LOUISVILLE CARDINALS (6-4, 3-4) vs. SYRACUSE ORANGE (4-6, 2-4)
Game Time: 3:30 p.m.
Location: Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium: Louisville, Ky.
Announcers: Mark Neely (play-by-play) and Rey Bentley (color)
Favorite: Louisville by 13
All-Time Series: Louisville leads 9-6
Last Meeting: Louisville won 62-28 on Sept. 9, 2016 at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse
Dino Babers is in his second year at Syracuse and his #OrangeIsTheNewFast movement is moving along a lot slower than I think he’d like. Syracuse is known for having a big time offense under Babers but his offense hasn’t been able to fully transition under his watch. Syracuse likes to go fast but they’re not a team that shies away from hitting big plays. There issues seem to stem from a lack of consistency and I’m not sure if Babers has the personnel to fix that yet.
The quarterback position is always the most important spot in a Air Raid/Spread attack. Babers inherited Eric Dungey when he took over the job and most (including me) felt that he was extremely lucky to have a guy that he could develop. However, Dungey has stayed pretty stagnant over his two years in the new system. He’s still completing just about 60% of his passes and his decision making is not much better tan it was as a freshman. Although he’s a solid runner, he’s been getting by on being a tough guy that has very high potential. The issue, of course, is that he hasn’t reached that potential in three years.
Dungey might see some success against Louisville because of the pace of the offense. Louisville struggled all game against Wake Forest when they decided to go much faster than they usually do. Peter Sirmon should have his team prepared for the pace this time around, but there’s no guarantee that they will be able to execute like he might like. Dungey has a tendency to hold on to the ball too long but when he is on, he can be very good. I think he’s at his best when he’s getting the ball out of his hand quickly and allowing his receivers to make plays for him. In my opinion, he just doesn’t protect the ball well enough to do the things that Babers likes to do. But with his running ability you would expect them to get him on the move more often than they do and design plays for him to throw on the run instead of him just freelancing like he does.
The Orange running game is the true issue for the offense. Dontae Strickland is the starter at running back and for the second straight year, he’s averaging under four yards per carry. Strickland is a pretty talented back with good size and speed but he just rarely has anywhere to go when he gets the ball. You would expect the running lanes to be there with them being so pass happy but that just hasn’t been the case over the last two years. Strickland does make the most of it when he has space, however. He’s had some nice big play runs when they’ve been there including a 43 yard touchdown run last week.
For the second straight year I’m wondering why Babers doesn’t use Moe Neal more often. Neal is used as a “change of pace” type of guy even though he’s averaging slightly above five yards per carry for his career. Syracuse needs as much speed on the field as possible for their offense to be at its best but they don’t utilize Neal nearly enough to do so. It also just makes more sense to play a guy that has more of a big play potential when you have a quarterback that can run the read option. It provides a real punishment for the defense if you give to much attention to the quarterback. While Strickland can hit a big run when given the chance, Neal can take it to the house.
Syracuse has two of the top receivers in the country for the second straight year. Steve Ishmael is a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist and Ervin Phillips is on pace for just under 1,000 yards for the season. Ishmael lines up outside and runs a lot of go routes and deep ins while Phillips is a slot guy that they use on slants and screens. Phillips had a ridiculous game earlier in the year against NC State when he had 17 catches. He’s also had his best games this year against the best competition. Phillips isn’t isn’t quite as dynamic as his numbers show but he does do a pretty good job of getting open in the middle of the field. I’d compare him to Hunter Renfrow in the way that he can get open but won’t do all that much after the catch. Louisville hasn’t had a lot of success against skilled slot receivers so that might not matter much in this game.
Ishmael will be a key player in this game as he has been targeted 145 times on the year and Babers will continue to call his number even if you seem to stop it. He has 100 yards in 7 games this year and only Clemson and Miami slowed him down at all this year. I’ve followed Ishmael pretty closely during his career because UofL had a chance to land him as a recruit. His improvement in his route running has been really great to watch. He has really good body control and knows how to do the little things to gain separation. Louisville all but shut down the outside receivers for Virginia last week and they will have another big test this week.
The Syracuse offensive line is the glaring weakness for this offense. They don’t do a very good job of opening holes for the running game and they leave Dungey running for his life a lot. Simple stunts by a four man rush have ended up as sacks because the a guard ended up chasing a guy well out of his area. Dungey ends up throwing the ball away a lot because blitzers aren’t picked up and the play gets blown up right at the snap. Syracuse is pretty young up the middle and it shows a lot throughout a game. Louisville played their best defensive game of the season against Virginia and made a solid offensive line look putrid. They should be able to do the same this week.
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.
