Despite last week’s debacle, the Q&A returns in much better shape this week as we chat with John Cassillo of Syracuse’s SBNation site, Nune’s Magician. John gave us some great insight into the Orange’s offensive struggles, Carrier Dome renovations, and the ceiling for this ‘Cuse team in 2020. You can read my answers to their questions here.
1) Syracuse has famously had a good offense under Babers, even good enough to beat Clemson a few years ago. Why has the offense struggled so mightily in this young season? And how much of those struggles are to blame on the new OC, Sterlin Gilbert? He’s not the most successful coach in the game, and I’ve thought that was a puzzling hire since the announcement.
This is really the culmination of a three-year decline, rather than a sudden dip on the offensive end. For Babers’s first two seasons at Syracuse, Mike Lynch and Sean Lewis split offensive coordinator duties. But starting in 2018, Lynch had the sole job as a result of Lewis taking over at Kent State. We quickly found out that creativity and breakneck speed was more Lewis’s forte, and the 2018 offense — while historically one of the best ever at Syracuse — came more as a result of Eric Dungey’s improvisational skills than tireless efficiency.
Last year, without Dungey, that fact that was laid bare a bit more. Tommy DeVito can run, but isn’t a “mobile QB” in the same way Dungey was. Coupled with a poor offensive line and the resulting run game struggles, the 2019 offense struggled mightily. This year, the line somehow looks even worse, and DeVito’s shell-shocked from so many sacks (more than any player since the start of last season).
Though it’s not easy to run an offense without an offensive line, run game or a QB that can stay upright, Gilbert’s play-calling so far has been relatively uninspired. The hire made sense for Dino, since he’s a stickler for his system and Gilbert called plays for him from 2012-14 at both Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green. But so far, he’s offered less scheme continuity and more lack of imagination when what we’re trying to do clearly isn’t working.
2) If we make it through all 11 games this season, what’s the ceiling for this Cuse team?
That’s going to be decided by this offense’s ability to improve. Despite two losses to start the year, a) they were expected and b) the vastly improved defense kept the Orange in things. The switch to the 3-3-5 has worked well, and if you can couple that with even an average offense, you’re looking at something near a .500 season when facing the middle of the ACC as the majority of your schedule.
3) I’ve seen some photos of the Carrier Dome remodel - what sort of upgrades / changes did they make?
The biggest aspect of the remodel is the roof, which is no longer actually a dome. Beyond that, there’s a giant jumbotron in the middle now, seat improvements and we’re potentially looking at air conditioning (finally!) this year or next. Restrooms have also been upgraded, but that won’t affect anyone at Saturday’s game with no fans in attendance.
4) How has the Cuse defense looked this year? Who has stood out on that side of the ball?
Syracuse hired Tony White to take over the defense this offseason, and through two games, it certainly looks like he’s successfully implemented a 3-3-5 scheme that still allows the Orange front to generate pressure while giving the secondary chances to remain aggressive. Over the last two seasons, SU’s been one of the better teams in the country in terms of generating turnovers, and through two weeks of this season, they look on track once again with 5 takeaways. Their biggest issue so far in 2020 has been getting worn down over the course of games due to offensive struggles that give the ball right back to opposing teams.
As far as standouts, Syracuse’s three-headed monster in the secondary is (active FBS career interceptions leader) Andre Cisco, Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu. Throwing near any of those players proves dangerous, and Cisco has been particularly freed up to make plays this year by getting plugged into the rover position. Josh Black has looked great on the line in his redshirt senior season so far. Even the Orange’s young linebackers — particularly Mikel Jones — have surprised as big factors in the early contests.
5) Please don’t lose to Liberty... please?
Going into the year I would’ve scoffed at the idea of losing to Liberty. Now I am desperately hoping it doesn’t happen and remain angry the game was ever put on the schedule to begin with.
6) Tech has shown a lot of progress from year 1 under Collins to year 2, but rolls in with a true freshman QB and lots of freshmen and sophomores on the 2 deep... which often shows. What will it take from Syracuse to win this Saturday?
Turnovers are a huge part of any Syracuse win. But equally important is an ability to actually convert those into points. SU’s scored just nine points off five takeaways this year. That’s not nearly enough to make up for a lackluster offense. Speaking of, the Orange need offensive production in this one, obviously. What we’ve seen for the last two weeks clearly won’t cut it against any team on the schedule. If they can get two touchdowns on the board, that is a strong indicator they can pull off the victory given how well this defense has played.
7) Do you have a score prediction? Who wins and why?
It’s not a homer pick, I swear. But I do think that Georgia Tech’s inexperience and Syracuse’s ability to flip the field are a bad match for the Yellow Jackets’ chances on Saturday. As mentioned, the key is the offense. It’s not as much about avoiding mistakes as simply getting passes off and taking some risks downfield. I think the Orange take this one 17-14, with a major assist from SU’s special teams and defense, plus a couple signs of life from the offense that show we do still have a chance to progress there.
Oof, I really hope we don’t all have to sit through a 17-14 game on Saturday, but he might be right.
Thanks again to John for taking the time to chat with us. Be sure to head over to Nune’s Magician to read my end of the Q&A and say hello... and maybe talk a little trash.
Kick is at noon.