Our favorite fake online rivalry returns to focus this week after minimal hate and much respect directed toward Texas A&M and their defense. So too does this column return to its apologetically arrogant and condescending tone given the talent disparities we enjoy, and especially since the Syracuse defense is nowhere near what the respected Mike Elko brought to this space last week. This Syracuse defense — which was expected to be very good with 8 starters back — comes off one of the worst performances of this young college football season in a game against Maryland which got away from them in a frankly unbelievable way.
Talent indeed remains on the defensive line and in the secondary, but crucial experience lacks up the middle of the line and especially at the second level. The most obvious issue — and fixable in the medium to long term — is linebacker run fits. How much is fixable in a mere week though remains to be seen, and will be the obvious difference in another close game and a blowout. Cuse has almost no experience at linebacker and it showed against a new-look Maryland offense. On one hand, run fits are rather fundamental and can be quickly corrected. On the other, run fits are rather fundamental and it’s beyond alarming they were so bad this past Saturday.
Yet only the week before, Syracuse did in fact manage to shut out Liberty. Such mercurial performances are often commonplace early in the year, but a 63 point swing for a largely experienced unit? Something was off. I had to dig deeper.
We shall begin with what Syracuse does well, besides cleanly knock out Clemson QBs. The defense is headlined by a defensive line which has given Clemson trouble each of the last two years. Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson are the ends who draw most of the praise and are the two players around whom anyone and everyone must begin to plan. It is not hyperbole to suggest that they are perhaps more important to Syracuse’s ability to hang with Clemson than the maligned linebackers, since if they don’t get pressure everything falls apart behind them — even the supposedly good secondary.
Syracuse is fond of a lot of inverted zones from their 4-2-5 base defense. They’ll run cover 3 behind overlap blitzes, inverted cover 2, and even a bit of man under cover 2 if they’re feeling risky. Like Georgia Tech, this is a true nickel and not a 4-3 hybrid like we have at Clemson. The third corner follows the slot no matter the side of the field on which he aligns, unlike Clemson’s 4-3 where the Sam is always on the strong side. Intuitively for a true nickel defense, they will bring a safety into the box before the third corner; nickel Trill Williams is no Sam hybrid.
The unit’s strength is undoubtedly in pass defense, where the pass rush up front perhaps inflated the secondary’s preseason reputation, but there is a sure fire difference maker in free safety Andre Cisco:
Where they’re lacking, and of particular concern against an uber-talented, RPO-heavy offense is the aforementioned black hole at linebacker. Whether because the line found no pass rush or because the safeties felt they had to compensate for the linebackers, last week Syracuse bit time after time on RPO run action in a desperate attempt to fill the run, and vacated easy slants and fades when Maryland made their zones look foolish.
It isn’t the pass defense which is the main problem going into the Clemson game though, it’s the linebacker run fits. Inexperience reared its ugly head and Maryland found even more ease on the ground against out-of-position linebackers, which had the aforementioned domino effect on the safeties. I think the Maryland game will ultimately prove an outlier given the mystery around the Terps so early into a new regime (remember our own struggles last year with the lack of A&M film in Jimbo’s second game compared to last week), but red flags were revealed. These red flags in gap integrity point toward a blowout Saturday without significant improvement this week.
In all, this is not a good match up for Syracuse essentially anywhere on the field. Syracuse’s hopes hinge on Coleman’s and Robinson’s performances at defensive end, yet Clemson counters with a 3 year starter at RT and a 5 star, 340 pound bully at LT. Clemson could of course unravel like we’ve seen in whacky road games before, and Cuse could rally behind a defense eager to regain its pride. But Tommy DeVito and the offense are struggling due to abysmal offensive line play, and the defense upon which Babers expected to lean is a veritable feast for any RPO offense with such poor linebacker play.
Clemson’s maturing defensive front should enjoy plenty of pressure and stuffs against one of the worst offensive lines in the ACC and an immobile QB, and a bad linebacker unit is an easy target for perhaps the best most talented offense in the country with all its options to make defenders wrong. An expected early hurdle for Clemson should now amount to a mere curb; a curb to stomp.