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Opponent Film Preview: Syracuse


Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Mid-November is a wonderful time of year to visit Upstate New York. Unfortunately, I'll miss all the Jim Beoheim fun at Denny's up there since I've allocated my holiday travel to a Caribbean cruise the week of Thanksgiving -- but believe me I'd rather be in Syracuse since I love me some good HOT DOME.

Saturday is yet another game in which we don't know for certain who will play quarterback against the Clemson Tigers, although another head injury for Eric Dungey all but confirms Zach Mahoney will start. Seriously, this uncertainty makes my life a lot harder than it does Brent Venables'. He already has plans for every contingency, while I have to watch even more bad football just to prepare for this column. At least when I have to prepare for South Carolina's quarterback carousel, I will enjoy every second of their bad football. Given the likelihood that Dungey will not play, I chose to focus on the Syracuse offense under Mahoney alone:

Edit: Mahoney was announced the starter

Mahoney derp

Oh what fun.

Syracuse Offense

The Cuse offense operates primarily from the 113 Pistol and focuses on establishing the run, particularly with a lot of zone read and triple option. Unfortunately for Syracuse, Mahoney is not as effective a runner as the injured Tyrell Hunt or Eric Dungey. Cuse will still run, and hopes for enough success to open the play-action passing game in an effort to find easier throws for the talent-deficient Mahoney.

Syracuse Base O

Syracuse employs an interesting wrinkle on the triple option that is actually rather similar to Georgia Tech's version, albeit from the pistol and without the cut blocks. Syracuse will employ 2 tight ends as H-backs and use them how GT uses A-backs, with orbit motion before the snap. Mahoney reads the weak side DE and gives to the dive, but watch the H-back orbit like a GT A-back for a potential pitch should Mahoney keep the ball:

Syracuse pistol TO

I wonder how effective this can be, since you want the pitch man to be a speedster who can round the corner...for which H-backs aren't exactly known. If NC State ran this with Brissett, Dayes, and Samuels it would be problematic. Syracuse, not so much unless they orbit Brisly Estime. Still, it is something to watch.

The Syracuse offense sputtered throughout the entire first half before a personal foul gave them new life after an apparent 3 & out in the 3rd quarter. Two plays later and Cuse gets their best playmaker, Estime, free up the seam:

Estime seam

This is actually problematic for the Clemson defense; LSU did not respect the deep threat since Mahoney had yet to display accuracy on any throws -- not even short throws --  to this point in the game. I do not know if the safety blew his assignment and chased the H-back orbit in the flat or if LSU got Kevin Steele'd with a boneheaded call, but a speedy Estime in the slot against Clemson's base 4-3 is a mismatch.

Lately we put Mackensie Alexander at nickel when we run the nickel package, but against a run/play-action oriented offense I expect Clemson to stay in 4-3 most of the day. Estime vs Travis Blanks is a mismatch Cuse will look to exploit...provided Mahoney shows any sort of accuracy.

Estime is the one player I see who can burn Clemson with skill. In fact, I would bet on a huge play or two from him on Saturday on special teams alone. Clemson has tightened up on the deep ball over the last month, and with Mackensie Alexander floating at nickel in passing situations I feel better about containing Estime as a receiver no matter where he lines up. But as a returner? A legitimate threat. Long returns are still an issue, and Estime can make Clemson pay on special teams like many other similarly talented players have so far.

Syracuse Defense

As most of us know by now, Syracuse employs an aggressive defense which frequently blitzes to both clog run lanes and disrupt any quarterback rhythm. This is probably the last way I would try to attack a Deshaun Watson-led offense with athletes at receiver like Clemson possesses, but along with the huge risk, there is huge reward:

Cuse SS fire

Here Syracuse brought the Mike and SS on a strong side red dog overload. The safety burst through the B gap untouched when the Mike occupied the guard in the A gap. This is a concern against Clemson's front, since we had protection busts last week against FSU which led to at least one sack and one poor throw from Watson which would've been a gigantic gain/touchdown to Wayne Gallman in the flat.

Due to its aggression, Syracuse will also attack the run very quickly. Against LSU, they did an admirable job against Leonard Fournette -- who still put up insane yards. He consistently faced linebackers and safeties who attacked downhill at the first run key from the offensive guards:

Cuse gang tackle

This worked well enough on LSU, a team which lacks a consistent aerial threat and whose running back requires 8 men flying at that ball-carrier. You'll remember this worked rather well against a vertically-challenged, Cole Stoudt-led Clemson offense a year ago in a dreadfully dull 16-6 Clemson victory.

On the other hand, you'll also remember Tajh Boyd lit up the Cuse secondary with deep shots all day two years ago. Big passing plays were there for LSU, who eventually hit one. Our bet is that Watson will find more frequent success when (not if) such opportunities present themselves:

LSU deep

Above, Cuse brought 6 rushers with a Mike bullet plus red dog from a NB and OLB (the man covering Fournette could've come on a green dog when Fournette stayed to protect but didn't); 6 rushers plus a man watching Fournette means it's C0 man, and the wide angle confirms this when the ball is in the air and you see no safety anywhere near the corner or receiver. You give that look to Watson, he and his receivers will make that throw and catch more often than not.

Bottom Line

So begins the three game homestretch in which Clemson has nothing to gain but everything to lose.

Syracuse will attack the line of scrimmage with multiple blitzes aimed at clogging run lanes and harassing the QB. I expect this game to go somewhat like the Boston College game in that Watson will carry the offensive workload and hit the openings in man coverage before his success forces Cuse to back off, allowing Gallman room to run. If we establish Gallman early, it'll get ugly quickly.

Syracuse will aim to establish the run to help out an overwhelmed QB. We will likely keep everything in front of us to prevent a bust while letting the defensive line control the line of scrimmage, which will force Cuse to sustain drives. The busts in the passing game have all but vanished, but in two straight games we've seen awful run fits early before we settled down. Dalvin Cook won't line up in the backfield, but option runs stress unsound defenses and lately we've had busts in run fits. They will employ new wrinkles early to test us. In such a HOT, LOUD environment, any quick momentum for Syracuse could make this unnecessarily interesting.

Even with dominant performances in these next three games, I find it unlikely Clemson will hold onto the #1 ranking for the remainder of the regular season. Our weak slate of remaining opponents relative to the other playoff contenders will probably bump us down, unless Notre Dame wins out. Luckily it won't matter, win and we're in.

Clemson 45, Syracuse 14