The Syracuse Orange football program, despite still residing under .500 on the season, are coming off their second win in their three contests within the Big East Conference.
Syracuse's offense turned on after sputtering the last few weeks to score 40 against UConn, whose defense came in regarded as one of the best in the conference.
The Orange defense has continued to impress, holding their opponents to less than 20 points in four straight games.
Special teams, which has been Syracuse's biggest hurdle to jump, came through in their last match-up, when strong safety Ritchy Desir was moved to punt returner and gained more yards on returns than the Orange had gained through the previous six games combined.
Kicker Ross Krautman, who had missed both field goals that he attempted from 40 or more yards this season, made both against UConn, and connected on all four of his attempts.
History under head coach Skip Holtz:
Holtz was hired before the start of the 2010-11 season. In his first season, he helped guide the Bulls to an 8-5 record, including an advancement to the postseason that resulted in a bowl victory in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
The following season, Holtz posted a 5-7 record. After winning their first four games of the season, Holtz's Bulls would only gain one more victory in eight attempts. That win came versus Syracuse, avenging a loss to the Orange from the prior season.
Currently, South Florida is on a five-game losing streak after winning their first two games to open the season. They have yet to come out on top in Big East Conference play, losing all three of their matches.
Holtz and Marrone are even at 1-1 coming into this game.
Offensively for South Florida:
At the helm. Bulls' quarterback B.J. Daniels has recorded three touchdown passes in four of the team's seven outings this season. However, as he has connected with his receivers, so has he connected with the opposing team, tossing at least one interception in six out of seven games played thus far.
Along with interceptions, Daniels' completion percentage has not been that strong. He has completed less than 60% of his passes in five of the Bulls' seven outings.
Syracuse's secondary has amounted four interceptions in seven games, but against an interception-prone quarterback, the Orange defense, which has continued to improve, will have their opportunities to give the ball to the offense.
Where Syracuse will be contested is on the ground. Daniels has had 50 or more yards on the ground in four of the Bulls' seven games, averaging more than four yards per carry in each of those games. The Orange have had difficulty defending against double-threat quarterbacks, allowing 42 points to quarterback Kain Colter and the Northwestern offense in the first game of the season.
But despite a threat on the ground in four games this season, Daniels has also had three games where he gained less yardage than the attempts he made. Syracuse will need to make better decisions against Daniels than they did Colter if they want to force Daniels into having a game similar to those three and not like the four successful ground games he has had.
The Orange defensive line has 16 sacks, taking down the opposing quarterback in five of the team's seven games. How well the line has adjusted to playing against a mobile quarterback since losing to Colter will play a factor in this game.
In Syracuse's favor, Daniels' offensive line has allowed 10 sacks through the team's seven games. The line tends to wear down going into halftime, giving up more sacks in the second quarter than in any other quarter. South Florida typically gets better at protection in the second half, so the Orange would benefit most by attacking as much as they can in the first half.
Even without sacking Daniels, the more the Orange can hurry Daniels, the better, since he has already shown that he does not make the best passing decisions, with nine interceptions on the season.
On the receiving end. Some of the blame for Daniels' completion percentage has to be taken off of the quarterback and placed on his receiving core. The problem has been addressed during the season by Holtz in games like Temple, where multiple receivers failed to catch a ball placed at their hands.
When the Bulls are catching the ball, they have 14 different players who have reeled in at least one pass. Daniels' two main receivers are Andre Davis and Terrence Mitchell, both have 20-plus catches through seven games. Davis leads with 30, also leading with yards at 380 and touchdowns among all Bulls with 5.
Last season, Davis was the top receiver against Syracuse, amounting 62 yards on just three catches. But the Orange did not allow him in for a touchdown, nor did they allow any touchdowns through the air.
Mitchell comes in with 23 catches for 339 receiving yards and one touchdown. In total, seven of the 14 players who have caught a pass from Daniels have a touchdown.
Syracuse's secondary lost veteran cornerback Kevyn Scott after his eligibility ran out, but the Orange returned cornerbacks Ri'Shard Anderson and Keon Lyn, along with Brandon Reddish, who saw some time last season.
