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Syracuse wraps up its initial three game stretch versus interstate opponents when the Black Knights of Army come into the Dome on Sunday for a 4:00 p.m. matchup.  Despite John Desko’s impressive 12-2 career record against the Black Knights, Army has given Syracuse all it can handle in many previous match ups including last year’s hard fought 12-9 win for the Orange.  As the two teams meet for the  63rd time in the series here are a few key match ups to keep an eye on.

Faceoffs: Ben Williams has continued his dominant performance from 2015 winning a mind boggling 72.5% of his draws through two  games in 2015.  After running roughshod over the first two opponents Williams will be facing his toughest challenge to date as Army will counter with Dan Grabher and Alex Daly who are both over 70% at the X this year themselves.  The bad news for Army head coach Joe Alberici is that Grabher and Daly were a combined 3-16 at the faceoff X against Williams in 2015, when he went an incredible 21 of 25 against three different Army faceoff specialists.

Compounding the potential issue for Army is that none of their first three opponents were particularly strong at the face off position, making it unclear if the two headed monster can continue to win draws at this rate against higher level opponents.  If Williams is over 60% its hard to see how Army can win barring a Herculean defensive effort.  Army needs to find a way to either battle Syracuse to a draw or lose only slightly over 50%. Look for Army to switch between Grabher and Daly in hopes that one of them can get hot against Williams. If Williams is able to continue his dominance  its hard to see how Syracuse doesn’t walk away a winner.

Syracuse Offense vs Army Defense: This will be the key matchup for both teams and the team that wins this struggle is likely to take home the W.  Army has been built around an above average defense for most of coach Joe Alberici’s tenure.  In 2016 Army is attempting to replace All-American goalie Sam Somers, who was a four year starter for the Black Knights and was a thorn in Syracuse’s side throughout his career.

True Freshman AJ Baretto, the #1 ranked incoming goalie by Inside Lacrosse, has taken over the job and has held his own with a 7.21 GAA and .571 save percentage.  Army lost multiple defenders to graduation along with Somers and outside of junior close defender Austin Schultz and junior LSM Tim Stackpole the Army defense is a relatively inexperienced one. It’s very likely that Schultz will draw Dylan Donahue but the remaining matchups are unclear from an Army standpoint. Expect Army to try and take a page out of Bryant’s playbook and throw zone at the Orange for a good portion of the game.

Syracuse has punished zone defenses in its first two games but the Orange has been a spotty shooting team the last few years and has struggled to score when the inside game has been shut off.  The health of Tim Barber will be a big key for Syracuse.  If he plays as expected his return will strengthen the attack unit and add a dangerous shooter to the lineup.  The key offensively for the Orange will likely lie with the midfield. If Sergio Salcido, Matt Lane, Derek Dejoe, and Nick Mariano can connect on open looks from mid range and beyond Syracuse is likely to win comfortably. If Syracuse is unable to find th net or runs into a hot goalie, the pressure will be on Donahue, Evans, and the third attackman to attack from X and from around the crease.

Donahue has played well in his career against Army. If they are unable to slow him down the offense should open up for the rest of the team, especially the aforementioned midfield. The other key for Syracuse will be to continue with the balanced scoring it has shown.  Nine different players scored last week versus Albany, including a second line midfielder (Derek Dejoe) with three goals, and a fourth attackman (Devin Shewell) with two of his own.  If Syracuse is getting that kind of production again it’s hard to see how Army can pull the upset.

Army Offense vs Syracuse Defense: The blueprint for offense under Joe Alberici at Army has been an elite attackman with a talented supporting cast surrounding him. From Garret Thul to Jeremy Boltus to John Glessner, Army has continued to churn out elite attackmen who are the focal point of their offense. Like Sam Somers, Glessner exhausted his eligibility after last season, leaving the Black Knights with a big hole to fill. Currently that difficult job is being handled by true frosh Nate Jones, who leads the team with eight goals.

While Jones certainly has big shoes to fill, the transition is made easier with junior Cole Johnson and senior Connor Cook. With the graduation of Glessner, Army is in search of a quarterback on offense as Jones, while the leading scorer, is not yet a feeder at this point in his career. The lack of a director on offense is evident as Army’s starting attack unit has a combined five assists on this year while Dylan Donahue alone has nine assists for the Orange. Army’s midfield will need to step up its production if they hope to pull the upset as the unit on paper appears to be the weak link of the Black Knight Attack.

For Syracuse this looks to be a favorable match up as the Orange possess quality depth and high end talent in all phases on defense.  Look for super freshman Nick Mellen to draw leading scorer Nate Jones, who at 5-foot-10 is the type of attacker Mellen has completely shut down in his first two games in an Orange uniform. All-American close defender Brandon Mullins will likely draw Cole Johnson, leaving senior Jay McDermott on fellow senior Connor Cook.  Syracuse would appear to have a considerable advantage here as Mullins and Mellen have been excellent the first two weeks, especially Mellen, who drew Siena and Albany’s top offensive players and shut them down completely.

Look for Army to try and slow the game down on offense working the clock and looking for cracks in the Orange defense, which still continues to struggle with communication and timed slides. With the short stick and long stick midfielders also playing well for the Orange, Army is facing a daunting task offensively.

Intangibles: Depth should once again be a key strength for the Orange. Last year in a close game throughout, Syracuse ultimately wore down Army with their dominance at the X and waves of offensive players. Going into this game Syracuse appears to again have a distinct advantage here with the ability to call on a deep roster. Syracuse has been running three mid lines and as many as six attackmen, five of whom have played while the games were still early and in doubt. If Tim Barber ends up playing for Syracuse the depth will be that much better for the Orange, who can mix and match their lineup depending on time, score, and defensive look. Army doesn’t have much in the way of elite level depth like the Orange, getting positive contributions from the second mid line and backup defenders is a must.

Final Thoughts: Army is a talented team that possesses the coaching and overall talent to upset the Orange. However, that day may be a year or two away as Army has too many question marks going into a game against an Orange team that has looked dominant in its first two games. Syracuse has shown a balance of scoring that will be difficult for a young defense like Army to cope with, especially if Ben Williams is dominating at the faceoff X. Syracuse has scored in the high teens in both games to start the season despite dealing with injuries and uneven performances from attackman Jordan Evans.

Army’s best hope is that the young goalie stands on his head and that Syracuse struggles to put shots on goal from the outside. For the Orange, coming out and blitzing Army early may lead to a lopsided game as Army’s defense is young and their offense is still a work in progress and will have to deal with a very experienced and talented Orange defense.

Final Score: 14-8 Syracuse

Good coaching and defense keeps it close but the Orange depth and firepower ultimately overwhelms the Black Knights.

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