Hopefully, the bad news for the Syracuse football team will slow to a pace less than the leak discovered in the new ceiling at the former Carrier Dome a couple hours after Saturday’s 38-24 loss to previously winless Duke. The loss dropped the Orange to 1-3 on the season and, with adding quarterback Tommy DeVito’s name to the list of injured starters, adds an extra dash of urgency to next week’s matchup with Liberty.
SU pitched a 24-0 shutout in defeating the Flames in last season’s opener. That Liberty group ended up finishing the season 8-5 overall and this year’s version stands 4-0, although their schedule to this point looks less like a “who’s who” and more like a “who?” The Flames’ opponents to this point have mustered one win on the season, so their record may not reflect their true level of play.
Of course, with Syracuse now short their opening day quarterback, running back (Jawhar Jordan), and a pair of defensive backs (Andre Cisco and Eric Coley), even what looks like a lesser foe on paper is a lot more dangerous. Rex Culpepper looks to be a full-time starter for the first time and will be taking snaps behind a shaky offensive line while surrounded by questionable skill position talent. The defense is also coming off its worst performance of the season, having been gouged for 670 yards by Duke, including 388 on the ground.
How does the team shore up any of their weaknesses for next week, much less the rest of the season?
1. Lean on the run game on offense with a ball-control focus.
In his career, Culpepper is 53-of-95 for 631 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions. He started in 2017 in the season finale against Boston College, going 24-of-34 for 280 yards and a pair of scores with a pick. While those numbers in that lone start are solid and better than his career numbers when playing in relief, they also came in a blowout where Syracuse was down 21 points midway through the second quarter. It feels safe to expect Culpepper is not likely to light up anyone with his arm.
The Orange would be smart to simplify things and look to run the ball with Sean Tucker and Markenzy Pierre, controlling the clock with sustained drives. The expectation should be for the duo to have a baseline of 35 carries in the game.
After drawing Liberty’s defensive focus toward stopping the run, SU could then look for passes in the shorter and middle distances with the rare deep shot mixed in. Luke Benson gave everyone a reminder what he can do with the ball in his hands on Saturday, so use him. Taj Harris has proven time and time again to be slippery in space, so look to get him the ball and rely on his elusiveness to pick up extra yardage and manufacture big gains. The quick strike scores are great, but a little bit of rest for an overused defense can’t hurt.
2. Keep the defense off the field.
The first point leads directly to the second one. The Syracuse defense faced 102 offensive plays from Duke on Saturday, including 59 in the first half, a number held down by their three turnovers in that time. While the Orange were fresh early on, constantly being on the field eventually wore them down.
The shortest drive Duke had in the second half was comprised of the final six plays of the game. Even though the Blue Devils were not rolling up massive chunks of yardage all the time, sustained drives create a lot of physical contact, running, and tackling for a defense to fight through.
All that effort expended by the Syracuse defense is reflected in Duke’s success on third down in the second half. The Blue Devils converted 7-of-8 third downs in the second half, routinely needing five yards or fewer to move the chains. A tired defense gives up yards on early downs, making it easier for them to get pushed around on third down.
3. Spring a trick play on Liberty early in the game.
There will be a bunch of young, inexperienced players on the field for SU, many of them feeling pressure due to being expected to produce on the field in a game they are supposed to win. (Liberty is just a few years removed from being an FCS team, so their record and the pointspread are going to be ignored in the locker room.) Show those kids that the game is still fun and pull something out of the back of the playbook.
Taj Harris threw for over 1,500 yards and 19 scores during his senior season as a quarterback in high school. Call a double pass that looks like one of the wide receiver screens the Orange normally employ, but with Harris heaving a deep ball instead of scampering upfield. Rex Culpepper temporarily moved to tight end during the 2018 season. Maybe utilize a jet sweep handoff to Harris, who then throws back across the field to Culpepper. I know this last one sounds a little less palatable with him now the starting quarterback, but Culpepper measures 6’3” and 221 pounds and also volunteered to play special teams during the 2018 season. He is also a seven-time selection to the SU Athletic Director’s Honor Roll, so he can be directed to run toward the sideline, if necessary, and be expected to heed that instruction.
Unleash this trick play early (before Liberty can run one of their own) and remind the kids that it’s a game. If the play works, in addition to whatever yardage is gained, it will fire up the team, including the bench, which was uninspired for the majority of the Duke game. Injecting a little fun can lift some of the weight off the team’s back, so why not take a little bit off their shoulders? Work is easier when it’s fun.