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Squeezed: Syracuse defense still a work in progress

AP Photo / Nick Lisi

There wasn’t much to feel good about in Syracuse’s Week 2 defensive performance versus Louisville. The Cardinals gashed the Orange for 845 total yards and 62 points in the Carrier Dome, but if there was any consolation, Louisville did roughly the same thing to the No. 2 team in the country, Florida State.

The Cardinals racked up 530 yards and 63 points Saturday against the Seminoles. The 43-point margin was tied for the third-largest margin of defeat absorbed by a top-two team in the AP poll. The 63 points are the most points ever surrendered in one game by Florida State, and the Seminoles’ offense actually managed eight fewer points versus the Cardinals’ defense than the Orange did.

Many Syracuse fans who arrived at the Carrier Dome knew that Louisville had applied a supreme beatdown to Florida State in a game with a noon Eastern time kickoff. Prior to SU’s 3:30 game on Saturday versus South Florida, there were reasons to believe the Syracuse defense wasn’t actually as bad as it showed in Week 2. Louisville was just that good.

Those optimistic feelings — it’s Louisville being great on offense, not Syracuse being weak on defense — lasted about a quarter.

Syracuse held South Florida off the scoreboard through the first 15 minutes, but the Bulls found the end zone four times in the second quarter and didn’t trail again after the 4:45 mark of that quarter. South Florida went on to score 45 points, which means that in two FBS games, Syracuse has allowed an average of 53.5 points.

There were some issues with quarterback Eric Dungey and the offense versus South Florida. Syracuse’s special teams didn’t play particularly well either, but it’s perfectly clear that Syracuse’s weakest link is its defense.

To say Syracuse has tended to allow the big play this season is an understatement. In two FBS games, the Orange defense has yielded 20 plays of 20 yards or more. Granted, 13 of those plays were against Louisville, but still, Syracuse allowed the South Florida offense to reel off gains of at least 20 yards seven times.

Many of those big plays from the Bulls were game changers. South Florida running back Marlon Mack ran for 40 yards on the final play of the first quarter to get the Bulls’ offense going. That shifted momentum heading into the second quarter.

“We had a couple mental breakdowns,” linebacker Zaire Franklin told the Daily Orange. “Those mental breakdowns led to the momentum shifting. It made it a game. By the time we got back on our game, USF had a lot of momentum.”

There was also the 52-yard scamper from Mack on fourth and one late in the third quarter. The game was still very much in doubt, but Mack not only converted for the first down; he found the end zone to extend the Bulls’ lead to 15.

09 September 2016: Syracuse Orange quarterback Eric Dungey (2) looks to pass during a NCAA football game between the Louisville Cardinals and the Syracuse Orange at Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY.  (Photo by Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire)

09 September 2016: Syracuse Orange quarterback Eric Dungey (2) looks to pass during a NCAA football game between the Louisville Cardinals and the Syracuse Orange at Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY. (Photo by Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire)

When Dungey is on top of his game, the Syracuse offense is pretty good. However, the Orange can’t be asked to score 40 points each and every week in order to win. At some point, the defense has to make some plays, and a good first step would be to cut down on the splash plays that swing momentum in favor of the opposition.

Second, the Syracuse defense has to create more of its own splash plays. Although the Orange did record three takeaways versus Louisville, they didn’t force a turnover Saturday versus South Florida. Furthermore, Syracuse has recorded just two sacks and five tackles for a loss in two FBS games.

That’s won’t get it done.

It’s one of the hardest questions to answer in football: Is the Orange defense allowing so many passing yards because there’s no pass rush, or is there no pass rush because the opponent’s receivers are so wide open?

If the latter is the case, it’s going to get worse pretty soon. Safeties Antway Cordy (junior) and Kielan Whitner (sophomore) both missed Saturday’s game along with redshirt sophomore cornerback Juwan Dowels due to various injuries. Then sophomore safety Daivon Ellison left the field at one point against South Florida.

Syracuse doesn’t recruit as well as most of the other ACC schools, so depth is usually a problem. The Orange announced last week that Cordy and Dowels would miss the remainder of the season, so the team’s secondary depth will be tested moving forward.

Prior to the season, the hype around Dino Babers was all about his offense. Granted, fans would probably like to see more than 20 points on the board, especially in games when Syracuse gains 549 yards. For the most part, though, the offense has held up its end of the bargain. The Orange defense needs to play better, or it’s going to be a long season.

Squeezed: Syracuse defense still a work in progress

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