I’m going to do things a little different this week. With the Thanksgiving holiday messing up my schedule, you’re getting the opponent preview and keys to the game all in one post. How fun! Here we go…
The Orange are a run-first team and when Doug Marrone has a horse like Antwon Bailey at running back with a big offensive line, it only makes sense to pound the rock. Bailey has carried the ball for 863 yards this season at almost 4.5 yards a clip and six touchdowns. But he has been kept in check the past few games rushing for less than 100 yards in each of them. I expect this trend to continue against the Bearcats. At quarterback is Ryan Nassib, who has had a very good year despite his teams struggles, tossing the ball for over 2,200 yards and 20 touchdowns to only 6 picks this season. He isn’t going to ‘Wow’ anybody but he’s a steady signal caller that runs the offense well but relies upon Bailey to get his yardage and exploit the defense when they stack the box. The problem with the Syracuse offense is that they don’t have a lot of weapons on the outside. Alec Lemon at wide receiver is a legit threat with about 1/3 of the receiving yards but the second leading receiver is a freaking tight end. While Nick Provo is a great athlete, there’s something wrong with your offense when a tight end is your second biggest receiving threat. The Orange have only made 17 plays for 25 yards or more, which puts them 83rd in the country. Without watching any of the games, I’d bet over half of those are coming off play-action and should be accounted for this week.
Syracuse is extremely physical on defense. Like kick-you-in-the-ass-and-stomp-on-your-dead-body physical. Just ask Jawan Jamison. That’s been one of the calling cards of the Doug Marrone defense and his players rally around that mindset. It starts up front with the defensive line who are a little light at the tackle positions but very strong on the ends. They aren’t spectacular stats wise but garner a lot of attention from the opposing offensive lines to allow the talented linebackers to make plays as you just saw. The three staring linebackers actually lead the team in tackles for loss, not a defensive lineman. I can’t speak about the Orange DL without mentioning Mikhail Marinovich. He has an awesome name but the icing on the cake is his phenomenal mustache. I can respect him for that. The linebacker unit is a dangerous blend of veteran leadership and young talent. The old guy of the group is Dan Vaughan but also anchoring them is sophomore Marquis Spruill. While young, Spruill saw a lot of playing time in 2010 and that has benefited him this season. The duo is leading the Orange linebackers in tackles but the kid who has been things up in upstate New York is freshman Dyshawn Davis, who greeted Jawan Jamison so nicely in that video I linked. He leads the team in tackles for loss and sacks. The secondary is led by free safety Phillip Thomas, who is pacing the entire team with 82 tackles and 6 picks. He’s an instinctive player that will key in on the quarterback’s eyes and make a play on the ball if he can.
The Orange have a very pedestrian special teams unit: 110th in punt returns, 33rd in kickoff returns, and 100th in punting. They have returned one kickoff for a touchdown this year (Dorian Graham vs. West Virginia) but nothing stands out to me as a serious threat here. The one thing I should point out is that Syracuse one of the most undisciplined teams in college football with 6.3 penalties (73rd) for 60.3 yards per game (92nd). It’s one of the reasons they are only 5 – 5.
So what do the Bearcats need to do to keep their Big East championship hopes alive on Saturday? These might help:
1. Make the Carrier Dome a Non-Factor: Nothing rattles a starting quarterback more than crowd noise. This is especially true when the starting quarterback is a true sophomore with a single game of experience and coming off a shaky performance to Rutgers. Syracuse’s home field has been quiet for years, including most of this season. But in the Orange’s win against West Virginia, the place was rocking and clearly affected Geno Smith’s play. The Bearcats have to take the crowd out of the game early.
2. Gap Control: Whenever teams run well (Akron, Rutgers) on the usually stout Cincinnati defense, it’s typically not the fault of the defensive line who are occupying blockers for the linebackers to crash on the ball carrier. They weren’t gap sound in those games and running backs had massive holes to sprint through. Some of this can be attributed to the youth of Nick Temple and Dwight Jackson who have filled in for Ben Pooler and Maalik Bomar in recent weeks. After a week in the film room, they will hopefully have learned from their mistakes.
3. Help Munchie Out: Looking at you D.J. Woods and Kenbrell Thompkins. Both dropped a number of 1st down catches against Rutgers and Woods has had his share of butterfingers seemingly since 2009. They need to do the little things to give Munchie the best opportunity to get in a rhythm and feel comfortable running this offense. Syracuse will most certainly stack the box to stop Isaiah Pead so it will be up to the passing game to keep the defense honest.
4. Force the Orange to be One-Dimensional: The blueprint for stopping the Syracuse offense starts with containing Antwon Bailey. It involves #2 on this list but forcing Nassib to throw the ball to his very few receiving options should work in Cincinnati’s favor. Deven Drane will match up with Alec Lemon leaving Chris Williams or whoever will be the nickel DB/LB the task of shutting down Nick Provo. Behind those two there aren’t many other threats catch the ball. The longer Nassib works through his progressions from Lemon to Provo, etc. the easier it will be for the pass rush to get to him.
5. Third-Down Conversions: Cincinnati blew chunks against Rutgers converting and preventing conversions on 3rd down, especially on the 23-play drive that drained the life out of the defense. Keeping that unit, which will clearly be the strength in the final two games, on the bench in both instances will help bolster the Bearcats to a victory.
These are two extremely desperate teams facing off on Saturday. Cincinnati needs to win it’s final two games, beginning with the Orange, to keep their hopes for another BCS bowl appearance alive. Syracuse is sitting at 5 – 5 on the verge of not even making a bowl after a very successful season in 2010. The Bearcats need to lean on their defense to carry this team by stopping Antwon Bailey and eliminating Lemon and Provo as options for quarterback Ryan Nassib. On offense, Munchie is still working through his mechanical and mental issues. It will go a long way for Isaiah Pead to have a good game and the wide receivers to hold on to the ball. In the end, I don’t see the Bearcats losing two in a row. I have full confidence in this coaching staff and the raw talent on the team to put a reasonable gameplan together this week and execute it well enough to win.