Week 3 presents an intriguing situation for both squads scehduled to play a game of football at Syracuse’s Carrier Dome this Saturday.
The Central Michigan Chippewas (2-0, 0-0 MAC) are coming in surging, but hurting, after a big win over Kansas on the road. They’ll be without some key contributors in an upset bid as they seek to stay undefeated in their out-of-conference slate.
The Syracuse Orange (1-1, 0-0 ACC), meanwhile, come into this matchup after an embarassing loss to Middle Tennessee State, which employs their former head coach as a defensive coordinator. A loss to CMU would make for an upward hill to climb for bowl eligibilty.
And that’s before we even get into the emotional leftovers from the 2015 game that will be surely be floating around Syracuse’s famed dome on Saturday.
We asked John Cassillo, SB Nation’s foremost Syracuse expert and managing editor of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, what to expect coming into Saturday’s game.
Hustle Belt: Walk me through the Syracuse-MTSU game. What went wrong? How do you think Dino Babers will try and fix it?
John Cassillo: Former Orange head coach Scott Shafer is the new defensive coordinator for the Blue Raiders, and since he recruited many of the current contributors on the SU roster, he seemed to read us like a book. Middle Tennessee's blitz kept Eric Dungey out of rhythm the entire game, and a poorly-timed outbreak of dropped passes (eight on the game) also helped derail the offense. The offensive line and run game are both disasters, which has created some panic in the fan base.
Babers doesn't necessarily need to fix the drops. That's a random occurrence. But he could make some changes to fix the protection issues on the line and the lack of effectiveness of the rushing attack. Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal haven't proven they can run the ball as well as this system demands. Perhaps he inserts freshmen Markenzy Pierre and Chris Elmore to change things up.
The Chippewa pass defense has proven to be fairly ferocious the past two weeks. With Syracuse operating a pass-first offense, how will they attack?
CMU certainly appears capable of picking off passes, but the big plays don't hide the fact that the Chips are also very susceptible to giving up big yardage. Syracuse's touchdowns haven't necessarily come from the red zone. so if they can generate big plays from elsewhere, that might be the ticket to beating that secondary. That, or we can continue to rely on Dungey's legs to get into the end zone once his arm's gotten us within range.
Shane Morris is the first new QB for Central in four years. After his 499 yard, 5 TD performance against Kansas, how do you feel about the Syracuse D being able to contain him?
SU couldn't really generate pressure last season, but has gotten much better this season, despite only tallying two sacks thus far. The improved front-seven will show blitz about half the time, and the senior linebacker corps. will be very involved in pass coverage as well.
With a full complement of receivers, CMU would stand a pretty good chance to exploit a struggling Orange secondary. Having several injuries, though, I'm a little less concerned that Morris picks this group apart so easily. He'll get his yards, sure. It just seems that big plays are less likely without those top options available.
Speaking of that, Corey Willis and Brandon Childress will join Tyler Conklin on the injury report this week, meaning CMU will be without three of last year's four top receivers. How can Syracuse exploit that advantage?
As mentioned above, that should make things a little easier for Syracuse's beleaguered defensive backs. However, there will still be some chances to go over the top and that's something Mark Chapman should be able to take advantage of a bit. Beyond him, however, SU might be able to handcuff the rest. Expect to see more pressure on Morris, which should force him to make some quicker throws to less experienced pass-catchers. The Orange will give them the shorter passes, but should swarm to contain quickly.
The running game could prove to be the difference in this matchup. How do you feel about CMU's backs vs. your own?
It's an easy call to take Central Michigan's running backs over Syracuse's since our top two backs haven't even combined for 100 yards on the season so far. Jonathan Ward seems like a very capable runner with some breakout ability for CMU. The Orange have other options like Pierre and Elmore, as mentioned above. If Babers actually chooses to use them (especially the converted defensive tackle Elmore in short yardage), that could give SU some hope. Otherwise, the ground game is Dungey and little else for us, spelling a significant disadvantage.
Who are players to watch in both sides of the ball we might not know about?
Moving away from the two freshman ball-carriers mentioned in two of the previous questions, the unsung offensive name worth bringing up is Devin C. Butler. While Steve Ishmael has gotten all of the catches on the outside thus far (his 26 receptions currently lead the country), Butler could be the deep option that's yet to emerge this year. We thought Ishmael or the (likely injured) Jamal Custis would fill Amba Etta-Tawo's shoes from last year, but that hasn't been the case yet. With Butler probably getting the start opposite Ishmael, the tall wideout could quickly carve out a niche.
Bowling Green grad transfer Austin Valdez isn't a starter at linebacker, but he's made a quick impact so far with three tackles, a TFL and a forced fumble in two games. Valdez played in this exact same Tampa-2 scheme when Babers coached the Falcons. So his quick transition into what Babers and defensive coordinator Brian Ward want to do is huge help for the Orange on that side of the ball. He has big-play potential and covers a lot of ground when he's on the field.
A last, sort of general question: the last game was somewhat acrimonious and extremely emotional by the end of the festivities. How do 'Cuse fans feel about remaking acquaintance with the Chips?
I think we're still pretty heated about the short- and long-term repercussions of Mitch Stanitzek's targeting on Dungey two years ago. The hit almost cost the Orange that game, and since then, it's created a greater concern about head injuries for the quarterback (now an ongoing issue that has our hearts in our throats every time a defender goes near him).
Had Syracuse just beaten Middle Tennessee as planned last week, the stress/anxiety would probably just end with Stanitzek, who won't even see the field much anyway for CMU. But at 1-1 and desperately in need of a win here to keep any bowl hopes alive, the fan base will be very much on edge this Saturday. That is very likely to manifest itself in a little extra emotions directed at the Chippewas from both the players and many of us cheering on the Orange.
Prediction time! How does it go and what's the final score?
The wide receiver injuries are probably introducing far more optimism than I should have. Dungey's likely playing with a chip (no pun intended) on his shoulder, and the team understands that a win here is essential for an Orange postseason trip. Morris plays well and keeps this one close, but I'll go with Syracuse, 38-27 in keeping with the general Vegas line of 10 or 11 points. SU is able to stretch the lead to double digits early in the fourth quarter, then hold on from there.
Many thanks to John Cassillo, the managing editor of Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, for taking the time to answer our questions about the Orange! He can be followed on his personal Twitter @JohnCassillo and the blog can be followed @NunesMagician.