Syracuse football: Defense & Special Teams report card through four games

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How has SU’s defense looked through four games?

With Syracuse a third of the way through the season, and coming off a bye week, we figured it was a good time to look back at the first four games of the season with a report card. Earlier in the week, we graded the offense, and today, we take a look at the defense and special teams. The Juice Online’s Brad Bierman and Wes Cheng give their assessments below:

DEFENSE

Bierman: The young starting group has gained vast experience each week culminating with going head-to-head into the fourth quarter with Top Ten LSU and early Heisman Trophy favorite Leonard Fournette. The D-Line has been stout with veterans like Ron Thompson and newcomers such as Steven Clark contributing to stuff opposing rushing attacks; save for the big Fournette burst. As usual, the linebackers have been the unit’s leading tackler’s lead by Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett. The secondary has been inconsistent in giving up big yardage plays, but also learning from its mistakes. Safety Antwan Cordy has emerged and Corey Winfield has two picks.

Grade: B

Cheng: Aided by a shutout against FCS Rhode Island, Syracuse is ranked 34th overall in the FBS, holding opponents to 19.5 points per game. I’ve been particularly impressed with SU’s run defense, which, despite Fournette’s big day, is still holding opponents to just 3.0 yards per carry and 102.0 yards per game. That ranks them at No. 9 in the country. On the other hand, SU’s secondary has been porous at times, giving up 255.0 yards per game, 64th in FBS play. LSU quarterback Brandon Harris, who has not been particularly good this season, was able to launch a momentum killing 51-yard pass in the second half to stymie an upset bid. Wake Forest’s John Wolford also found success against SU’s secondary, throwing for 373 yards and a long of 40, despite the Orange intercepting three of his passes.

Grade: B

» Related: Against ranked opponent, Zack Mahoney outdueled Syracuse predecessors

SPECIAL TEAMS

Bierman: Ryan Norton has upped his touchback average gaining 11 on his 23 kickoffs so far, all occurring in the climate-controlled Dome. Cole Murphy is a respectable 6-8 on field goals, although he had a bad miss of a 31 yarder against LSU. Riley Dixon has been a bright spot punting averaging 45 yards a kick, and successfully executing fake fourth down punt plays. Estime has put SU in good field position on kickoffs averaging 24 yards a return, while the Orange punt return coverage unit has given up a touchdown.

Grade: B+

Cheng: The grade for special teams has to start with, ahem, Heisman candidate Riley Dixon. In his short career at Syracuse, he’s thrown a touchdown pass, taken a fake punt for 42 yards, and most recently, hurdled an LSU defender on a fake field goal for a first down. Oh, and he’s been a damn good punter too, notching 12 punts inside the opponent’s 20, and seven punts of 50 or more yards. As mentioned earlier, Murphy missed a key 31 yard field goal against LSU, and his other miss was a 44-yarder against Rhode Island. How will Murphy do away from the friendly confines of the Dome? That will be something to keep an eye on. As for Estime, his 21.1 yards per return currently leads the ACC in punt return average.

Grade: A-

Take a look back earlier in the week for Bierman and Cheng’s grades on the offense.

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The Big Orange was founded in 1992. The publication was one of approximately 50 independent publications devoted to the coverage of its school's athletics programs. The Big Orange was a weekly/bi-weekly print publication until 2002 when it became The Juice, a glossy monthly print magazine which was owned by Fox Sports. The print product ceased publication in June of 2010 and was relaunched as SUJuiceOnline.com in December of 2010.
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