Spread: Louisville -10
Kickoff: 4:00 p.m. ET, ACC Network
#13 Syracuse added another decimating low to the 2018 Louisville football season, defeating the Cardinals 54-23 on Senior Day. Moe Neal reached a career-high 159 yards with two touchdowns on just eight carries, and Syracuse’s defense forced four Louisville turnovers (all on consecutive drives). The Orange running game exploded for 326 rushing yards against the Cardinals, and Louisville recorded a season-high 17 penalties in what turned out to be Bobby Petrino’s final game as head coach.
Louisville leads the all-time series 10-7. All ten of Louisville’s wins have come in the last 14 games of the series, dating back to 2003.
Meet the 2019 Syracuse Orange
Syracuse had all the stars aligned for a potentially big season; a promising young quarterback in Tommy Devito, playmakers at running back and wide receiver, two talented pass rushers, and best of all, they got Clemson at home this year. With how close Syracuse had played Clemson the last two seasons, one could have expected the Orange to possibly be in line for a New Year’s Six bowl.
That all went out the window after Maryland annihilated Syracuse 63-20 in week two, which also took the Orange out of the Top 25 polls. Clemson then added salt to the wound with a resounding 41-6 win in the Carrier Dome the following week. They also had a four-game losing streak in conference play before snapping it last week against Duke, blowing the Blue Devils out 49-6.
Syracuse enters Saturday’s game with a 4-6 record, needing to win out to secure bowl eligibility.
Key Offensive Players: WR Trishton Jackson, QB Tommy Devito
The Dino Babers era has consistently produced wide receivers that are among the conference leaders in receiving stats, as well as guys that are breaking school records. Amba Etta-Tawo did both in 2016, leading the ACC and setting a new Syracuse single-season record with 1,482 receiving yards, as well as tying the school single-season touchdowns record (14). Steve Ishmael set a new single-season school record with 105 receptions in 2017, and finished his four-year career at Syracuse as the all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards. Jamal Custis didn’t break a ton of school records that I’m aware of, but he was still among the conference leaders last season with 906 yards as a top deep threat option for a high-powered Syracuse offense.
To no one’s surprise, Syracuse’s strongest position group on offense is at wide receiver. Trishton Jackson has been the go-to guy in the offense, leading the Orange in receiving yards (848) and touchdowns (nine) by a wide margin. The Michigan State transfer is top five in the ACC in both categories and averaging 16 yards per catch, which is also top 15 in the conference. He’s hands down their most consistent option at the position, getting 5+ catches in 7-of-10 games this season (and even last week against Duke, he still had a long catch that helped set up Syracuse’s first touchdown). He has a very well-rounded skill set as both a deep threat and route runner, and one that should give Louisville’s secondary a good challenge on Saturday.
(Sidebar; Jackson’s cousin is Braylon Edwards, who was drafted third overall in 2005 by the Cleveland Browns. And in an interesting twist, the Syracuse uniforms look very identical to the Browns themselves. That completes the six degrees of separation for this article).
Aside from Jackson, the Orange have a couple options in the passing game that should be on the lookout. Sean Riley led the Orange in receptions last season (64), and is the slot receiver in the offense, he could be due for a breakout game against Louisville. Tight end Aaron Hackett is a proven red zone threat with five touchdowns on 19 catches this year, and running back Moe Neal is fourth on the team with 25 catches. Neal is also coming off his second 100-yard rushing game of 2019 against Duke last week.
Quarterback Tommy Devito came into 2019 with a ton of expectations. The four-star recruit was one of the top pro-style quarterbacks in the 2017 class, and was taking over Eric Dungey after his predecessor became the most productive quarterback in Syracuse football history (statistically speaking). He’s had an up-and-down season, completing 62.9% of his passes for 2,180 yards. While most of his numbers are among the middle-of-the-pack in the ACC, he has gone five straight games without throwing an interception. Being that efficient with the football is a good start against a Louisville defense that is 12th in the ACC in passing yards per game (257 YPG), and allowed more passing touchdowns (27) than anyone in the conference this season.
