Even before the 2017 season kicked off, Syracuse fans looked at the daunting schedule and penciled in a few matchups as “must-win” games if the Orange wanted any shot at a 6-6 record and a bowl berth. With the exception of Middle Tennessee State, the Orange have taken care of business in the games we expected them to win, and even pulled off a monumental upset over Clemson to offset the MTSU loss.
Which is to say: we all pretty much expected to be sitting here at 4-5 right now, right? Obviously, the coaches and players went in with the belief they could be better than that record, but stepping back from Syracuse fandom and looking at the schedule objectively, for the most part the Orange have won the games they should win and lost the games they were expected to lose when the schedule was first released.
Two of the games that Syracuse fans had circled as being essential for any hopes of a bowl berth still loom in the final three weeks of the season (which I hope is just the final three weeks of the regular season): Wake Forest and Boston College.
Now, clearly things have shifted a bit and the ACC’s power structure has been thrown out of whack underneath Clemson and Miami. Louisville has been a bit of a disaster at 5-4, with three losses in their last four games – including losses at home to Boston College and on the road at Wake Forest.
And Wake and BC have both turned out to be better than many projected, with both teams, like Louisville, sitting on a 5-4 record. Of course, Boston College has won three straight games, while Wake Forest has lost four of their last five, so take that for what it’s worth.
For now, let’s focus on Wake Forest. This game was always a “must-win” for any hopes of a bowl berth, and it remains that way as the Demon Deacons come to the Carrier Dome on Saturday. Syracuse is 4-1 at home this season, most recently beating Pittsburgh and Clemson in the friendly confines of the Dome. Wake, on the other hand, is 2-3 on the road this year with its two road victories coming early in the season at Boston College (before the Eagles seemingly figured things out), and at Appalachian State. They’ve lost at Clemson, at Georgia Tech, and at Notre Dame. So… they aren’t exactly losing to cupcakes away from home.
In the last three games for Wake Forest, the Deacs are sporting a 1-2 record, having lost to Georgia Tech and Notre Dame, sandwiched around a 42-32 win over Louisville. All three games have been high scoring affairs, with the average score being 39.3 points for opponents and 34.3 points for the Deacs themselves.
Syracuse, meanwhile, despite the high octane offense hasn’t topped 30 points in a game since September 16, though the Orange have had both of their highest scoring games over that stretch at home against Pitt and Clemson (27 points in each game). Still, the fact that the Orange have been struggling to put points on the board – which could be exacerbated by the fact that, despite public comments suggesting he’ll be fine, Eric Dungey’s status is still very much up in the air – is potentially troubling heading into a game against a red-hot Wake Forest offense.
That offense is led by John Wolford, who’s had the best three-game stretch of his career. In his first five starts this season, Wolford threw for a combined 947 yards with eight touchdowns and an interception. That’s under 200 yards-per-game.
The last three games? Wolford has thrown for 1,044 yards with nine touchdowns, or 348 yards-per-game. Granted, 461 of those yards and five of those touchdowns came against an abysmal Louisville defense, but he still put up 252 yards against Georgia Tech and 331 against Notre Dame. That’s not too shabby.
In a twist that no one saw coming, it’s actually been the Syracuse defense that’s kept the Orange in so many games this year (the Orange haven’t lost by more than nine points, and four of the five losses have been by a single possession), and the pass defense has been stingier than anyone could have expected.
Yes, the secondary is banged up, and is sorely missing Antwan Cordy and, now, Jordan Martin. But the Orange have given up only one 300-yard passing game all year (at Miami), though interceptions have been hard to come by. Wolford has only thrown three picks this year, and Syracuse only has four interceptions collectively, which is a combination that suggests the Deacs won’t be turning the ball over much on Saturday.
Syracuse won’t be the only team with significant injuries on Saturday, of course. Wake Forest may be without its top defensive back, Jessie Bates, who as a redshirt freshman last year had 100 tackles and five interceptions, and was leading the team in tackles this year before getting hurt. He missed the Notre Dame game and was nowhere to be found on the early week depth chart released by Wake Forest.
Keep in mind, of course, that weekly depth charts are pretty meaningless, and often a tool of gamesmanship between coaches. Find me a 100% accurate depth chart, and it’ll be like finding a unicorn. It just doesn’t exist.
Still, at this point Bates seems like he’s going to be questionable to see the field at best, and that helps Syracuse’s chances through the air, particularly if Dungey is unable to go. If Dungey either misses the game entirely or plays a little but winds up in too much pain to continue, it’ll be Zack Mahoney under center for the Orange, and a weakened secondary will only help as he gets comfortable running the offense.
Mahoney hasn’t started a game since last year’s Pitt shootout, and last week was his first significant playing time of 2017. The offense struggled with Mahoney in the game last week, but presumably he’s taking a lot more snaps this week in preparation for potentially being called upon against Wake.
Last season, Mahoney started three games for the Orange, with Syracuse going 0-3 over that stretch with losses to NC State, Florida State, and Pitt. Overall, Syracuse is 1-6 with Mahoney as the starting QB, with the lone win coming in Scott Shafer’s final game against Boston College. Obviously, Mahoney has faced an incredibly tough group of teams in his seven starts, but it’s still clear that – the ridiculous Pitt game aside – the offense takes a substantial step back when Dungey’s not on the field. Mahoney has thrown for 1,518 yards with 15 touchdowns and six picks in his career… with 440 yards and five touchdowns coming against Pitt. The next highest yard total for Mahoney is 190 in last year’s loss to NC State.
But again, we’ll see what happens with the quarterback situation for Syracuse as we get closer to kickoff. Hopefully it’ll be Eric Dungey taking the snaps, but you should be prepared for the junior signal caller to be sidelined, just in case.
One more victory will get Syracuse to five wins and a chance at a bowl berth via having a high APR, though the odds are pretty slim that the Orange would be among the very few teams to snag one of those spots. The surest way to a bowl berth is winning two of the final three games, and with Boston College suddenly looking like the best team remaining on Syracuse’s schedule (who the hell ever could have predicted that?), Saturday’s game has taken on even greater significance for the success of the 2017 season.
Please, Orange fans: go pack the Dome. The team needs this game, and they need you to provide a home field advantage, just like against Clemson. Let’s get it.