proven that they can achieve first downs no matter where the team starts its drive. Giving the ball to the backfield will help take some pressure off of Nassib if they can get going. With UConn giving up almost 100 yards per game, Syracuse's rushing attack should have some opportunities to build confidence.
If and when they get inside the five-yard line, bringing Moore in should be automatic. He is more than capable of moving the pile, but the ball does not always have to be in his hands for him to have a positive effect for Syracuse. When an opposing defense sees Moore come in, the belief is that he is getting the ball and he is taking it straight ahead. Syracuse needs to use that to fake the run and attempt the pass if the defense bites or to fake the handoff to Moore and give to another back in a split back situation.
Hold onto the football. Fumbles and failed catches have been an issue for Syracuse since back in Fall camp. You have to have the ball before you can decide what to do with it.
On special teams as well as on offense, the Orange have to do a better job of protecting the football. The opposing offense will have opportunities without Syracuse helping them.
No matter how strong the defense is, everyone gets fatigued, and this Orange defense has spent well past their fair share of time on the field, thanks to the offense's lax protection when it comes to the football.
Prediction: Essentially, both UConn and Syracuse are good defensive teams with struggling offenses. The Huskies will get a little more out of their offense than Syracuse to come away with a road win by the score of 19-16.