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One Injury Undid the Entire Syracuse Defense

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This is bad bad BAD

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

My apologies to the humble readers and commenters here for going missing in action last week leading up to Georgia Tech. I began a new job during the week and was out of pocket all weekend. I saw only the first quarter of the game live, and fortunately, that was enough!

I want to take a moment here to pay tribute to my late uncle Robbie Clyburn Jr, whose life we celebrated this past weekend at his mountain home in southeastern Tennessee. Robbie was a 1983 Clemson graduate, an Air Force tanker pilot, and an American Airlines pilot for 25 years before his cancer diagnosis in 2015. It couldn’t be more fitting that his celebration took place during the Clemson-GT game, since his son played for the Jackets under Paul Johnson (he may or may not have disliked the man more than any of us here do). So pour one out for one of our own, who was a reader here and a fun man through it all.

Is Syracuse hate still a thing around here? Or did we get carried away unnecessarily after (ten minutes of desperate Googling later) Scott Shafer threw a hissy fit in 2013? Can’t say I ever did either, but this is still STS so the answer to each question is actually yes and YES.

This week should be plenty fun for those of you who hold Drew’s hate deep within your hearts every single week. The Syracuse Orange (still not sure if this is an odd nod to the Dutch??? Or to the NY transplant, citrus-inclined snowbirds who move down to Florida???) bring up the rear in the ACC BUTT RANKINGS now that FSU fell butt first into a win against UNC, and thus out of that bottom spot.

This column could perhaps feel a bit like going through the motions with underwhelming nor’easters on the docket until Notre Dame. Syracuse is the clear worst team in the league and must face what is perhaps the sharpest and best-schemed Clemson offense and defense in recent memory; which says quite a lot. But Dino Babers brought in a new defensive coordinator this year in Tony White, and with him, a modern 3-3-5 defense.

So, Syracuse’s poor man’s take on the 3-3-5 provides an opportunity to compare against what Clemson did with it last year — which Clemson has continued to throw out at an increasing rate in recent weeks. The common nomenclature shouldn’t fool you into thinking this is perfectly akin to the Clemson 3-3-5 though, since the ‘Cuse edition is a true 3-3-5 stack (meaning the linebackers generally “stack” directly behind the linemen) with a third corner outside rather than a third safety roaming the field.

Image courtesy of the Daily Orange

Despite this structural difference, the reasoning behind the new look Syracuse 3-3-5 mirrors 2019 Clemson’s 3-3-5 with Isaiah Simmons manning the middle safety position: a rebuilding line needed protection in front of downhill-suited linebackers, headlined by a superstar chess piece and depth at safety. ‘Cuse was off to a decent start for a having a first-time, first-year coordinator in a Power 5 league. Then the aforementioned safety, Andre Cisco, went down for the year and opted to end his career.


One of the benefits in the 3-3-5 is you can send linebackers downhill against the run to help the undermanned line without sacrificing back end coverage, and better yet it allows for more exotic and multifaceted looks to confuse an offense. Don’t believe me? Ask Ohio State about Clemson’s defensive adjustment which shut down the Buckeyes after a rough first quarter in which they ran right through Clemson’s 4-3 front.

The inverted Tampa 2 coverage mentioned in the hyperlinked article isn’t necessarily the coverage Syracuse uses, but speaks more to the defensive alignment which allows a 3 down front to play aggressive 1 gap technique like you usually see more from 4 down fronts. Syracuse subscribes to this philosophy, and with relative strengths in the backfield versus the line, found a modern and prudent philosophy to upgrade a disappointing 2019 unit.

But again, Cisco went down and threw a wrench in the plan. Cisco wasn’t quite an Isaiah Simmons, playing every possible position and roving across the field like your queen chess piece — he was more your deep or field safety depending on the coverage called earlier in the year — but Cisco was indeed the piece which made it all work for the Orange, and the drop-off since his injury and draft declaration has left the team in a free fall.

Numbers compiled by Sports Illustrated

Statistic Two Games With Cisco Three Games Without Cisco
Statistic Two Games With Cisco Three Games Without Cisco
Pass Yards Per Game 259 214
Rush Yards Per Game 143.5 325.3
Yards Per Carry 3.6 6
Total Yards Per Game 402.5 539.3
Points Allowed Per Game 26 32
Turnovers Forced Per Game 2.5 3.7
Sacks Per Game 2.5 1.7
3rd Down % Defense 39.30% 44.70%

It may jump out at you that Syracuse now surrenders fewer pass yards per game since Cisco’s absence, but this is fool’s good. The Shutdown Fullcast gleefully reminded us this week that you should never throw the ball if you A) are the Georgia Bulldogs, or B) want to win a football game. Meaning, if you can’t defend the run, why would your opponent ever need to pass? Every other stat in the chart reflects this, and shines light upon the structural deficiencies sans Cisco.

The base Syracuse structure. A crowded 6 man box 5 DBs behind them. Notice Cisco (#7) essentially played a middle safety role from his strong safety positon: crashing the alley and dropping into deep coverage aplenty. (Note the field corner is not visible in this screen cap; the bottom defender you see is the nickel corner).

The pass defense wasn’t great before, but the run defense and entire unit fell off a cliff without their anchor in the back. Without his playmaking safety, White opts to keep more bodies on the front at the expense of the second level, and the ripple effect made waves from front to back.

Against both Duke and Liberty — each of which were not-so-close defeats — ‘Cuse lined up one or both OLBs on the line to try to throw numbers into the backfield, creating a typical 4-3 or even 5-2 look with 3-3-5 personnel.

Sure, more bodies on the line is more conducive to an aggressive attack, but there is no one on the second level should a DT get sealed out or should the center climb and block the Mike. The most jarring point which jumps out on film is just how often at least one offensive lineman is able to climb to the second level and spring chunk run after chunk run against Syracuse — despite doing so against what amount to frequent edge run blitzes.


There’s not much else to say, and little way to sugarcoat it: Cisco’s loss altered the entire defensive structure, and the unit has been in a free fall trying to adjust and mitigate the fallout. Stunts, blitzes, and a bevy of different coverages do little to shore up a unit left all but hapless. Thus, there’s little to glean in what to expect from the Syracuse defense Saturday — though still worth looking back at what the unit could’ve been with their best player and linchpin — because nothing we’ve seen from them this month indicates much success against an offense in a stratosphere they’ve not yet seen.

This should be another ho-hum nooner unless Clemson piles up a ton of unforced errors. No matter what Dabo said about them publicly, the Orange shouldn’t force nearly their usual amount. Syracuse’s saving grace has been turnovers borne from aggression in the back end, but Clemson has been clinical through the air and remembered they can out-scheme instead of merely out-talent opponents. This should be a monster game for Travis Etienne if he actually gets 10 carries. Trevor Lawrence merely needs to pick up where he left off and exit this game by halftime.

I didn’t mean to write about Syracuse so dismissively, but the August and September vision for the unit and team is undone. Now they’re even without their starting quarterback on the other side of the ball, which isn’t quite a devastating loss if you’ve watched DeVito over the past year and a half, and we all know what to expect here. It should mirror the Georgia Tech result, though the travel roster won’t limit the number of walk-ons Dabo can throw in throughout the second half and thus this shouldn’t reach quite the same margin. Stay healthy and empty the bench.

Clemson 62, Syracuse 10