Against the pass, Syracuse's corners can definitely improve in their man-to-man coverage, with Anderson needing to face the ball and make a play on it, avoiding pass interference calls, while Lyn still needs to be more consistent. Reddish continues to learn, but has shown speed and hard-hitting ability when blitzing, which serves valuable against a running quarterback who will look to move fast.
The best player in coverage this season has been free safety Jeremi Wilkes, who has knocked down passes, broken up potential completions, and forced a fumble. But Wilkes was beat numerous times against Rutgers, so getting better placement when the ball is in the air will be crucial to the secondary's success. However, Wilkes cannot do it all, and the corners are responsible first and foremost for having tight coverage.
In the backfield. This is the area that defeated the Orange last season. With 14 potential receivers, the Syracuse secondary will have to learn to cover numerous different combinations, but stopping the run is crucial for the Orange to disrupt the Bulls' offense.
In their match last season, South Florida's running back Demetris Murray took two carries over the goal-line, gaining 86 yards on 17 carries for an average of a little more than five yards per carry.
Murray comes into the game with four rushing touchdowns spread about four games, with one touchdown in each of those games.
Equaling Murray on the ground is Daniels with four rushing touchdowns. Daniels has the second-most carries on the team with 82.
The Orange allowed Daniels 117 rushing yards last season and a touchdown to go with the 86 yards and two touchdowns given up to Murray.
Syracuse has gotten progressively better against the run since the second half against Stony Brook. After allowing over 170 rushing yards in the first half of that game, the Orange defense came back in the latter half to allow a mere 45 yards on the ground.
In all three of their Big East match-ups, Syracuse's defense has held the opposing rusher under 100 yards. Even better, the Orange did not allow any of their three in-conference foes to gain 100 yards as a team on the ground. Pittsburgh achieved 27 yards on 37 carries, Rutgers had 85 yards on 36 carries, and UConn fell into the negative last week with a loss of six yards through 18 carries.
But Syracuse will be facing, as previously stated, a running quarterback in Daniels, a double-threat in Murray, who is one of five Bulls to have more than 10 catches, and running backs Marcus Shaw and Lindsey Lamar. Shaw scored on the Orange defense in last season's match and Lamar comes into this game with the second-most yards on the ground for the Bulls and two touchdowns.
Though Syracuse has put together a stout run defense in the last few games, they will have to account for four rushers in this game, something they have not faced in the Big East thus far this season.
Defensively for South Florida:
The frontline. In six of seven games, the Bulls have allowed 120 yards or more against them on the ground. In two of those contests, South Florida gave up more than 200 rushing yards. The defensive line has played a big part in allowing these yards, being the first opposition to the run.
Syracuse's rushing attack has proven more than capable of wearing a defense down with a multi-faceted backfield. Jerome Smith has shown that he can go between the tackles consecutively and achieve first downs. Prince-Tyson Gulley can also get positive yardage between the tackles as well as break outside and go forward, which is where he shows his speed.
But the issue for the Orange going into this match-up is the depletion of the rest of the backfield. Adonis Ameen-Moore, who has been used close to the goal and to run down the clock is injured, along with Ashton Broyld, who also proved valuable in moving the chains in Syracuse's last game.
Moore has a touchdown in each of the team's last three games, being the Orange's best back by the goal. His absence from the game will undoubtedly affect the team's ability to move the pile for short yardage touchdowns.
The absence of Broyld puts the pressure on Smith to move the ball between the tackles alone. The changeup between Broyld and Smith gives the Orange offense two different body types as well as two different mentalities to running the ball through traffic, which they most likely will not have against the Bulls.
As far as pass rush pressure, six different defensive linemen have been involved in sacking the opposing quarterback.
The line as a whole has 18 tackles for a loss, with seven players taking down opposing players behind the line of scrimmage.
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib has to be more consistent in his positive decision-making on his feet. Before the offense awoke against UConn, Syracuse had trouble getting into the endzone. The smarter Nassib can be to know when to get out of the pocket as well as getting back to being comfortable rolling out and throwing on the run, the better off the Orange will be in avoiding losing yards and getting downfield.
However, overall tackling has not been as strong for the defensive line, as depicted by the yards they allow to opposing rushing attacks.
