While it was great watching the Syracuse University football team beat up on poor, hopelessly overmatched Rhode Island on Friday night, it didn’t tell us much that we can really use going forward. You can’t tell if an adult actually knows his way around a chess board when he’s playing against a toddler, after all. This weekend we’ll get a better sense of what to expect from the Orange this season as the team hosts Wake Forest in what has to be viewed as a must-win game for Syracuse to have any chance to earn a bowl berth.
Last season the Orange went into Winston-Salem with a raw, true freshman starting under center and rode a stellar defensive performance and a few big offensive plays to come away with a 30-7 victory over the Deacs. This season, with the University calling for an “Orange Out” and honoring legendary SU coach Dick MacPherson, the Orange will once again be relying on a true freshman QB and a swarming defense to try for a repeat performance.
Of course, the long-awaited appearance of orange uniforms and the first actual start for Eric Dungey aren’t the only things to watch on Saturday in the Carrier Dome. Here are five more things to keep an eye on.
1. Containing John Wolford
Syracuse has an athletic, talented defense but the Orange are very, very young on that side of the ball. Over the past few seasons, Chuck Bullough’s aggressive defensive calls have occasionally left the defense susceptible to big plays from athletic quarterbacks. Wolford, Wake’s sophomore signal caller, fits that bill. Well, to a degree. Wolford isn’t exactly Michael Vick, but he can still beat you with his legs, evidenced by a 70-yard touchdown run against Elon last week.
Yes, it’s just Elon, but then again, Rhode Island is just Rhode Island. Wolford torched Elon for 323 passing yards and three touchdowns as well. Syracuse will need to do a good job of containing him. If the young defense – which will be gaining Ron Thompson and John Raymon back as full-time players, and not just situational performers like last week – can keep Wolford in check, the Orange should feel extremely good about their chances.
2. Keeping the Offense Rolling
That is, of course, if Syracuse can keep it up offensively. The Orange got big performances from guys like Jordan Fredericks and, before leaving with an injury for precautionary reasons, Erv Philips, but that was against a lousy defense on a team that finished 1-11 in FCS play in 2014. Wake Forest is another animal altogether.
The Deacs may have had one of the worst offenses in the nation last season, but their defense is certainly solid, particularly at the linebacker position. It’ll be a big test for Syracuse – which gets starting running back Devante McFarlane (who broke an 86 yard run against WF last season) back after he missed last week due to injury – and let us know if this group of running backs is legit, or was just picking on a terrible team last Friday.
3. Erv Philips’ Health
I touched on this one already, but what’s up with Erv Philips? After scoring two touchdowns – including a SportsCenter Top 10 screen pass reception and touchdown – he left the Rhode Island game at halftime with a “lower body injury.” No news has filtered out yet about what happened, or indicating the severity, but Scott Shafer has hinted that he could have played in the second half if the Orange had needed him.
Is that just coach speak? Or was Philips legitimately held out because the game was already well in hand and they just wanted to give their star express back some rest? Philips is arguably the most dynamic player the Syracuse offense has, and they need him to be back to 100% to find any sort of success this season.
4. Where’s Steve Ishmael?
Let’s keep this very clear: the Orange didn’t need their star wide receiver in order to beat Rhode Island, and the second half the team barely threw the ball because the game was already a blowout. So we shouldn’t have expected big numbers from the true sophomore and top pass catcher on the roster. But I think we all probably expected Ishmael to be a little less invisible in the season opener, when he caught three passes for 29 yards with a long of just 11 yards.
Last season, Ishmael caught six passes for 72 yards against Wake, and this week he’ll have a chance to break out again after being a non-factor in the opener. Syracuse didn’t really target Ishmael against Rhode Island, but this weekend Dungey will need to look for the guy who is arguably the most talented WR the Orange have had since Mike Williams. Against a solid defense like Wake, with the running game likely to be a lot tougher sledding, playmakers need to step up in the passing game. There’s no better playmaker at wideout on this roster than Ishmael.
5. Opening Up the Offense
Since last Friday’s win over Rhode Island was basically a glorified scrimmage, offensive coordinator Tim Lester didn’t really have to open up the playbook for the team to get the win. About the most creative ways the express back was used was on jet sweeps, which is something we all knew was coming anyway. This week Lester will have an opportunity to open things up a little bit more and really put his system on display.
The good news is that with the ability to keep things vanilla against Rhode Island, Wake still doesn’t really have any tape on what Lester wants to do. This gives Syracuse a big advantage on that side of the ball, and that can only help. Obviously, it would have been ideal if Terrel Hunt was still under center, rather than a true freshman who has only been working with Lester since this summer and no doubt has a less firm grasp on the playbook than the fifth year senior, but the staff insists that they won’t have to dial things down with Dungey at the helm. This weekend could wind up being a great showcase not just for Dungey, but for Lester as well.
Obviously, these aren’t the only things to watch for on Saturday, but it’s a good place to start. It’ll be interesting to see if the special teams game continues to improve, and if Brisly Estime can keep making plays on punt returns. I’ll also be watching to see how the inexperienced secondary responds now that they’re actually going to be tested, especially after just missing on a couple of interceptions last week. And it’ll be interesting to see how much the true freshmen, like Jordan Fredericks and Steven Clark, factor into the game in their first ACC action. Kickoff is at 12:30 p.m. Eastern, and the game is on ESPN3.