On the heels of handling Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 49-21 behind recently named starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the Clemson Tigers will return home to face one of only two ACC teams that have managed to defeat the Tigers in the past two years: the Syracuse Orange.
Clemson fans remember the feeling of playing Syracuse all too well last season: an injured Kelly Bryant played on a badly sprained ankle and was knocked out of the game by halftime, while the normally dominant defense seemed caught off guard by the Orange’s up-tempo offense and quarterback Eric Dungey’s dual-threat ability. To top it all off, the game was held at 7:00 p.m. on a Friday night in a half-empty Orange dome on a short week, which made for a deflating 27-24 loss against a team that managed to lose the rest of its games en route to a 4-8 finish.
This time, Clemson fans have revenge on their minds as head coach Dino Babers brings his team to town. As was the case last year, the Syracuse offense is only as strong as Dungey makes it. In their latest game against the University of Connecticut, Dungey accounted for four touchdowns, throwing for three and running for another. Through the first four weeks of the season, Dungey has thrown for 763 yards and nine touchdowns while boasting a QBR of 82.4. By extension, Dungey is also Syracuse’s top threat on the ground, as he leads the team in rushing with 354 yards and four touchdowns.
Dungey’s dual-threat ability has been a challenge for Clemson in recent memory, as demonstrated by the likes of Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond. Dungey’s ability will be a big test for a Clemson secondary that still has to demonstrate it can limit big plays in the passing game. He is a major reason why Syracuse is currently 10th in the nation in total offense (523 yds/game) and ninth in rushing yards (278.0 yds/game). While Syracuse ranks 56th in passing yards per game (245.3 yds/game), they are not afraid to stretch the field and let Dungey create big plays with his legs.
If there are any weaknesses to Dungey’s game, it’s that he can often get in his own way, as his heavy workload running and throwing the football have led to an oft-injured career during his time at Syracuse. Thus far, he’s managed to stay healthy enough to make it to Death Valley. Should he manage to stay healthy through the entire game, the Clemson defense should find itself challenged, especially at linebacker if Kendall Joseph misses his second consecutive game.
Syracuse plays an open spread of four-to-five receiver sets, forcing defensive backs to cover heavily and often leaves Dungey space to run in the open field should he escape the pocket. They also run an up-tempo, fast-paced, no huddle system, which led to communication issues on the defensive side and made it difficult for Brent Venables to properly make calls and adjustments quickly enough. It also made substitutions difficult, which led to the defense wearing down late in the game. Coupled with misdirection and plenty of RPOs, their offense will test Clemson’s secondary’s and force the safeties to be disciplined in their coverage assignments.
However, the threats outside of Dungey is where the Syracuse offense remains a question. Since Dungey can’t catch passes himself, the Orange have needed another threat at receiver with the departure of Steve Ishmael. The Orange’s top threat has emerged in the form of senior Jamal Custis, who, at 6’5, 213 pounds, provides Dungey with a big target, Custis has 17 receptions for 287 yards and three touchdowns. Junior receiver Sean Riley is a smaller, shifter target at 5’10 who has hauled in two touchdown passes on the year and is second on the team with 201 receiving yards. The Orange will be missing one of its primary targets in tight end Ravian Pierce, who is out due to an undisclosed upper body injury.
On defense, Syracuse remains vulnerable. As compared to their high-powered offense, the Orange are 87th in total defense, surrending 255.3 passing yards per game and 130.8 yards per game on the ground. With the progress the Tigers have made on offense with Trevor Lawrence taking the reins at quarterback in addition to Travis Etienne’s spark in the ground game and the bevy of playmakers at receiver, Clemson has an opportunity for a similar performance to what they saw in Atlanta.
The notable player to take note of for Syracuse on defense will be freshman cornerback Andre Cisco currently leads the country in interceptions with four. Impressive work for a freshman corner, and while he’’ll certainly have his hands full with Clemson’s receiving corps, he clearly has a nose for the football. Their defensive has a lot of youth, with defensive tackle Alton Robinson being the most noteworthy of the bunch with three sacks on the year.
The last time Syracuse entered Death Valley, they were blanked 54-0. Last season, the Orange upset the then-No.4 Clemson Tigers 27-24. Now armed with a healthy freshman phenom making his first collegiate start coupled with more explosive and consistent weapons in the passing game coupled with a stable of backs led by Etienne, Clemson looks to quell their demons from last season while looking to build on their momentum of their decisive victory in Atlanta.