The Syracuse Orange football program are coming off a loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats that prevented them from getting above .500 for the first time this season.
Syracuse overcame almost a two-year drought under head coach Doug Marrone of failing to win on the road in the Big East Conference when they defeated South Florida the week before, but an early push was followed by a stunted offense which resulted in a 35-24 loss to Cincinnati.
The Orange will get a break from the road when they host the Louisville Cardinals, a team that the Orange, under Marrone, have never beaten. No one this season has beaten Louisville, as the team lands in Syracuse at 9-0 on Senior Day, with the seniors looking to reside atop the Cardinals for the first time in their collegiate career.
History under head coach Charlie Strong:
A year after Marrone was tabbed as the next coach of the Orange, the Cardinals swooped in and grabbed Charlie Strong, who was with the Florida Gators as their defensive coordinator at the time.
In this his third season coaching Louisville, Strong has led the Cardinals to a 23-12 record. His inaugural season as head coach of the team in 2009-10 ended at 7-6, a record that was equaled in the following season. In both seasons, Strong aided Louisville to a bowl game and currently has a 1-1 record with the Cardinals in the NCAA postseason.
This season, Strong has already surpassed his total for most wins in one season as the head coach of Louisville as the team enters the Carrier Dome this week at 9-0 and with another trip to the postseason on the horizon.
Strong comes in with the advantage, having helped the Cardinals to defeat the Marrone-led Orange in every opportunity he has gotten, standing firm with a 3-0 record.
Offensively for Louisville:
At the helm.Teddy Bridgewater has been called "the best quarterback that we'll have faced this year to this point because he can do so much," by Marrone. "He can beat you with his feet, running the football vertically down the field and getting first downs, or literally running the football in a scheme to pick up large amounts of yardage," added Marrone.
Though the stats do not always show it, Bridgewater utilizes his feet to open up the offense for the Cardinals. Dual-threat quarterbacks have been an issue for the Orange all season. Kain Colter of Northwestern did not have as big a game, stats wise, as B.J. Daniels or Munchie Legaux, but his feet helped keep the Syracuse defense on their toes. Daniels had over 100 rushing yards versus the Orange before the second half was even played. Legaux was able to get the best of the Syracuse defense at times the following week, along with backup quarterbacks Jordan Luallen and Brendon Kay. In these three games against a quarterback who used his feet to help his teammates and move his respective offense, the Orange have only been able to get one victory, and it took a final drive that ended in the final three seconds of the game to do so. Bridgewater has a good opportunity to move the chains with his feet if past is prologue, which it has been so far this season with the Syracuse defense, so look for him to attempt the run and use it to throw off the defense at other times.
"He has, from what I've seen on film, the best touch on the deep ball," stated Marrone of Bridgewater's ability to get the ball downfield through the air. Bridgewater has had a passing play of 30 yards or more in seven of the Cardinals' nine games. In the other two games, his longest passing plays were 27 yards (versus Kentucky) and 29 (against Southern Mississippi).
In four games this season, Bridgewater has enacted passing plays of 55 yards or more and in two of those games had a passing play of more than 70 yards. The last time Bridgewater gained more than 70 yards on one passing play was last week, versus Temple.
The Syracuse secondary did show improvement in coverage last week when they intercepted Cincinnati once and could have had more if not for botched opportunities where they got their hands on the ball but did not come up with it. Despite dropping the ball, literally, on gaining more interceptions, the Orange exhibited better reads on the quarterback and stayed in time with their receivers to get into the passing lane and stop a potential gain.
More importantly, it was not simply cornerback Keon Lyn making plays against the passing game last week, as fellow cornerbacks Ri'Shard Anderson and Brandon Reddish both negated opportunities for the Bearcats' offense to keep moving.
On the receiving end. "This team will challenge us more than any team we've faced up to this point vertically down the field," expressed Marrone. Bridgewater has connected with five different players on passing plays that went at least 50 yards. Three of those players were receivers, while one was a tight end and another came over from the defense, where he plays cornerback.
The three aforementioned receivers are DeVante Parker, who currently has the longest reception play with Bridgewater this season on a 75-yard touchdown play and leads the team in receiving yards with 509; Damian Copeland, who resides above all receivers with 33 catches, adding 414 receiving yards; and Andrell Smith who, like Parker and Copeland, has more than 20 receptions this season, while having 344 receiving yards. This receiving core may very well be the toughest to defend for Syracuse since playing against the USC receiving core, led by Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.
After struggling versus the tight end position last week when they faced Travis Kelce of Cincinnati, it will not be getting any easier for the Syracuse secondary. At 6'5", 232-pounds, Ryan Hubbell pits the Orange opposite another big tight end, built to take hits and keep moving. On a mere nine receptions this season, Hubbell has 163 yards. He was on the receiving end of the team's second-longest passing play this season, which ended inside the end zone for a score after 72 yards.
