It feels kind of bizarre that, here in the first week of October and five weeks into the 2015 season, the Syracuse University football team is just now preparing for its first road trip of the year. I’m sure some “witty” columnist is out there working on a joke about how Jim Boeheim must have done the scheduling this season, but I’ll leave those brilliant quips to them. At 3-1, the Orange head south this week to take on South Florida in a game that will tell an awful lot about what we should expect to see from the team as they head toward the meat of the schedule.
There are obviously some questions we need to get answered this week, specifically about the health status of both Eric Dungey and Erv Philips. Philips, by all accounts, is almost certainly going to be back in action when the Orange take the field in Tampa, but Dungey’s status is still a little bit up in the air. The buzz filtering out is that the freshman quarterback should be good to go, but of course we won’t know for sure until either Scott Shafer states as much publicly, or we see No. 2 trot out onto the field for the first offensive snaps of the game on Saturday.
In any event, given the way the Orange played the last time we saw them take the field, now more than a week ago against LSU, this looks to be a game that Syracuse should certainly be able to win. South Florida has been in a pretty substantial slump over the past few years, and while they played a solid Memphis team tough last Saturday, it should be noted that after the Bulls grabbed an early 10-0 lead, Memphis asserted control the rest of the way, scoring 24 straight until a USF touchdown with two minutes left.
While it’s obviously difficult to say at this stage in Syracuse’s season – given the number of potential question marks at various positions – that the Orange should emerge with a win, the fact is that on paper, USF’s strengths and weaknesses play pretty well into Syracuse’s hands.
The Bulls struggle pretty mightily in the passing game, though quarterback Quinton Flowers is an excellent athlete who makes up for his inability to really get the ball downfield with his elusiveness in the pocket and ability to makes plays with his feet. The team also has several good looking young running backs, but fortunately for the Orange, run defense is the unquestioned strength of that unit.
Outside of Leonard Fournette, running backs have struggled to find any running room against the Orange, and USF most assuredly does not have anyone close to Fournette’s caliber. Still, USF averages 210.5 yards per game on the ground, against just 166.3 yards passing. Meanwhile, the Bulls are surrendering 233.8 yards per game through the air, against a reasonably stingy 131 rushing yards per game.
The biggest problem Syracuse has had defensively this season is giving up big pass plays, which shouldn’t be much of an issue against USF. For the year, Flowers has thrown for 525 yards at a completion rate of 60%, but is averaging a meager 6.2 yards per attempt. For the sake of comparison, Central Michigan signal caller Cooper Rush averages 7.3 yards per attempt, and Wake Forest’s John Wolford averaged 9.1 yards per attempt before succumbing to an ankle injury. As long as the Orange are able to keep running back D’Ernest Johnson in check, they should be able to limit the aerial attack pretty significantly. And yes, I did say running back. The 5-foot-10 Johnson has been by far the team’s most effective receiver this season, leading the team with 14 catches, 223 yards, and four touchdowns through the air.
The front seven of Syracuse should be in for a big game, as opponents have hounded Flowers into four interceptions and nine sacks – including six times in a 35-17 loss to Maryland. The lone win this season for USF came against 0-5 Florid A&M, and in the three games since the Bulls have struggled mightily on offense in particular, averaging just 16.0 points per game. On the other side of the ball, they’ve given up 31.0 points per game over that same three game stretch, which also includes a 34-14 loss to Florida State.
At the end of the day, this game will be determined by a few things:
- How will this young, inexperienced team respond to its first road game?
- Will Dungey and Philips be back to full strength?
- Can the defense contain the ground game well enough to render the USF offense ineffective?
If the answers are “Very well”, “Yes”, and “Of course” then the Orange should be looking at a big victory to improve to 4-1 on the season with a trip to Virginia looming next weekend. Assuming Eric Dungey is back under center for the Orange, I’m predicting a 38-17 win for the good guys.