The Clemson Tigers (3-2, 2-1 in ACC) and their beleaguered offense travel up to central New York to take on the Syracuse Orange (3-3, 0-2 in ACC) Friday night in the Carrier Dome. I need not say more to induce some 2017 PTSD vibes among the Clemson faithful. Hopefully for the Tigers, though, things are starting to turn around.
John Cassillo, managing editor of Nunes Magician (SB Nation’s Syracuse site) was kind enough to answer some of my questions once again. You can give John a Twitter follow here.
STS: As time goes on, it seems that Syracuse’s 10-win season under coach Dino Babers in 2018 was more of an aberration than a turning point for the program. The Orange come in at 3-3, but are 0-2 in conference play. What continues to ail the team, and do you see them turning things around in the near future? What’s the outlook for Babers?
NM: Yeah, 2018 was definitely the confluence of a lot of things—a healthy Eric Dungey, down ACC aside from Clemson, a veteran team and a quality offensive line sort of came together all at once. Since then, the program’s added talented players, but has failed to truly cash in on the success of 2018 the way you’d hope.
In the two-and-a-half years since 2018, offensive line play has been rough, and that’s hampered quarterback play and health. Play-calling has also been pretty poor, failing to adapt to what the personnel actually could do given the aforementioned hurdles. Injuries on both sides of the ball have also plagued the Orange.
This year, the issue early on was the offense and play-calling, and now I’d argue it’s just some bad luck and questionable decision-making in two straight last-second losses. I don’t see Syracuse “turning it around” under Babers in the sense that they’re competing for division championships every year—but that’s a tough standard to hold any SU head coach to. This team’s talented enough to go bowling this year. But if they can’t get to six wins due to coaching, then it’s probably time to move on from this staff.
STS: One reason for optimism, though, might be how the Syracuse offense has looked since turning to Mississippi State transfer quarterback Garrett Shrader, and benching Tommy DeVito. Shrader has quite a bit of mobility, and helped the Orange put up 37 points against unbeaten Wake Forest before the Demon Deacons escaped the Carrier Dome with a 40-37 overtime win. How would you evaluate Shrader’s play so far, and how much has he changed the Orange’s offensive scheme?
NM: When the team first gave the ball to Shrader over DeVito, I’d argue that the transfer wasn’t actually playing better than his predecessor. But as Shrader’s gotten more snaps, the design of the offense has leaned further into his strengths—throwing outside of the pocket and running the football.
I’d argue the play-calling is still questionable more often than not. But rolling Shrader out at least creates some variability and run/pass option on basically every snap. If he progresses throwing the ball, this offense gets a lot more dangerous. But right now, it’s a run-heavy attack that FSU and Wake’s defenses just haven’t been able to stop effectively.
STS: Despite the Orange’s struggles, Clemson always seems to have some trouble with them. There was of course the big upset victory for the Orange on a Friday night in 2017, which is giving me some PTSD ahead of this one. Then there was the very close game in 2018 where the Tigers escaped with backup quarterback Chase Brice leading the way in the second half in place of an injured Trevor Lawrence. Even in the past two seasons, while the final scores have been lopsided, Clemson was far from sharp for large swaths of those games despite being the far superior team. As an aside, Syracuse also continues to be a thorn in my side personally, as I was in Las Vegas over the weekend and thought that Wake Forest minus-6 was easy money. Nope!
Anyway, getting back to the point: From your point of view, why do the Orange seem to give the Tigers such fits?
NM: Under Dino Babers, the Orange have played to opponents a lot of the time—much to the frustration of Syracuse (and perhaps, Clemson) fans. They know how to get up for big games and are a tough out against quality competition. Against the Tigers, in particular, Syracuse always seems ready to throw a new wrinkle at Dabo and he usually blinks, even if just long enough to let SU hang around for a bit longer than they should. The exception there is the 2018 game, where I’d argue Babers was the one who blinked despite having the advantage. Alas…what might’ve been.
STS: Now looking at matchups for Friday night, when Syracuse has the ball, who should we keep an eye on besides Shrader? What types of things should we expect to see schematically from the Syracuse offense?
NM: If you just keep an eye on Shrader, that means you’re probably going to get run over by Sean Tucker. The second-year back is second in the country in rushing yards, and brings an exciting mix of power and speed that’s given most teams fits this year (even Florida State, which managed to bottle him up for half the game, still let him hit 100 yards).
When Tucker isn’t running, you’ll see a lot of Shrader rolling out and if he doesn’t see something, he’ll quickly call his own number. Shrader can make quick throws to stationary receivers, but won’t hit wideouts in stride much. And he’s only completed three passes of 20 or more yards. So that should allow Clemson to play closer to the line of scrimmage, which increases the Tigers’ chances to slow down the run game.
STS: On the other side, when the beleaguered Clemson offense has the ball, who are some players to watch on Syracuse’s defense? I always associate Syracuse with having some good, ball-hawking defensive backs. Are there any key players to watch there? And how do you think this defensive unit overall can continue to give the Tigers’ offense trouble?
NM: In year two of Tony White’s 3-3-5 scheme, Syracuse definitely appears a bit more comfortable, disguising blitzes more and putting a lot of different looks out there. It’s led to a team that’s much improved against the run, and doesn’t rely as heavily on turnovers. They still get after opposing passers quite a bit, though, which should make for an interesting matchup against a quality Clemson line and a questionable Tigers passing attack.
For SU’s defensive line, Cody Roscoe will bring the most pressure off the edge, and has 9.5 tackles for loss on the year. Linebacker Mikel Jones also plays well in both coverage and applying pressure, and is likely to be all over the field.
Best bet for Clemson is using screens and their speed on the outside to pull the defense closer to the line and then try to exploit one-on-one matchups downfield.
STS: OK, prediction time. Syracuse might only be 3-3, but Clemson is only 3-2 itself, and has looked pretty bad in getting there. And with it being a Friday night game in the Carrier Dome, some weird things are probably going to occur. Who do you see winning this game, and what’s your final score prediction?
NM: I’d love to say this game brings some weirdness that results in another Friday night upset for Syracuse at the Dome, but the extra rest probably makes enough of a difference for the Tigers to take home the victory. It’ll be another close game for both squads, though, and could see it come down to the final possession — something neither fan base will be thrilled about. A late mistake probably decides it in a 24-20 win for Clemson.
A big thank-you to John for taking part in this Q&A once again. To see my answers to his questions, head over to Nunes Magician.