Rutgers will look to build off the positive momentum they started the season with after last week’s 61-14 victory over Temple. They face another former Big East foe in Syracuse which is the program’s first road game with fans in two seasons. The Orange are also 1-0 after opening the season with a 29-9 win over Ohio.
This is an extremely important non-conference game for both programs. In an effort to find out more about this week’s opponent, I was fortunate to connect with John Cassillo, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Syracuse site, Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician. We covered a variety of topics and let’s kick things off here.
What are expectations for this season and how much is Dino Babers on the hot seat after last year’s 1-10 campaign? After winning 10 games and making a bowl game in year three, why have things have unraveled so dramatically? Does a loss to Rutgers sink any chance he has to turn the ship around?
Depending on which Syracuse fan you ask about the questions above, you’ll probably get a lot of different answers. But on my end, at least:
Expectations this year are that Babers needs to find a way to get this team back to a respectable 5-7, at least, for many fans to feel like the ship is being righted. If we knew what his buyout was (he signed an extension after the 2018 season), we’d have a better chance at projecting just how hot the seat is. Barring another complete collapse, SU may not have the money to let him go after 2021. And honestly, a lot of Orange fans really want Dino to work out given the energy he initially brought to the program.
The unraveling probably comes from a few different things. You can look at the offensive line’s health woes, which gave way to poor play-calling and questionable QB play (followed by injuries there too). I think there’s a bit of Eric Dungey glossing over some issues with the play-calling in particular in 2018, the year after offensive coordinator Sean Lewis left to take over Kent State. Lewis’s offenses have worked well for the Golden Flashes in the years since, while ours have sort of fallen apart. There’s probably a correlation there.
How would you rate Syracuse’s performance in the season opening win over Ohio and how much do you think they kept under wraps with play calling?
I think the defense gets an A-minus, while I’d give the offense a B-. I’m most impressed with the fact that the defense didn’t force a turnover ‘til late, yet still managed to hold Ohio in check while bending but not breaking. Meanwhile, the offense put together a pretty capable but uneventful gameplan that still netted them over 280 yards on the ground. Things still looked a little iffy in the red zone (a theme for what feels like a decade-plus), but hopefully that’s play-calling being kept under wraps. Historically, Babers hasn’t given away much early in seasons — especially in week one.
Tommy DeVito showed some promise in 2019 as the starter before having a season ending injury last year. Is he healthy and how important is his development to the team’s success this season?
DeVito was a highly-rated passer out of high school who really excited Syracuse fans as the future face of the program, and he looked the part in relief duty back in 2018, in wins over Florida State and North Carolina. But the aforementioned O-line injuries have created some real issues for him in terms of getting into the flow of games, and led to him taking a ton of hits over the last couple years. He’s fully healthy now, and his play under center doesn’t necessarily need to be electrifying. If the run game looks solid, then it takes some pressure off of him to be the biggest playmaker within the offense. With luck, his comfort throwing the ball — even if not dynamic play-making — is a key part of SU’s success this season.
What are the strengths and weaknesses or concerns of the offense?
For the last couple years, the offensive line has been a real weakness and concern, and that’s trickled down to faltering production everywhere else. It’s just one week, but that line looks improved under new management (former San Diego State OL coach Mike Schmidt). We’ll see how it holds up during the rest of non-conference play, however, before rushing to call it a strength.
The one strength we know is Sean Tucker, who ran pretty well behind a poor line last year and looks even better this year so far. He’s a powerful back between the tackles who can also turn on the jets. Having him in the backfield should make life easier for everyone — which is good because there’s a lot of uncertainty around the wide receivers aside from Taj Harris.
What are the strengths and weaknesses or concerns of the defense?
The secondary has been a strength for Syracuse in recent seasons, with a high-risk, high-reward style of play that’s led to a ton of turnovers (SU’s forced 81 since the start of 2018). We were curious if there would be any drop-off after three players headed off to the NFL this offseason, but it appears that New Jersey product Duce Chestnut is going to be able to step right in and produce, which is great news.
Oddly, you could argue the defense’s biggest weakness also has the most experience. After a couple years of dynamic play from the line, the transition to the 3-3-5 scheme hasn’t seemed like an easy on for the veterans up front. When healthy, they can plug holes, but you definitely see them get pushed around here and there. Hopefully nose tackle McKinley Williams is back in action vs. Rutgers after not appearing against Ohio (though he did suit up).
Who are key players in this matchup that Rutgers fans should be concerned with?
Peppered some of them in above in Tucker and the sure-tackling Chestnut. But a few others to keep an eye on are Harris and linebacker Mikel Jones.
Harris lined up primarily on the outside until later last year when he shifted inside to become more of a slot receiver. He’s speedy and has a tendency to make things happen after the catch, plus DeVito leaned on him pretty heavily in week one, so expect plenty more targets here. Jones was the ACC’s co-leader in interceptions last year, but he also gets into the backfield. He’s incredibly athletic and you’ll likely see him all over the field come Saturday.
What does Syracuse need to do to win and how can Rutgers beat them?
If Syracuse can run the ball well and limit mistakes, I definitely like their odds. This Orange team isn’t going to turn games into track meets like they did early in Baber’s tenure, but the more they move the ball on the ground, the more likely downfield options (Tommy does throw a good deep ball here and there) will start to open up. This team doesn’t turn it over a ton, but they’ve typically committed unforced errors on both sides of the ball, so avoiding those would set them up well.
Rutgers can win this game by making Syracuse press a bit on both sides of the ball. An early Scarlet Knights lead could do that, and the longer it holds, the more likely Orange defensive backs start taking more risks and the more likely SU’s forced to pass the ball on offense. Really, if you can force us into a lot of passing situations, I’m not betting on this going well for ‘Cuse.
Does playing Rutgers in football less than a year after playing in basketball rekindle any juice, no pun intended, with Syracuse fans?
Eh, not necessarily. For a long time, we shared space in the Tri-State area, but the truly “good” matchups really only came toward the end of our time sharing the Big East. We’re recruiting rivals in football, for certain. But as far as on-field, Syracuse fans are more concerned with Boston College, West Virginia and Pitt, plus delusions that the Penn State series from when we were eastern independents remains a thing. Syracuse fans want to beat Rutgers, of course. But facing you all with more frequency doesn’t necessarily spark interest from fans like those other teams do.
What is your prediction for this game?
Ohio’s defense was a veteran, capable group, so it was nice to see the Orange offense perform reasonably well against them. However, Rutgers’ defense is far more talented and should do just enough to disrupt SU to take home the win. This will be a battle, and I think it’s won late by whichever team can force a timely turnover. But on the game, just think the Scarlet Knights do enough to force Syracuse into more passing situations than they’d prefer, and that derails just enough to snag a close win. Rutgers 27, Syracuse 23
Thanks to John for providing such great insight on the current state of Syracuse football. You can follow him on Twitter here and for complete coverage of Syracuse Athletics, visit Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician. For my answers to John’s questions about Rutgers football, click here.