Kickoff: 8:00 p.m. ET
How to Watch / Listen: ACC Network (TV), 93.9 The Ville (FM)
Spread: Louisville -4.5, O/U 57.5 (as of Tuesday 8/30, per BetMGM)
On a day where Louisville officially retired Lamar Jackson’s No. 8 forever, the Cardinals delivered a beatdown of Syracuse at Cardinal Stadium. Malik Cunningham had a stellar outing, completing 13-of-18 passes for 209 yards, and was responsible for five total touchdowns (four passing, one rushing). Jalen Mitchell added 102 yards on the ground, while the Louisville defense held Syracuse to 184 total yards (including a season-low 46 passing). Scoring 35 first-half points, Louisville was able to cruise to a decisive 41-3 win over the Orange.
Louisville leads the all-time series 13-7. Since 2010, Louisville has won 9 of the last 11 games against Syracuse. The margins in those games haven’t been close, either; each game since 2010 has been decided by 17+ points, with Louisville winning the last three in the series by an average margin of 30 points.
Entering the Game: Syracuse
Syracuse finished the 2021 season at 5-7, losing their final three games against Louisville, NC State, and Pitt to miss out on bowl eligibility. Like Louisville, Syracuse had its share of back-breaking losses in October. The Orange lost three straight games at Florida State, and at home against Wake Forest and Clemson, all by three points.
Dino Babers returns for his seventh season as head coach of the Orange, holding a 29-43 record in his tenure.
Syracuse Offense: What to Know
Syracuse had arguably the strongest rushing attack in the ACC last season, averaging a conference-high 213.5 yards per game on 5.2 yards per game. Of course, you’ll have to look towards RB Sean Tucker (1,496 yards, 6.1 YPC, 12 TDs) and QB Garrett Shrader (781 yards, 4.5 YPC, 14 TDs) as the leaders of that offense.
However, for how strong their rushing attack was, their passing game left a lot to be desired. The Orange were at the bottom in passing yards per game (153 YPG), and second-to-last in yards per attempt (6.4). Syracuse is hoping that new offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who arrives from a Virginia squad that led the ACC in passing last season, will help the passing game improve.
As for personnel, Syracuse has a lot coming back. It all starts with running back Sean Tucker, who is a likely All-ACC candidate and a potential dark horse for Offensive Player of the Year. He had nine 100-yard games last season, and should once again be the focal point of the Orange offense. He’s an ultra tough back that can handle heavy workloads and is an explosive runner, particularly inside the tackles. I think with new offensive coordinator Robert Anae, there’s opportunity for Tucker to show more as a receiver. 28 career receptions isn’t terrible for an RB1 entering his third season of college, but showing more as a receiver could put Tucker up there with Jahmyr Gibbs (Alabama) and Bijan Robinson (Texas) as a potential high-round back in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Tucker will have a strong offensive line to work with. The Orange had a 74.1% power success rate on Football Outsiders’ advanced OL metrics (35th in FBS) and 24th in average line yards, spearheaded by the talented left tackle Matthew Bergeron. The lessened focus on the passing game helped Syracuse limit its sack totals last season, but they still ranked 120th in sack rate (10%). Syracuse will have to get better protecting the quarterback with the new scheme that Anae is bringing in.
Garrett Shrader returns as the starting quarterback, and with Tommy DeVito now at Illinois, he’s the undisputed QB1 entering 2022. Shrader is a good athlete that can make plays with his feet, but will need to show more as a pure passer to help Syracuse fulfill its potential on offense. Shrader only completed 52.6% of his passes, and in the second half of last season struggled with accuracy. Better protection from the offensive line should help Shrader be more comfortable in the pocket, but the bottom line is Syracuse will need to show growth in the passing game to some extent.
Syracuse has usually had 1-2 reliable receivers in the Dino Babers era. Bank on it being Courtney Jackson in 2022, who led the team in receiving (37 rec., 389 yards, three TDs) last season. He’s a good route runner and has solid hands on the perimeter. Devaughn Cooper was listed as the starter next to Jackson at WR; he’s an experienced receiver from his days at Arizona and UTEP, he and Damien Alford (13 rec., 249 yards, two TDs) should compete for bigger reps with Taj Harris now at Rutgers.
Players to Watch: RB Sean Tucker (1,496 yards, 6.1 YPC, 12 TDs); LT Matthew Bergeron (28 straight starts at left tackle entering 2022)
Syracuse Defense: What to Know
Syracuse returns a majority of starters from a defense that finished 18th nationally in yards allowed per game (330.3 YPG), and 24th in yards per play (5.11) last season. That’s a pretty good foundation for a team that’s eager to get back into bowl consideration.
The Orange do get a stellar linebacker group back with Mikel Jones and Stefon Thompson both returning. Jones is a rangy linebacker that just seems to be wherever the ball is; he finished 2021 with 110 combined tackles (13 for loss), with Thompson having 79 tackles and six sacks to his totals. Marlowe Wax (60 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 5.0 sacks) is another young linebacker that will give Syracuse some direction in the near future.
Duce Chestnut was a playmaker for the Orange at CB, leading the team with three INTs and had eight pass breakups. Garrett Williams is another fine player in the secondary, he led the team with ten pass breakups and was disruptive most of last season.
Despite the talent that Syracuse has in the secondary and at linebacker, they’ll need to do more in creating havoc and opportunities for the offense. Syracuse had just seven takeaways last season (Chestnut accounting for nearly half of that himself), and despite having just 12 giveaways (T-2nd best in ACC), finished -5 in the margin. That has to improve, if Syracuse is going to make waves in conference play this season.
The linebacker and secondary groups have some stability and playmakers, but the defensive line is a complete unknown for Syracuse entering this season. They are replacing a ton of seniors from last year, and the only major returning contributor (Terry Lockett) had just 12 tackles and two for loss. Lockett will likely see most of his reps at DT, and he’ll be a leaner option at 270 pounds. There have been questions surrounding the availability of Steve Linton for Saturday, that will be one to watch as Syracuse looks for new guys at defensive end.
Players to Watch: LB Mikel Jones, CBs Darius ‘Duce’ Chestnut and Garrett Williams
Keys to the Game:
- Louisville needs to force passing down situations
I hate being this simple when highlighting how teams win or lose games, but for Louisville’s defense, the idea is that. They have to do what they can to keep Sean Tucker from dictating the game, and forcing Shrader to beat them with his arm.
Louisville did a great job last year of closing off lanes in the run game, forcing Shrader into those passing downs, and dialed up pressure to finish. Louisville did have four sacks and eight TFLs against Syracuse last season, and their defense was able to lock down Syracuse’s passing game despite injuries in the secondary. Louisville’s defense has more depth across the board, but especially in the back end and on the line. If the front seven can do their part to contain Tucker and force Syracuse into passing downs, Louisville could have some opportunities on defense.
- Can Syracuse keep Malik Cunningham from ruining their day (again)?
Malik Cunningham has had his way with Syracuse in recent years; in the last three games against Syracuse, Cunningham has thrown 11 TDs to just three INTs, and completed 65% of his passes along the way. And he won’t be short on motivation this year, either.
Louisville’s offensive line was dominant last season against Syracuse, and against a Syracuse front that’s replacing a ton of production from last season, this is a plus matchup for the Cardinals on paper. Malik Cunningham has been solidly efficient in his three games against Syracuse, in large part due to the protection that the offensive line has given him. If that continues, I could see Cunningham and Tiyon Evans having big days on the ground against the Syracuse defense.