Key Defensive Players: S Andre Cisco, LB Lakiem Williams
One of the main reasons that Syracuse was a preseason top 25 team was also because they returned a lot of playmakers on defense. Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson returned to upstate New York after tallying ten sacks each in 2018, giving the Orange one of the ACC’s best edge rush duos heading into the season. Safety Andre Cisco was also named a preseason All-American after an outstanding freshman season.
Coleman and Robinson have 7.5 sacks combined this season, but they are second and third on the team in tackles for loss with 9.0 and 7.5, respectively. Cisco remains as consistent as he was last season, fourth on the team in tackles (47) and leads Syracuse with three interceptions. Cisco is a very well-rounded player that is comfortable in either pass coverage or run support, which should make him one of the top safeties in the 2021 draft class.
Linebacker Lakiem Williams has been the breakout performer on Syracuse’s defense this season, leading the team with 91 combined tackles and ten for a loss. Williams is a solid run stuffing linebacker that can shed through blockers and get into the backfield.
One More Important Thing to Know
If you want to win in this series, pile on the points. The winner of the Louisville – Syracuse game has scored 40+ points in five of the last six games.
Can Louisville’s front seven control the game?
Syracuse recently made some personnel changes on the offensive line, part of an effort to improve a unit that has allowed more sacks (46) than anyone in the FBS.
I am very intrigued as to how Syracuse’s offense will approach this game against a Louisville defense that has had 12 sacks against Power Five competition. If Louisville is able to get pressure on Tommy Devito, they should be able to get off the field and maybe even force a few turnovers. The last part sort of flies in the face of Devito’s underrated efficiency as a quarterback, but anything is possible if you can consistently get pressure.
If Syracuse is able to buy some time for Devito though, I could see them being able to have success like Miami did two weeks ago. The Orange have a few options at their disposal in the passing game, including the aforementioned Jackson and Taj Harris, both whom are averaging over 16 yards per catch. Downfield passing could be a big point of success for Syracuse, but again, it all depends on if Syracuse can protect Devito.
But what makes it even more intriguing is the possibility that Syracuse could continue their run-heavy gameplan from last week against Duke. The Orange tallied season-highs of 286 rushing yards and 6.65 yards per carry in their win over the Blue Devils last week, and only attempted 16 passes in the game. It’s unlikely that they will have another run/pass split of near 75/25 against Louisville, but even a 65/35 split and continuing to utilize running back Moe Neal more could go a long way towards Syracuse upsetting the Cardinals.
Louisville has to avoid turnovers to spark another big offensive showing
Louisville is coming off its second game with zero turnovers in the last three outings, and in both games, they’ve managed to win. That is a good sign for the Cardinals, as they get ready to face an Orange team that is third in the ACC in turnover margin (+7).
If Louisville can continue to play clean football and avoid turnovers, the opportunity is there for the offense to have a big day. Syracuse has the second worst rush defense (189.8 YPG) in the conference, and Louisville has the third highest rushing offense (199 YPG) coming into Saturday. The Orange have also allowed 200+ rushing yards in four of their six losses this season, so it is imperative that Louisville can get its running game established against Syracuse. If left tackle Mekhi Becton comes back to play, that would obviously help the Cardinals offense out.
Will Tutu Atwell have another big outing?
Louisville’s running game might be the biggest focal point for their offense (both all season and in Saturday’s game), but the biggest surprise is that a Louisville wide receiver could have a 1,000-yard season. Tutu Atwell currently sits at 920 receiving yards, needing 80 more to become the first Louisville wide receiver since 2007 to reach 1,000. If Atwell can do that and get a touchdown in the final three games, he would be the second Louisville receiver in history to have 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in a season (Arnold Jackson accomplished the same feat in 1998).
Atwell has been fantastic in the last three games, reeling in 5+ catches and 110+ yards with a touchdown in each of them. He’ll likely be the focal point once again in the Louisville passing game, but another big game from him would also give the Louisville offense a potential to put up 40, even 50 points in the game. And as the stat above indicates in the Louisville – Syracuse series lately, that is a good thing.