But despite South Florida's trouble with opposing rushing attacks, Syracuse will have to overcome the potential loss of half of their backfield.
In the middle. The two leading tackles on the team reside in the linebacker core. DeDe Lattimore and Sam Barrington account for over 100 tackles combined.
Together, they have taken down the opposing quarterback for 3.5 sacks.
Lattimore and Barrington have also been involved in pass defense, breaking up four passes combined.
Lattimore has prevented two field goal attempts by blocking those kicks, while Barrington has forced two fumbles.
Easily the most involved in every area of the defense, these linebackers have their hands in on stopping offenses in numerous ways, as described above.
Nassib will have to watch, therefore, in throwing the ball over the middle into linebacker territory. He likes to test the middle, sending passes to tight ends, wide receivers, and running backs. Syracuse has moved the ball well over the middle, but the area of concern is Nassib's repetitive nature, which defenses usually pick up on.
The secondary. No one on the Bulls' backline has recorded an interception so far this season. The defense as a whole has done a poor job of sniffing out the opposing quarterback, with no defensive player having an interception through seven games.
As a whole, the Bulls' secondary has stepped up to prevent touchdowns through the air, also, despite failing to gain interceptions.
Syracuse has many weapons to use against South Florida. Alec Lemon, Marcus Sales, and Jarrod West have proven valuable throughout the season, with Christopher Clark stepping up at times in his first season with the Orange.
Kobena will be utilized on kick returns also, which gives Syracuse speed and quick decision-making on special teams, something they have lacked more often than not.
Keys to the game:
South Florida: Stack the box by the goal-line. Without Moore, the Orange will not have as easy of a time getting the ball over the threshold. With their best goal-line presence out, South Florida's ability to stop the run early will shake up Syracuse's offense inside the red zone.
Attack the right side of the line. Right guards Ivan Foy and Rob Trudo continue to struggle with containing defenders, causing breaks in the line. Those holes cause for pressure to come Nassib's way, which have led to sacks. Also, allowing defenders through has resulted in Nassib making quick decisions, which play in favor of the defense.
Use Daniels on the run. Syracuse struggles against running quarterbacks. They gave up over 100 yards to Daniels last season. With Daniels coming into this match-up with almost 100 carries through seven games, he is going to want to run the ball and Colter of Northwestern found success in keeping the Orange defense on their toes when he faced them as a dual threat.
Syracuse: Continue to stunt the run. The Orange have had their best outings against the run when facing Big East Conference foes. They will have a test unlike any other in the conference when they line up versus the South Florida backfield and Daniels.
Being fast to the ball is imperative. With Daniels able to take off at any time, understanding his motions will give Syracuse the best opportunity to do something they have not been able to do well, stop the quarterback with legs.
Play call to your strengths. More recently, the Orange are not simply calling plays, but rather are going with what is working. Instead of taking Smith out after two respectable runs, they are leaving Smith in to continue to move the pile until it stops being effective.
Be productive on special teams. Special teams has been the weakest link of the Syracuse Orange all season. Krautman's blockers have to hold the defense to prevent blocked attempts. Krautman himself has to be the kicker he was versus UConn, where he was able to connect from beyond 40 yards. The more productive he is, the less pressure the offense will feel.
Also giving less pressure to the offense will be the punt return team in getting positive yardage when given the opportunity. Desir provided aid in this area, but with his injury, Rene will most likely get some time returning punts. Rene has to make better decisions, such as knowing to let the ball go when it is going out of bounds as well as understanding when it is best to fair catch versus attempting a return.
On kickoff returns, Kobena will give Syracuse speed that they have been lacking as well as a player who can make good decisions in traffic to elude defenders. Shortening the field for the offense lowers the pressure on them to score and gives them a better opportunity to score, something they did not have outside of their last contest against UConn.
Syracuse will answer early with a field goal. Daniels will respond with a rushing touchdown, followed by another score to bring the game to 14-3 in favor of the Bulls. The Orange will respond through the air to get the deficit down to four, at 14-10, going into halftime.
In the second half, Syracuse will get on the board first with a touchdown that will give them the lead at 17-14. From there, both teams will score again, with the game ending in favor of the Orange for their first road win of the season, 24-21.