Syracuse is coming to Clemson with their best record since 1991. Some of this is due to an easy schedule, the Orange have only played W. Michigan, Wagner, FSU and UConn. Clemson fans remember the Orange offense and many key contributors from an upset in Syracuse last year. Quarterback/crazy person Eric Dungey (who had a career game against Clemson last year) is healthy. Syracuse has been able to overcome last year’s struggles on the ground to average 278 rushing yards per game (2nd in the ACC) this year.
Dino Babers offense is based on the Art Briles system, combining aggressive vertical passes with downhill running. The offense is typically operating out of 11 personnel, asking their tight ends to align on the line of scrimmage or in the backfield. The Orange will also run 10, 21, and 31 personnel. Every personnel grouping can be run from under center or the shotgun.
The offense operates at one of the fastest paces in the country. A typical scoring drive is less than three minutes. If they get rolling they don’t tend to stop. On top of the stress this tempo causes the Orange make heavy use of shifts and motions to further confuse defenses.
Everything begins with the deep pass, particularly on the sideline. If you don’t commit to stopping fade routes, in other words, playing conservatively Dungey is more than capable of making you pay.
The Orange run bubble screens like an air raid team, and they’re good at them. Tackling in space against this team is critical. A handful of times a game they try to catch safeties creeping up against the screens, such as with this wheel route.
6’5” senior receiver Jamal Custis (#17) appears to be having a breakout season. Babers tries to manufacture one-on-one chances by isolating Custis as the lone receiver to a side of the field. Their aggressiveness opens up passes underneath. On this version of mesh Syracuse is able to get a receiver open behind the switch route and rub. Babers is fond of rub routes to take advantage of the fact that the wide splits his receivers deploy often force defenses into man coverage.
Babers is more invested in running quick passes than Briles Baylor teams were. Once defenses are afraid of vertical routes he begins calling hitches. Toss in option routes from the slots and this is a massive chunk of the Syracuse passing game. Though it can sound simplistic this focus on verticals routes and hitches is difficult for players in the secondary. Many of the plays look the exact same until the receiver is making his break.
Despite historical struggles with keeping him upright (26 sacks in 2017, 22 in 2016) Dungey has only taken three sacks so far this year. He is often at his best in empty or four wide formations, choosing between quick passes, vertical shots or scrambling. Though leading the Orange in rushing yardage Dungey is significantly better scrambling than in option concepts or direct snap runs.
Babers has been able to produce excellent offenses without particularly dangerous running games before. That’s good, because the Orange will likely struggle to run the ball Saturday. Running back Moe Neal is dangerous is if given room.
The Orange clearly want to be a power running team. The running game consists almost exclusively of straight ahead runs. The vast majority of the time they’re running power, counter or inside zone. They run quite often on third or fourth and short.
Babers will often call heavy formations, favoring either a 21 I formation of a 31 shotgun formation. The shotgun formation always has the running back threatening a sweep to the single tight end side, with Dungey threatening to run the ball the other way. This theoretically puts defenses in a bind. The problem? Syracuse still struggles to open holes up front against power conference talent.
They attempt to deal with this with a heavy use of Dungey, both in option concepts and RPO’s. Babers will call any run with bubble screens and curl routes to keep flat defenders busy, and combines runs with skinny posts and fades to threaten third level defenders.
Syracuse struggling to run the ball against Clemson would be a continuation of last year, where the Orange ranked 99th in rushing success rate. Syracuse often struggles in the red zone where they can’t run the ball and the vertical spacing the offense needs shrinks. They were 111th in in points per scoring opportunity in 2017. Clemson often lines up in a three down front against Syracuse because of the lack of running threat, either dropping eight defenders in coverage or replacing a pass rusher with a QB spy.
The concern for Clemson is that, one month into the season, we still don’t know much about the secondary after so many option teams. Texas A&M only had 71 rushing yards and was able to make it a game. Dungey has performed well against Clemson, and could replicate many elements of Monds week two performance. Coverage busts against Syracuse tend to end in touchdowns. Although I expect Clemson’s talent to win out, this is a team that is dangerous and can’t be overlooked.