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Opponent Breakdown: Syracuse Defense

Syracuse has been carried by their defense. Can they avoid getting run off the field for the second year in a row?

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse has improved in almost every area this year and most of that improvement can be attributed to the defense. Syracuse had one of the worst defenses in the country last year but outside of their terrible showing last week, they’ve been able to hold their own against some of the better offenses in the ACC. Defensive Coordinator Brian Ward was named as a semifinalist for the Broyles Award which shows how much respect this defense is getting.

In all of my time writing these posts, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team that makes so little sense from a statistical standpoint. This defense doesn’t do anything well from an individual standpoint. They don’t get very good pressure on the quarterback. They don’t force many turnovers. They don’t break up a lot of passes. They don’t force a lot of negative plays. A lot of their issues start up front where they’re not getting much at all. The Orange play a base 4-3 and those front four guys have combined for only 19 tackles for loss on the season. That’s only a handful more than Jon Greenard has on his own.

Alton Robinson has had the best season up front for Cuse with 5 sacks. However, outside of those sacks he only has one other tackle for loss. Chris Slayton is probably the most talented player up front but he hasn’t made many plays on the year. It is impressive that of his 18 tackles on the season, 11 of them have been run stuffs. Run stuffs isn’t a stat that’s tracked by total amount anywhere but I can’t think of another team that Louisville has played that had more than the Orange. Louisville will have to keep up their strong offensive line play this week to counteract that.

Linebacker is where the Syracuse defense is their strongest with veterans at all three spots. Parris Bennett leads the team in tackles and tackles for loss from his weakside linebacker spot. Zaire Franklin is a longtime starter in the middle and plays harder than almost anyone you will see on Saturdays. Jonathan Thomas lines up on the strong side and is the odd man out when they bring in an extra defensive back.

Bennett will be the guy that stands out in the game Saturday because he runs down a lot of plays. He’s an undersized linebacker but he plays pretty well when it comes to taking on blockers or taking on bigger backs. A lot of Syracuse’s issues on defense come down to being “out-athleted” by teams. Cam Akers had a huge game against them a couple of weeks ago but Louisville doesn’t have a Came Akers. What they do have is a Lamar Jackson and John Wolford absolutely abused this defense last weekend. He was able to expose the lack of speed that they have at the second and third level. Lamar Jackson had a ridiculous game last year and made everyone on the Orange defense look like they were playing in slow motion. I don’t think that will be any different this year.

The secondary for Cuse almost completely turned over this year even before they lost Antwan Cordy for the second straight season. Cordy was injured in the game last year against UofL and missed the rest of the season. This year he went out for the season after the first game. That’s left Rodney Williams as the only returning starter and they just haven’t been very good in the back end. They just don’t have very good athletes and they’ve been exposed a good amount over the last few games. Miami was able to get behind them when they went with man coverage. FSU was able to get behind them by just running past their safeties. Wake was able to pick them apart without Greg Dortch.

Louisville should be able to get their passing game going against this secondary but I still think they will have to run the ball to be able to do so. Syracuse has allowed 60% of the opponent’s passes to be completed on the season and that number is worse when you just look at their games against power five teams. On the other hand, Syracuse has the third best defense on third downs this year. I can honestly say that I have no clue how they are so good on third downs but teams are converting less than a quarter of the time. Louisville needs to stay in manageable third downs so that they can take advantage of this secondary.