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Syracuse at Clemson Preview: Q&A with Nunes Magician

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

While fan bases certainly have base levels of passion and civility they also seem to take on the personality of their head coach. Dino Babers is dramatically more likeable than Scott Shafer and this rivalry has gone from Coach Shafer cursing at Dabo for running up the score in the first half to Dabo congratulating Coach Babers on a well earned victory.

Now, Syracuse comes into Clemson following 2017’s win and will get the laser focus of a healthy Clemson Tigers. While they may not be the odious enemy of years past, revenge is required.

To help us preview this revenge matchup, we’ve connected with John Cassillo from NunesMagician. John has been writing about Syracuse football for quite a while and had some great insights to share. We hope you enjoy!

STS: How much do you feel the tempo will (and must) play a role for Syracuse’s offense to find a rhythm, especially considering Clemson has played three triple-option teams and a slow-tempo pro-style offense designed by Jimbo Fisher?

John: Tempo only works when you’re gaining first downs, and Syracuse has been able to do that with more regularity than in years’ past. The reason for the improvement -- yes, even accounting for opponents -- is a run game that’s proven far more effective and slightly less reliant on just Eric Dungey. Clemson’s front-four is too good to be thrown off by tempo, but running the ball well while continuing to move this offense quickly should at least increase Syracuse’s odds of success.

STS: In week 1, Syracuse surrendered 42 points to Western Michigan in an eventual 55-42 Cuse win. That fit the narrative that Baber’s up-tempo offense could rack up points (when Dungey is healthy), but the defense is a major liability. Since that game though, DC Brian Ward’s defense has allowed only 38 points. The defense ranks 59th, not great, but only 10 spots behind the offense. Where does the defense stand? Is it the liability many expected?

John: It’s tough to tell just how improved this defense is. The personnel hasn’t changed much, but we’re definitely attacking more and being a whole lot more opportunistic with regard to forcing turnovers (already forced nine this year, versus 12 all of last year). All of those opportunities are created by an effective blitz, however. When opposing teams have time to throw, they’re still able to carve up this secondary, but when we generate pressure, it’s a completely different story (go figure).

So no, they’re not a liability, but they’re limited in the ways in which they’re a strength. Clemson throwing four- and five-star athletes at them this weekend should be a nice test to see how much they’ve truly improved.

STS: Last season, Syracuse ranked 71st in rushing (S&P+). This year they’re averaging a solid 5.3 YPC and they’re relying on the run game more. Is that merely a product of playing teams like Wagner early in the season, or have they found a ground game to compliment their passing attack?

John: A little bit of both? Syracuse’s offensive line is much improved from last year with a healthy Aaron Roberts back, plus Texas A&M transfer Koda Martin installed at right tackle. That, plus more creative uses of fullback Chris Elmore have resulted in more holes opening up on the inside, which is crucial for this offense. SU has also given the ball to Moe Neal a whole lot more, and he’s shown himself much more capable of big gains out of the backfield (while Dontae Strickland has been a better pass-catching option).

You’ll likely notice that Eric Dungey has still run quite a bit, and his effectiveness scrambling helps the average. But this is the most confident I’ve been in this traditional run game since 2012, which is nice. And that effectiveness is the biggest reason why this offense actually seems to be more sustainable this year.

STS: When Clemson has the ball, which positional or individual matchup makes you the most nervous? Which gives you the most optimism?

John: I mentioned how pressure’s been critical to the Syracuse defense, so if they have any chance of slowing down the Tigers, it starts on the line. Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman have four sacks apiece, and will attempt to test Mitch Hyatt and Tremayne Anchrum at the tackle spots. But if Clemson keeps to the run game as they have so far, that puts the onus on tackles Chris Slayton and McKinley Williams a bit more. Neither interior lineman puts up gaudy numbers, necessarily, but both have been major run-stuffers over the course of the last couple seasons.

I’m a bit more confident in the line than I am in the defensive backs, though. They have their moments, and freshman safety Andre Cisco leads the country in picks (with four). But they get a little caught up in causing turnovers at times, which leads to big plays. Clemson’s going to have one-on-one matchups downfield at least a few times if they choose to take advantage.

STS: When Syracuse has the ball, which positional (aside from the defensive line) or individual matchup makes you the most nervous? Which gives you the most optimism?

John: I mean, the defensive line definitely makes me the most nervous, and their success is the key to this game, in all likelihood.

But if we’re avoiding that group, then I’m most nervous about Clemson’s safeties potentially stifling the downfield passing game. The Orange haven’t had a lot of success with deep balls this year, despite plenty of big plays (via yards after the catch). With more speed underneath than most of SU’s opponents so far, though, the Tigers will be able to combat the dink-and-dunk aspects of the offense. Tanner Muse and K’Von Wallace are capable of shutting down longer passes, and that makes Dungey’s job a whole lot harder given the lingering inexperience at receiver.

I’m most optimistic about what Dungey can make happen in the middle of the Clemson defense, assuming he has enough time to throw. Tight end Ravian Pierce is out, which is a major loss for the intermediate passing game. But SU has some big targets who could exploit matchups with the Tigers’ linebackers just the same. Expect to see Jamal Custis in that space, along with reserve tight ends Aaron Hackett and Gabe Horan.

STS: If Syracuse is to pull the upset for a second straight season, how do you think that would play out? The spread is around 20 points. How do you feel about Syracuse’s chances to beat the spread or even to win straight up?

John: If Syracuse were to pull off a second straight victory, it comes from turnovers and the momentum they create. SU will not have an easy time getting past the Clemson defensive line, though should get opportunities just by way of tempo creating more drives. Interceptions and clutch special teams play have been critical in wins so far, and would have to be here to give the Orange as many chances as possible to get into the end zone.

While it’s been fun bringing up last year’s big upset and puffing out our chests a little since October, I’m not convincing myself of a Syracuse win here. This is a better Orange squad than the one you saw in 2017, however the Clemson D-line keeps SU out of sync, and our offense just lacks the firepower it’s had in earlier games. I think we have an outside chance to cover. But I’m not going to find shame in a loss by a few scores at Clemson as long as we leave with minimal injuries (most importantly, when it comes to Dungey).

STS: We hope you enjoyed this Q&A preview for Saturday’s matchup. Be sure to follow John on twitter here and here. Our answers to their questions are now posted and available to see over at NunesMagician.