Kickoff: Noon ET, RSN
Spread: Louisville -3, O/U 55.5 (Caesars Sportsbook)
Both Syracuse and Louisville had three turnovers apiece, but it was the Louisville defense that held its ground. The Cardinals held the Orange to 137 total yards, three sacks, and 1-of-10 on third downs. Malik Cunningham led the offense with 240 total yards and two total touchdowns (one pass, one rush), as Louisville pitched a 30-0 shutout victory over Syracuse.
Louisville leads the all-time series 12-7. Louisville has won nine of the last 11 games, dating back to 2009.
2021 Syracuse Orange at a Glance
Entering 2021 on the hot seat, sixth year head coach Dino Babers has kept Syracuse competitive and in position for bowl eligibility with their next win. The Orange are 5-4 heading into Saturday’s game with a notable non-conference win over Liberty, and riding a current two-game win streak, beating Virginia Tech and Boston College.
Syracuse Offense Breakdown
The Syracuse offense in 2020 was, to put it lightly, tough to watch. The Orange averaged 265 total yards per game last year (125th out of 127 FBS schools; second-worst in Power Five), and were hamstrung by an offensive line that had significant troubles across the board, along with accuracy issues at QB.
To his credit, Babers made significant changes to the offense this season to utilize his playmakers. The offense shifted from a pass-heavy, receiver-dependent style to a more run-oriented philosophy. This has allowed the offensive line to make substantial improvements over the season; according to Football Outsiders, Syracuse is 19th in the FBS in opportunity rate, with a whopping 53.7% of their carries going four or more yards. Additionally, Football Outsiders’ run blocking metrics has the Orange offensive line ranked top 30 in nearly every single category, including 12th in average line yards.
The improved run blocking has allowed running back Sean Tucker to showcase his skills on full display. Tucker is averaging over six yards per carry, and the blocking has led to him getting to the second level very easily. He’s a strong back that’s tough to bring down in one-on-one situations, and he has great burst to get to the second level quickly. He’s also a reliable receiver out of the backfield, currently tied for second on the team in receptions (16), yards (238), and averaging 14.9 yards per catch. He’s 105 yards away from breaking the single-season school record, so that will be on watch for Saturday.
Babers also gave the running game a boost when he landed Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader, who eventually was named starter over incumbent Tommy DeVito. Though Shrader has had accuracy issues from the pocket, he is a very capable athlete in space and can definitely create plays with his feet. Shrader is averaging 5.6 yards per carry with 13 rushing touchdowns, and he’s been efficient with a 7:3 TD-to-INT ratio.
Syracuse’s offense took a huge blow when all-conference receiver Taj Harris decided to enter the transfer portal. That left the Orange without their usual playmaker at receiver they’ve always had in the Dino Babers era. Freshmen Courtney Jackson and Damien Alford (nine rec., 207 yards, two TDs) are the leading receivers at the position, and Jackson looks the most impressive of the two. Jackson can make tough catches in traffic and is a decent route runner. He also filled in as a returner when specialist Trebor Pena suffered a season-ending injury, and had a punt return touchdown against Boston College.
The best thing for Syracuse is that their big three of Shrader, Tucker, and Jackson are all sophomores or freshmen on eligibility. That could lead to another big season for the Orange down the line.
Players to Watch: RB Sean Tucker (6.3 yards per carry, 1,267 yards, 11 TDs); QB Garrett Shrader (51% completion; 1,789 total yards, 20 TDR); WR Courtney Jackson (28 rec., 297 yards, TD)
Syracuse Defense Breakdown
Due to Syracuse’s lack of offensive production last season, the defense was put in a precarious spot several times. That led to the Orange being ranked 112th in total defense in 2020, even with a +3 turnover margin.
And, much like the offense’s improvement, the defense has improved significantly from year to year. Syracuse leads the ACC in total defense heading into Saturday (316.7 yards per game; 15th in FBS), sacks (33; T-4th in FBS), and tackles for loss (68; T-13th). They’ve also only allowed two opponents (Florida State and Virginia Tech) to rush for over 200 yards, and only Wake Forest has thrown for over 300 yards against Syracuse.
The staff has done a tremendous job at getting playmakers in the front seven, and it has kept the Orange in every single game this season. Linebacker Stefon Thompson is a wrecking ball in the front seven, a guy that will just fly around and make plays in the backfield. He, along with Marlowe Wax (seven TFLs, four sacks, one forced fumble) and Mikel Jones (team-high 79 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, two sacks), form a young, talented linebacker trio that should build a solid foundation for the Orange.
Edge rushers Cody Roscoe and Kingsley Jonathan are veterans that have combined for 12.5 sacks this season, with Roscoe pushing for a potential all-conference season.
The secondary is full of young guys as well, but a lot of them have proven to make plays for the Orange when necessary. Darian Chestnut leads the team in interceptions (two), and has five pass break-ups this season. Chestnut is also among the team leaders in tackles and doesn’t shy away from contact, which could make him the next star in the Syracuse secondary in 2-3 years time.
Garrett Williams leads the team with eight pass breakups, and then three more guys (Justin Barron, Adrian Cole, Eric Coley) all have three PBUs apiece.
Players to Watch: LB Stefon Thompson (59 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles); DL Cody Roscoe (11 TFLs, 8.5 sacks); DB Darian Chestnut (36 tackles, five PBUs, two INTs)
Keys to the Game:
- Can Louisville’s front seven neutralize the Syracuse offensive line?
The key to this game could not be any more transparent for Louisville’s defense. The front seven has to find a way to neutralize Syracuse’s offensive line, contain their running game, and force Shrader into third-and-long situations.
Additionally, this will be important for Louisville heading into the later stages of the game. A team like Syracuse is very capable of wearing down defenders and being able to take over in the fourth quarter, which is why the Orange have yet to be blown out by any team this season (though they’ve had their share of brutal losses in 2021). Considering Louisville’s own struggles with execution in the fourth quarter, they will have to buckle down and prevent Syracuse from getting to third-and-manageable as often as possible.
- Will Louisville’s rushing game set the tone for its offense?
It’s a matchup of strength versus strength when Louisville has the ball. Louisville’s offensive line has given up the second-fewest sacks, and third-fewest TFLs in the ACC, while Syracuse’s defense leads the conference in those categories.
Louisville did a fairly good job at establishing the run against a talented Clemson front seven last weekend, so I think the key for them is trying to do the same thing against Syracuse.
Syracuse’s defense has struggled the most against mobile quarterbacks; Florida State rushed for 247 yards on 6.7 yards per carry, with quarterback Jordan Travis rushing for 116. Liberty also had its moments against them with Malik Willis, who Babers compared Malik Cunningham to earlier this week.
Suffice to say, Malik Cunningham will once again be the key for Louisville in this one. If he can establish the tone with his feet and avoid the pressure that Syracuse will bring, it should give Louisville some openings in the passing game to work with. However, Louisville will need to get more out of its passing game to maximize their offense. The Cardinals have completed 32-of-69 passes in their last three outings, though Cunningham does have 443 rushing yards and five touchdowns in that same span.