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The Big USF vs. Syracuse Preview

It’s another terrific matchup for USF’s offense. Can Syracuse’s manic offensive pace make up for its horror-show defense and give them a chance to win?

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports


Syracuse has taken on a radical new personality. Their last handful of coaches, all the way back to Paul Pasqualoni, set the Orange up to play as somewhere between a smashmouth and a pro-style team. After many years of middling results, with only three winning seasons since 2002 and never more than eight wins in a season, the reins have been turned over to former Bowling Green coach Dino Babers and his hair-on-fire offensive system. Babers led the Falcons to the MAC Championship Game twice, winning it in 2015. Before that, Babers led Eastern Illinois to the FCS quarterfinals and turned dreamy Jimmy Garoppolo into an NFL prospect that you may have heard a little bit about.

It’s probably a good thing that USF is making the return visit in this home-and-home series this year, and this early. Having to face this Syracuse team a year from now could be frightening. At least right now, there are still growing pains and mistakes being made in Babers’ Baylor-style spread offense. They move at a breakneck pace, so fast in fact that Louisville resorted to faking injuries to try and slow the Orange’s offense down last Friday night.

(Babers was still complaining about this tactic in the media as late as Tuesday. By the way, the Carrier Dome doesn’t have air conditioning! Not many people know this!)

The other thing that happened in last Friday's game was EIGHT HUNDRED FORTY-FIVE YARDS. That’s how many yards Louisville gained against the Orange defense, and it could have been more if Lamar Jackson hadn’t rocketed about a half-dozen passes off his receivers’ hands. For awhile it was conceivable that the Cardinals would reach a thousand yards from scrimmage. They needed almost all of them too, because Syracuse hung around most of the night before Louisville hit them with 20 fourth-quarter points to pull away to a 62-28 win.


Team S&P+ Overall S&P + (USF O vs. SYR D) S&P+ (USF D vs. SYR O) S&P+ (ST)
USF 39 35 63 35
SYR 52 45 76 51

This early on, S&P rankings are still heavily influenced by 2015 stats, which may explain why it loves Syracuse almost irrationally. You’ll see why when we get into the more detailed parts of the Orange’s stat profile, but their decent overall rankings don’t really match with how terrible they are defensively, especially against the run. This is an outstanding matchup for USF’s offense. It may not be such a great matchup for USF’s defense, though.

When Syracuse Runs...

Category SYR O USF D
Rushing Success Rate 33.3% (111th) 38.1% (62nd)
IsoPPP 1.30 (22nd) 0.57 (4th)
Opportunity Rate 27.9% (120th) 34.1% (50th)
Power Success Rate 71.4% (56th) 60.0% (40th)
Stuff Rate 26.5% (118th) 17.6% (93rd)

Well, they probably won’t do this very much. Babers wants to throw the ball a lot, and besides, they aren’t very good at running. Only one out of every three rushing attempts is "successful" (meaning they gain 50% of the needed yardage on first down, 70% on second down, or 100% on third/fourth down). The opportunity rate, meaning the percentage of carries of 5+ yards, is only 27.2%. And one out of every four carries ends up with a loss or no gain.

So far carries have been split pretty evenly between freshman running back Moe Neal, sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey, and sophomore running back Dontae Strickland. It seems like the plan is to run just enough to keep defenses honest, but they haven’t been successful enough running the ball to do that.

USF’s defense has been decent against the run in their first two games. They aren’t getting tons of negative plays, but teams also aren’t gashing them on the ground. Straight ahead running shouldn’t cause them too much trouble. Like last year, the real concern will be Dungey running with the ball, either by design or by necessity.

When Syracuse Passes...

Category SYR O USF D
Passing Success Rate 45.2% (47th) 26.1% (14th)
IsoPPP 1.20 (108th) 1.32 (44th)
Passing Down Success Rate 30.4% (72nd) 16.7% (19th)
Yards Per Attempt 7.21

The Orange are certainly not shy about putting the ball up. They’ve already attempted 98 passes in two games, and that includes an FCS game against Colgate where they mostly just messed around for a half. Junior receiver Ervin Philips and graduate transfer Amba Etta-Tawo are each tied for the FBS lead with 20 receptions. Etta-Tawo is second in FBS with 313 yards, and he has three receiving touchdowns. Dungey has completed almost 65 percent of his passes, and his mobility makes him difficult to sack.

However, the Orange haven’t been super efficient throwing the ball. Dungey is averaging only 5.7 yards per pass attempt, and they’ve generally lacked explosiveness. Syracuse has been content to dink and dunk so far, but they’ll hit you over the top if you creep down too much to guard the short passes. USF was better against the pass against Northern Illinois than they were against Towson, and didn't allow any big plays at all. But the pass rush needs to be on point or the secondary will give up big numbers. Their tackling will also have to be sure.

When USF Runs...

Category USF O SYR D
Rushing Success Rate 46.7% (50th) 50.0% (114th)
IsoPPP 1.22 (37th) 1.37 (116th)
Opportunity Rate 54.0% (5th) 44.9% (113th)
Power Success Rate 100% (T-1st) 100% (T-108th)
Stuff Rate 11.2% (10th) 21.7% (54th)

This is a fantastic matchup for the Bulls. Syracuse’s run defense has been all or nothing - usually nothing. They have a decent stuff rate, but don’t create many havoc plays, and almost 45% of opponents’ carries have gone for five or more yards. Granted they were against a game-breaking monster last week in Lamar Jackson, but the Orange’s defense also appears to lack overall speed. Marlon Mack, expected back in the USF lineup this weekend, ran for 184 yards and two touchdowns against this team last year. He and Flowers could put up similar numbers against what appears to be a worse unit this time around.

When USF Passes...

Category USF O SYR D
Passing Success Rate 43.9% (54th) 37.7% (60th)
IsoPPP 2.48 (6th) 1.79 (111th)
Passing Down Success Rate 39.5% (26th) 32.5% (85th)
Yards Per Attempt 9.30 8.27

This is another good matchup for USF as long as they don’t get into third-and-long situations. The only area in which Syracuse’s pass defense is respectable is in limiting big plays when teams need to pass. Otherwise, they give up lots of explosive passing plays and break up very few throws (no interceptions and two PBU so far). The Bulls should have plenty of size and speed advantages to exploit vertically, if Quinton Flowers can put the ball in the right places.

Summary and Prediction

The difficulty of USF’s schedule continues to ramp up with this game. I don’t think Syracuse is quite as bad defensively as they looked last week. Those 845 yards allowed were the most by any FBS team since 2013, and it's skewing a lot of these numbers. Still, the Bulls pose many of the same matchup problems that Louisville did - namely a very athletic quarterback, a strong running game, and a big-play passing game.

The Orange will get theirs on offense, there’s no doubt about it. With the system they run and the speed with which they run it, it’s pretty much impossible to keep them off the scoreboard. USF must get some pass rush and they must make Syracuse drive down the field to score points. The Bulls also need to support the defense by sustaining drives of their own and not making them go out on the field very much. (I should point out this does not need to lead to conservatism, something we’ve seen this offense often impose on themselves against sketchy defenses on the road.)

It probably comes down to how well Flowers hits the easy passes that he has struggled with for most of the first two games. The plays that keep you ahead of the chains on early downs and extend drives on third down. He’s brought that up several times this week after practice, so it should be a point of emphasis for him to improve. If he does that, USF could score almost at will. And they might need to.

USF 48, Syracuse 35