Excitement Level: 5.0
If this was “appreciation level” or something, this would be higher. I’m here for Lamar and the seniors, I just the weather, the opponent and Louisville’s record were all better.
Game Attire: Red U of L jacket over lots of stuff and probably under a poncho, grey Cardinal bird hat
I’m assuming the worst so that maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Pregame Meal: Beer, something
I’m doing the pregame show on 790 again and we’re over at the Petrino Family Foundation tailgate where I have no idea what food they’re serving. I do know what drinks they have.
Bold Prediction: Louisville rushes for over 100 yards more than they throw for
Maybe not as bold given the weather, but I think it would still be a surprise.
Zykiesis Cannon Interception Alert Level: Middle Red Purple (we are running out of time)
Doing it on senior day would be cool.
Predicted Star of the Game: Lamar Jackson
If it is his last game at PJCS, it’s only right that he goes out as the best player on the field.
—After beating Virginia last week, Louisville is bowl eligible for the eighth straight season and the 18th time in the last 20 seasons.
—With two regular season games still to play, Lamar Jackson is already the first player in FBS history to throw for at least 3,000 yards and rush for at least 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
—Louisville will say goodbye to a total of 14 scholarship seniors on Saturday. Reggie Bonnafon, Jeremy Smith, Malik Williams, Charles Standberry, Tyler Polston, Javonte Bagley are the seniors on offense, while Drew Bailey, De’Asian Richardson, James Hearns, Trevon Young, Stacy Thomas, Zykiesis Cannon, Chucky Williams, Trumaine Washington, Ronald Walker are the seniors on defense. The seniors, who are 33-17 so far as a class at U of L, will be honored during a pregame ceremony.
—Syracuse needs to win its last two games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2013.
—Syracuse QB Eric Dungey is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game. Backup QB Zack Mahoney completed 33-of-60 passes for 384 yards and three touchdowns last week in a 64-43 loss to Wake Forest.
—The weather is going to suck.
—Bobby Petrino is 6-1 all-time at Louisville in senior day games, with the only loss coming last season.
—Louisville needs a victory to avoid finishing with a losing record in conference play for the first time since joining the ACC.
—Louisville is 10-0 all-time in ESPNU home games that don’t start at noon.
—Syracuse WR Steve Ishmael needs just 54 yards to break Marvin Harrison’s school record for career receiving yards.
—Bobby Petrino is 6-0 all-time versus Syracuse.
—Louisville is 21-6 in the month of November under Bobby Petrino, and 13-1 in games played at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
—Louisville is 36-4 under Petrino when winning the turnover battle, and 11-1 in games where they commit zero turnovers.
—Louisville is currently riding a consecutive game scoring streak that spans 222 games dating back to the 2000 season. The streak ranks as the third longest in the ACC behind only Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
—Louisville is 181-12 all-time when scoring 35 or more points in a game. The Cards are also 5-106 all-time when allowing opponents to score 40 or more points.
—“To me he’s like Michael Jordan. It’s the Jordan rules: Lamar is going to get his. You just have to make sure you don’t have two other running backs going for a hundred yards or a wide receiver goes for a hundred yards, because I just think that guy is so dynamic, he’s hard to stop by himself. They are not a one-man team, but you’d better try to stop everything else so you can have an opportunity to win against those guys, because Lamar is going to get his.” —Syracuse head coach Dino Babers
—“They pride themselves on fast, fast and faster, and they really go with it.” —Bobby Petrino
—“You’re a little misinformed because last year, he ran all over us, and he threw all over us. He got both parts in last year and hopefully he doesn’t get both parts in this year to the degree he did last year, because I think it was like a school record and people were taking pictures out on the stadium and stuff after the game.” —Syracuse head coach Dino Babers on a question about Lamar Jackson “running all over” the Orange last year
—"We're not hiding in the house or afraid or anything. We accept what happened. We learned from it, we've moved on. Without a doubt, we can win the last two games. That's why you line up and play." —Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin
—"This is going to be our last road trip of the year and we haven't been able to win on the road. We're playing a fantastic football team and we just got beaten up last week. I'm looking forward to see if we can go out there and change all of that." —Syracuse head coach Dino Babers
—"I've been thinking about it, I know everybody has been thinking about it, all the seniors. It's tough. Five years – that's a lot of football. It's going to be a big one this Saturday." —Chucky Williams
—"It's surreal. Being here five years – time flies. We've been taking it day by day. We realize our time is getting cut down each day, so every day, we want to come out and bring a lot of energy and finish out strong." —Stacy Thomas
—"I played here since high school and Little League. To have my last game here will be kind of bittersweet." —Reggie Bonnafon
Card Chronicle Prediction: Louisville 37, Syracuse 30