The wildcat receiver is Charles Gaines, the previously-mentioned cornerback who has been involved in Louisville's passing game. Gaines has a touchdown and has attained 172 receiving yards so far this season. His ability to play the cornerback position gives him an advantage of understanding how to defend the receiver position, which could create a unique match-up with the Orange secondary. But this may be erased if Gaines' questionable status for the game turns into him sitting out.
Syracuse has rarely been able to shut down receivers across the field. Typically, no player is completely taken out of the game by the Syracuse secondary, including with teams like Stony Brook, that only boasted of one key target in their entire passing game. Lyn, Anderson, and Reddish would all have to duplicate their stops versus the Bearcats and then one-up plays like those that should have been interceptions in order to give the Orange a chance at a win. Also, strong safety Shamarko Thomas would have to hit the Louisville receivers, in a legal manner, hard enough to scare them into not wanting to catch the ball. Free safety Jeremi Wilkes will have to continue his aid in the passing game and get to the receivers quicker when the cornerbacks lag on plays.
In the backfield. "They run the ball well, enough to keep it off track with their play-action," said Marrone, keying in on the fact that their running game helps to establish the pass and make defenses have to prepare for anything to happen, rather than play against a one-dimensional offense.
Rather, with a running quarterback, deep ball/multiple receiver, strong backfield offense, the Orange will have plenty to cover in a three-dimensional attack coming from the Cardinals.
Between Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright are almost 1,400 rushing yards through nine games. More importantly, the two have combined for 20 touchdowns on the ground, Perry with 11 and Wright with nine. Both have remained more consistent than not, scoring in seven of Louisville's nine games.
Perry and Wright also have the advantage of the Syracuse defense not seeing too much of them last season, when each carried the ball a mere three times.
The Orange defense became a strong, shutdown unit as a whole against the run from the second half versus Stony Brook all the way through their match with UConn, winning three of those five games. Within the five games, Syracuse played their first three conference matches, in which they prevented a 100-yard rusher or 100-yard total team rushing attack.
But since then, the Orange have left gaping holes, had poor tackling, and have not been as fast as the rushing attacks they have faced. They allowed South Florida and Cincinnati to not only surpass 100 yards rushing, but gave the Bulls more than 350 yards and the Bearcats in excess of 250 yards on the ground. The difference between their first three Big East opponents and their last two? A running quarterback, because Syracuse has trouble getting a jump on the ball carrier and stopping them early when the quarterback can run as well as dump it off to a respectable running backfield. All of the Orange defense will need to be smart in their reads, make good decisions on where they move to, and get their fast to prevent another 250-plus ground performance against them for the third-straight week.
Overall.Louisville is a little over 50% on third down for the season, but they are a team that is willing to go for it on fourth down. In 10 tries on the offense's final down, the Cardinals have achieved a first down eight times, making them 80% effective on fourth down. They are also 97% effective in the red zone, where they have scored on 38 of 39 opportunities; 30 of those 38 were for touchdowns.
Louisville's most productive time on the field throughout nine games have been in the second quarter, where they have scored almost 30 points more than their second best quarter, which is the first quarter, meaning Syracuse must stop them early as the Cardinals tend to be less successful in scoring as the game progresses.
Defensively for Louisville:
On the frontline.Defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin is still out definitely due to injury, a big blow to the Cardinals' line being without their sack leader with 4.5 sacks, while fellow defensive end B.J. Dubose's status is questionable going into this game.
Defensive end Marcus Smith has been the most effective defensive lineman for Louisville at taking down opponents, attaining 23 tackles, six for a loss, including three sacks. Smith has also forced two fumbles, hit the quarterback twice, broken up a pass, and intercepted a pass, showing his ability to affect the passing game, also.
Defensive linemen Deiontrez Mount, Brandon Dunn, and Roy Philon have all affected the passing game by sacking the opposing quarterback as well as either hitting the quarterback or breaking up a pass, displaying how the line shares responsibility of stopping the pass.
Syracuse's frontline on the offensive side have failed in the last few games to protect quarterback Ryan Nassib as well as they had earlier on. The right side used to be the weakest stop, but now, the offensive line has allowed defenders to break through from the left, middle, and right side. Shoring up the line is imperative in any game, especially against a Louisville line has multiple playmakers.
In the middle.Preston, Keith, and Daniel Brown were all expected to make an impact this season at the linebacker position. Daniel Brown's time on the field has been limited due to an unspecified injury. But Preston Brown and Keith Brown have been in all nine games and are also in the top three for Louisville in tackles. However, the Browns have had trouble tackling opponents behind the line, gaining a mere 1.5 tackles for a loss each through nine matches. They have also had difficulty taking down the opposing quarterback, both looking for their first sack despite hitting the opposing man under center.
Teammate George Durant is the only Cardinals' linebacker that is active going into the game that has gotten to the quarterback for a sack.
The running game, when the Orange stay with it, has been able to literally carry drives. With the linebacker core failing to get players down behind the line of scrimmage, Syracuse stands to establish their run game versus Louisville as the team has a powerful runner in Jerome Smith and will have their pile driver, Adonis Ameen-Moore, available for the first time since they played UConn on October 19th. Add in the quick moves and good vision of Prince-Tyson Gulley and Ashton Broyld and the Orange will make the Cardinals work this weekend.
