Syracuse football’s 2019 defense on a similar track to last year’s edition

Syracuse Orange defensive back Scoop Bradshaw
Sept. 21 2019; Syracuse NY, USA; Syracuse Orange defensive back Scoop Bradshaw (18) defends against Western Michigan Broncos wide receiver DaShon Bussell (81) during Syracuse's 52-33 at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Initra Marilyn, The Juice Online.

Syracuse stands 2-2 on the season and both the offense and defense have had struggles through the first third of the schedule. The Orange offense, however, took some significant strides forward on Saturday against Western Michigan, rolling up 545 yards and posting 52 points. That defense, however, still allowed 557 yards and 33 points to a team from the MAC.

But is that defense that much worse than last year’s team?

Through its first four games, the SU defense is giving up over seven more points and 86 yards more per game than in the 2018 season. Over 56 of those extra yards per game are coming via the pass against the perceived strength of the defense, a pair of excellent pass-rushing defensive ends and a deep, experienced secondary.

But, what if we compare how the SU defense has performed thus far to last year’s defensive stats against similar opponents? For this, we’ll use the following comparisons:

2019 opponent/2018 opponent:
Liberty/Connecticut
Maryland/Notre Dame
Clemson/Clemson
Western Michigan/Western Michigan

There is no perfect comparison, but Maryland rolled up 63 points on Syracuse, so it seems reasonable that they can pass for Notre Dame, who was ranked #3 in the country when the two teams met last year. Besides, it also means we get to compare the Huskies’ football abilities to a team who officially became an FBS team this season.

Here is how Syracuse has performed in some statistical categories to this point of the 2019 season:

Points allowed/game – 34.3
Yards allowed/game – 513.3
Yards allowed/play – 6.62
Rush yards allowed/game – 193.0
Rush yards allowed/attempt – 5.43
Pass yards allowed/game – 320.25

» Related: Three things we learned from Syracuse’s win over Western Michigan

And here is how they did against Clemson, Connecticut, Notre Dame, and Western Michigan in 2018 in those categories:

Points allowed/game – 31.5
Yards allowed/game – 487.0
Yards allowed/play – 6.76
Rush yards allowed/game – 221.0
Rush yards allowed/attempt – 5.67
Pass yards allowed/game – 266.0

All told, the only one where there is a significant difference is passing yards allowed per game and that gap may be explained in large part by the team having to play against Trevor Lawrence, arguably the top quarterback in college, who threw for 391 yards against the Orange. The rest of the stats are all reasonably close and this season’s defense is actually better in both rushing stats and overall yards per play allowed.

On a related note, if you have concerns about the defense after they were gouged by Western Michigan, SU actually performed better against the Broncos this year than last year. In 2018, WMU rolled up 621 yards of offense, including 379 through the air and averaged 9.70 yards per play. This time around, it was 557 yards and 6.96 yards per play. In both games, the big play blew up Western Michigan’s stats.

Last season, the Broncos got runs of 31, 59, and 64 (touchdown) yards and receptions of 16, 16, 17 (touchdown), 17, 21 (touchdown), 25, 26, 37, 59, and 84 (touchdown) yards. That’s 13 plays where WMU rolled up 472 yards or 76 percent of their total production.

Saturday, they got runs of 18, 19, 43 (touchdown), and 47 (touchdown) yards and receptions of 19, 20, 21, 23, 24, 39, 43, and 60 (touchdown) yards. That totals a dozen plays for 376 yards, good for 67.5 percent of their yardage.

A lot of those big plays are partially a function of Syracuse having a healthy lead and scheming accordingly. In 2018, every one of those 13 big plays by Western Michigan came with the Orange holding a lead of at least 13 points. Saturday afternoon, only one of the Broncos’ 12 big plays came with the Orange holding a single digit lead. That was on WMU’s first possession of the game, down 7-0.

The big concern for the Orange defense? Third downs.

Last season, Syracuse was one of the best teams in the country at getting off the field, permitting its opponents to convert 28.6 percent of its third downs. Even the four similar foes from 2018 mentioned above earned first downs just 29.6 percent of the time.

This year? Orange foes are moving the sticks 42.6 percent of the time. That is something that must get fixed as the season progresses.

If you are hunting for other positive signs for the SU defense, they are still forcing turnovers and sacking the quarterback at an impressive rate. Last season, the Orange got 31 turnovers in 13 games, and in 2019, they have taken the ball away 11 times in four games, putting them ahead of last season’s pace.

In 2018, the team piled up 43 sacks, good for 3.31 per game. This year’s squad has gotten 12 quarterback sacks, good for three per game. That number is skewed by the bulk of them coming against Liberty, but SU notched at least three sacks in six ACC games last season and, last I checked, Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson are still on the roster.

In short, it seems like a simple prescription for the Syracuse defense: fix that third-down defense. Everything else seems to be okay, despite what the results are telling you.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 576 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.