Kickoff: 7:00 p.m. ET (Friday), ESPN
Spread: Louisville -18, O/U 56.5 (Bovada)
The big three of Cunningham, Hawkins, and Atwell all had career outings against the Orange on Senior Day last year. Cunningham accounted for six Louisville touchdowns (five via pass), Hawkins had 233 rushing yards, and Atwell had 152 yards receiving with two touchdowns. The Cardinals put up a season-high 608 total yards, as Louisville rolled to a 56-34 win over Syracuse.
Louisville leads the all-time series 11-7, having won eight of the last ten in the series dating back to 2009.
Meet the 2020 Syracuse Orange
After finishing 10-3 with a top-15 ranking in the final AP poll of the 2018 season, Syracuse has been struggling to get out of the bottom tier of the ACC. The Orange finished 5-7 last year and missed out on bowl eligibility, losing five of their last seven to end the season.
2020 has not fared well for Syracuse, either. The Orange are 1-7 heading into Friday’s game, their lone win coming against Georgia Tech on September 26th.
Offensive Players to Know: WR Taj Harris, RB Sean Tucker
To put it bluntly, Syracuse has been dealing with a lot of injuries, at a lot of key positions. One of those was starting quarterback Tommy DeVito, who suffered a season-ending injury in a loss against Duke last month. Syracuse will also be without its top three running backs and five scholarship offensive linemen.
All that, combined with an offensive line that is allowing four sacks per game, is why Syracuse enters Friday’s game 123rd in total offense on 4.4 yards per play.
Wide receiver Taj Harris has been one of the lone bright spots on the Syracuse offense, leading the team in almost every major receiving category (36 receptions, 504 yards, four touchdowns). He had a solid 2019 season as the #2 receiver behind Trishton Jackson, but could have had better numbers and a better NFL Draft spotlight if it wasn’t for Syracuse’s troubles at quarterback this year. He’s a pretty solid all around receiver with vertical potential, averaging over 20 yards per reception in three games this season.
Sean Tucker will likely handle responsibilities at running back with Syracuse’s numerous injuries at the position. The true freshman has two 100-yard games (Georgia Tech and Liberty) with some impressive speed and burst through the first level. They also have Nykeim Johnson — a wide receiver — taking reps at running backs on handoffs or direct snaps, giving Syracuse plenty of speed in the backfield that Louisville should be preparing for.
Defensive Players to Know: LB Mikel Jones, CB Garrett Williams, DL McKinley Williams
Injuries and departures have also depleted the Syracuse defense significantly. The Orange had to replace three senior defensive linemen from last year, and star defensive backs Andre Cisco and Trill Williams both opted out of the season for the 2021 NFL Draft. The latter is resulting in Syracuse starting four first-year players in the secondary.
The departures of Cisco and Trill Williams also leave Syracuse without any players that can create turnovers. After starting the season with 14 forced turnovers in the first four games, Syracuse has had three takeaways in the last four (including zero in their last two against Wake Forest and Boston College).
Despite a very depleted roster on the defensive side of the ball, Syracuse has had some respectable performances. They held Boston College to 16 points in their last game and made enough stops in the mid-portion of their game against Clemson to cut it to one possession (before the Tigers ultimately pulled away).
Linebacker Mikel Jones should be a centerpiece of the Orange defense in the coming years, he’s had an outstanding season in almost every facet of the game. Jones leads the team in tackles (56), interceptions (three), QB hurries (five), and forced fumbles (two). He’s a well-rounded linebacker that can pose problems for a Louisville team trying to run its offense with a new RB1, and in play-action if Louisville wants to get Marshon Ford more involved in the gameplan.
I think cornerback Garrett Williams also has the potential to be a really good piece for the Orange defense in 2021. He had a pick six against Clemson and has been okay in coverage, all things considered with their inexperience in the secondary. He’ll likely draw the primary assignment for Dez Fitzpatrick outside, which will especially be important if Tutu Atwell isn’t available for Friday’s game.
With Louisville’s relative lack of success in avoiding negative plays, it’s fair to highlight Syracuse’s defensive line. The unit has three seniors and it’s top two contributors (McKinley Williams and Cody Roscoe) have combined for ten TFLs this season, on a defense that is averaging five per game. Syracuse only averages 1.6 sacks per game though, so they haven’t been as successful in pass rush all season.
Points of Interest:
- Where will the big plays come from?
Louisville’s offense could once again be without its top playmakers on Friday. Running back Javian Hawkins chose to opt out of the remaining games in preparation for the NFL Draft, and Tutu Atwell is currently dealing with a back injury that could sideline him for a second straight game.
Hassan Hall will likely be the new RB1 for Louisville’s final three games, and I think Louisville fans should be confident in Hall’s ability as a runner. He’s already proven to be a dynamic playmaker through his efforts on special teams, and he’s definitely got the speed to accelerate through gaps and get to the second level quickly. Hall can also be an effective receiver out of the backfield, but that ultimately comes down to Louisville wanting to use a short / quick passing game which they haven’t done much of this year.
Speaking of the passing game, what does Louisville do if Tutu Atwell can’t play? Malik Cunningham made a lot of plays with his feet and kept drives going with his scrambles against Virginia. However, turnovers and untimely sacks held them back, and Louisville can’t afford either of those issues against Syracuse.
They did have success last year against Syracuse through an explosive passing attack, and I think they should lean on that again on Friday. Braden Smith could pose some matchup problems in the slot if Atwell isn’t available and Dez Fitzpatrick and Marshon Ford are also experienced players that matchup well against a young Syracuse secondary. As long as Malik Cunningham can avoid pushing the ball into unnecessary windows (or by extension, Louisville avoiding turnovers in general), the opportunity is there for Louisville to have a productive day.
- Can Louisville’s front seven be disruptive?
If there ever was a plus matchup for Louisville’s defense this year, it’s this one. Syracuse is going to have true freshman JaCobian Morgan make his second start at quarterback on Friday, and as mentioned before, the team has a lot of injuries at running back and on the offensive line.
Louisville’s front seven has a lot of experience and has proven at times that they can get negative plays and get stops on third-and-long, particularly against quarterbacks that have accuracy issues and / or suffer from bad offensive lines. They have to get pressure on Morgan and force him to either throw it away or into tight windows for a potential takeaway. Getting third-and-longs will be crucial, as the Orange are converting just 23.9% of all third downs this season.