Louisville's defense has had trouble slowing opposing rushing attacks that have multiple options. They allowed just under 200 yards on the ground to both South Florida and Cincinnati before giving up over 250 to Temple last week.
With a deep and talented backfield, Syracuse need to gain the advantage in this area in order to move the ball and also open up the passing game for Nassib to give the team multiple areas that Louisville will need to defend.
The secondary.Keeping with the linebackers for one last note, they have been able to read the pass, with Preston Brown attaining an interception. With Brown playing the middle linebacker position, Nassib needs to be careful and precise with his passes over the middle.
Safety Calvin Pryor along with cornerbacks Adrian Bushell and Terell Floyd have all intercepted the opposing quarterback, so Nassib will have to also watch closely to see where these players are and make sure to give the receiver the best play on the ball, instead of forcing the ball into traffic, like he does at times.
Add in safety Hakeem Smith with Pryor, Bushell, and Floyd and you have almost 20 pass breakups, so the Syracuse receivers will need to get themselves as free as they can, be conscious of where their defender is, and exhibit good hands.
As good as Nassib is at times, he also falters on drives, leaving the Orange with quick three-and-outs. The more established the run game is, the less stress Nassib should have, which should lead to less forced passes.
But the Orange receivers need to do their job, too. There are so many talented players that can utilized in the team's passing attack, from wide receiver to tight end and running back. The most trustworthy hands lie with wide receiver Alec Lemon, tight end Beckett Wales, and the rusher Gulley. They find ways to free themselves, along with wide receiver Marcus Sales, more often than not, and they will each need to put in the effort on every down, as well as their teammates, because the Cardinals have more than one player that can cover, so Nassib will need options. On Nassib's end, he needs to stop forcing passes into spaces where there are many bodies and the ball can be tipped.
Along with coverage, Louisville also uses its secondary to blitz. Both Floyd and safety Jermaine Reve have taken down the opposing quarterback, so the Orange running backs need to pick up the blitz better so as to not end up as the next team to allow the blitz to take away a down. They have done a poor job as of late, and with the struggles with the offensive line in protection, those failures to block incoming attackers need to be minimized as much as possible in order to give Nassib an opportunity to move the offense forward, instead of being moved backward.
Keys to the game:
Louisville: Play better vs. the run.With Smith, Gulley, Moore, and Broyld all healthy, the Cardinals are facing yet another multi-talented backfield. Giving up around 200 yards per game if not more in their past three outings cannot be duplicated in this game if Louisville wants to remain unbeaten. Despite winning all three of those games, two of them were won by a field goal or less, and one took overtime. Letting Syracuse run wild is rolling the die yet again, and they may not come up snake eyes this time.
Blitz.As previously stated, the Orange are not picking up extra attackers, so sending one of the members of the secondary that have been successful can help stunt the Syracuse offense if the backfield continues to fail to block free defenders.
Use all rushers.Syracuse has been left chasing opposing offenses who have had running quarterbacks along with respectable runners. More often than not, when the Orange fail to contain running quarterbacks, they end up in the loss column. Running and also faking the run is, therefore, of top priority for the Louisville offense.
Test the secondary.The Orange had good reads on some throws last week from Legaux, but more often than not are left trying to tackle after the catch is made. Targeting each member of the Syracuse secondary will mean each member of the Orange will have to continue reading the quarterback well and stay with their assignments, something they struggle to do.
Syracuse: Establish the run.Going away from the run is not an option. The run allows Nassib to have somewhere to turn if the pass is not working. If it is, it gives the offense a different look to catch the defense. There is way too much talent and skill in the Orange backfield, each of which have had success, that not handing the ball off essentially trying to lose.
Use the double-threat offense throughout.The best offense is that which is well-balanced. Sometimes Syracuse leans so heavily in the pass that end drives in quick three-and-outs. Utilizing both, along with playaction, in each quarter will show both the Syracuse players and the Louisville defense that you have faith in each piece of the offense, which will help the mentality of the offense and force the Cardinals to respect the run and the pass.
Hit Bridgewater early.Daniels, Legaux, Luallen, and Kay all became comfortable running the ball against the Orange, which led to over 700 rushing yards given up by Syracuse in the last two weeks. Getting to Bridgewater early and hitting him legally but hard can help the Orange establish some fear in Bridgewater of testing them later on in the game; respect is earned.
Condense the run.Against two strong rushers in Perry and Wright, you will probably not stop them completely. But, getting to the run early and quickly with strong hits can help condense what Louisville does on the ground, helping to slow an element of the Cardinals' offense, giving the Orange less to defend against.
Prediction:Syracuse usually wins one game against a team that comes into the game on the national radar, but it will not happen this time. The running quarterback quandary has not been answered all season by the Orange and Bridgewater will not make it any easier. He is the best at the run and the deep ball that Syracuse has faced at this point in the season and those that have not been as successful as Bridgewater have had much success against the Orange. Louisville breaks out early and holds on, 42-21.