Western Michigan and Syracuse provided us a barnburner to ring in the 2018 season last August. The Orange jumped out to a 34-7 lead but an offensive outburst in the third quarter brought Western Michigan back into the game. Ultimately, Syracuse (which finished No. 15 in the country and 10-3 under head coach Dino Babers) prevailed with a 55-42 victory in Kalamazoo.
The Broncos (2-1) ride a 57-10 victory over Georgia State as they battle 1-2 Syracuse at The Dome in New York. To preview things on the Orange side, we bring in the managing editor of Syracuse SB Nation blog Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician (@NunesMagician) — John Cassillo (@JohnCassillo).
Steve Helwick, Hustle Belt: For a team that started in the AP Poll and has sunk to 1-2, what has gone wrong so far in Syracuse’s season after facing three opponents of varying calibers? Has there been anything that has turned out solid so far?
John Cassillo, Nunes Magician: I think most fans would’ve expected 2-1 at this point given the fact that Clemson was on the schedule, and 1-2 was certainly in play with Maryland. The wildcard was how we lost to the Terps, and that’s sort of creating a lot of questions now early in the season.
The Orange certainly looked better vs. Clemson than they did against Maryland, so I’m willing to point to Week 2 as just a very weird game where the Terps caught us napping a bit. Syracuse returns a lot from last year, but does replace three of five offensive linemen, two starting linebackers, top run-stuffer Chris Slayton, deep threat receiver Jamal Custis and of course, Eric Dungey. Perhaps everyone (both locally and nationally) was a little naive about how things would go with that much turnover, but in any case, it’s caused some issues. The offensive line in particular suffered an injury to center Sam Heckel in game one vs. Liberty and that’s been a key part of the team’s struggles to both run block and protect Tommy DeVito under center.
If anything’s turned out well so far, it’s probably the fact that the team’s still been able to force turnovers and play well on special teams. That could mean a few tweaks makes for a big bounceback over the season’s final nine games. Or at least it’s the hope.
Helwick: Eric Dungey threw for 187 yards on seven completions and rushed for 200 on Western Michigan’s defense last season. Now that Syracuse is operating with Tommy DeVito instead of the graduated Dungey, what differences can the Broncos expect to see from the Orange at the quarterback position?
Cassillo: Well, don’t expect to see that sort of production on the ground, for starters. DeVito can run if needed -- and he’s probably smarter at avoiding contact than Dungey is -- but it’s not necessarily something opponents need to gameplan for. However, DeVito has a stronger arm and is a more accurate downfield passer, so that presents a worry over the top that wasn’t the case last year.
Of course, a lot’s dependent on how the offensive line looks and if it can give the pocket passer enough time to throw. But if he can get a few seconds, it should mean we see a lot more from Syracuse’s speedy receivers -- who’ve been underused so far this season.
Helwick: Outside of DeVito, which Syracuse players should the Broncos focus on in this matchup on both sides of the ball?
Cassillo: On offense, it’s Moe Neal. He’s the team’s leading rusher and a dynamic back between the tackles. But perhaps more importantly this season, he’s been used as a very effective safety valve for DeVito to combat against constant pressure. The senor running back is currently Syracuse’s second-leading receiver at 11 catches for 161 yards, and he had two of the Orange’s biggest receptions against Clemson last Saturday.
Defensively, pick your poison between Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. SU’s pass rushing duo’s been slowed a little this year from a stat perspective, but they’re still a disruptive force who could make life hell for any opposing QB if the line’s not ready for what should be consistent pressure.
Helwick: Which offensive weapon should Syracuse fear more from the Western Michigan side — quarterback Jon Wassink or running back LeVante Bellamy — and why?
Cassillo: I’d say it’s Bellamy. He looked really good against Syracuse last year with limited touches, and the Orange’s run defense is still very much a work in progress with linebackers that haven’t necessarily been able to fill gaps and a line that’s lacking returning starter McKinley Williams. Nothing against Wassink, but I’m not as concerned about him (compared to Bellamy) when considering SU’s pass rush and a ball-hawking group of defense backs.
Helwick: Western Michigan and Syracuse both suffered blowout losses in Week 2 to the Big Ten. What can Syracuse apply from the 63-20 Maryland loss in order to help itself knock off the Broncos at The Dome?
Cassillo: Honestly, just throw that entire defensive gameplan out... and for what it’s worth, I think they did when you look at the Clemson game, especially in the first three quarters. The linebackers are going to struggle with play action still, but they won’t have to try and spy Wassink like they did Josh Jackson. The key in this game, like every contest this year, will be shutting down the run and forcing teams to pass, thus playing into the defense’s strengths.
Offensively, run the ball more. We’ve yet to figure that out through three weeks, and again, it’s the offensive line that’s the problem. But if Syracuse can make something happen with the rushing attack, that’ll finally open up the pass again.
Helwick: What happens Saturday afternoon? Who wins, what’s the score, and who are the top performers?
Cassillo: Because the Orange appeared to improve last week, this feels like a chance to right the ship and get back to .500 -- though it’ll be far from easy, and SU’s not in a place to overlook the Broncos or any opponent at this juncture. WMU lacking a quality run defense could mean Syracuse finally gets that aspect of the offense going, and the result should be a better passing attack. If the Orange can actually get into a rhythm for the first time this year and use pace to their advantage, they’re more than capable of securing a win.
Even a more functional group probably has some defensive questions here and there against a back like Bellamy, though. So give me something like 34-21 or 34-24 in favor of SU. It’s not going to be a simple game, and WMU will be in it the whole time. Syracuse manages to do just enough behind Moe Neal and an improved DeVito.
Syracuse (1-2) and Western Michigan (2-1) kick off at noon E.T. at The Dome this Saturday. For more Syracuse coverage leading up to the game, check out Nunes Magician and follow John Cassillo on Twitter @JohnCassillo.
For our preview, check it out here.