Here’s why Syracuse football’s linebackers will be key against Liberty

Syracuse-Rutgers Jones
Sep 11, 2021; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange linebacker Mikel Jones speaks to reporters following SU's 17-7 loss at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Brad Bierman/The Juice Online.

Syracuse is coming off a rout of an FCS opponent, just as they have in four previous seasons under Dino Babers. The Orange have cruised in those five games, with Saturday’s 62-24 manhandling of Albany equaling just about the average margin of victory of 39.4 points.

But, in each of the four previous campaigns with an FCS opponent on the slate (there was no FCS opponent on the 2020 schedule), the Orange have struggled in their subsequent game when returning to FBS play. Here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

  • 2016 – Colgate 33-7 win, Louisville 62-28 loss
  • 2017 – Central Connecticut State 50-7 win, Middle Tennessee State 30-23 loss
  • 2018 – Wagner 62-10 win, Florida State 30-7 win
  • 2019 – Holy Cross 41-3 win, North Carolina State 16-10 loss
  • 2021 – Albany 62-24 win, Liberty ???

In 2016, SU ran into the national coming out party of star quarterback Lamar Jackson. Going to have to file that as an acceptable loss in Babers’ debut campaign. Two years later, the Orange pulled away in the second half for one of their ten wins against a talented, but disappointing Florida State team that finished 5-7.

But those 2017 and 2019 games…

Against Middle Tennessee State in 2017, the Orange held a 16-9 lead just past the midpoint of the third quarter, but gave up scores on the next three drives. Special teams mistakes were costly during that span, as a fumbled punt return led to the first touchdown and a missed field goal kept points off SU’s side of the scoreboard before the second score.

In 2019, N. C. State’s defense proved to be too tough for the Orange, whose first eight possessions resulted in a missed field goal and seven punts. Syracuse finally broke through with a pair of scoring drives late in the game, but it was not enough to overcome a stifling Wolfpack run defense.

Which brings us to Friday night’s contest against Liberty under the new lights that debuted this week. The Orange welcomed the Flames last year, as well, and proved to be welcoming hosts after scoring the opening touchdown. Liberty needed just two plays to get into the end zone to knot the game, starting a 35-7 run that effectively ended the game late in the third quarter before coasting to a 38-21 win over SU.

The Flames did a lot of damage on big plays, as they had touchdown runs of 75 and 52 yards to go with a 36-yard scoring pass. Liberty hung 520 yards on SU under the direction of quarterback Malik Willis, who completed 16-of-20 passes for 182 yards and a touchdown while adding ten carries for 70 yards and another score on the ground.

Liberty has started this season 3-0, sits just outside the AP top 25, and Willis’ star has soared even higher, gaining some mentions as possibly the top quarterback in the draft class. Willis has completed 71.0 percent of his passes for 613 yards with seven touchdowns without an interception and is also the Flames’ leading rusher with 225 yards and four totals. That yardage total swells to 280 yards on just 26 rushing attempts when you remove the times he has been sacked.

Those eight sacks Willis has taken have come in their last two games against FBS opposition. That puts the defensive front six of Syracuse, particularly the second line, into the spotlight.

» Related: Syracuse routs FCS Albany in a tuneup

The Orange have generated a dozen sacks in three games this season, all coming from their defensive line (7.5) and linebacker (4.5) units. Four came two weeks ago in the loss to Rutgers, but SU piled up eight sacks against Albany last week, getting three from defensive end Cody Roscoe and a pair from linebacker Stefon Thompson.

With thwarting Willis clearly written in bold type and highlighted at the top of the defense’s game plan, it will be up to those first two lines to shut him down. On particular, linebackers Mikel Jones, Marlowe Wax, Thompson, and Geoff Cantin-Arku are all among the squad’s top six in tackles for loss on the young season and they will need to contain Willis, both through the air and on the ground.

While the offense usually garners the attention, especially with Sean Tucker’s headline-grabbing performances at running back and the lingering question of who will win the quarterback spot, the outcome of the Liberty game will very likely come from the other side of the ball. Syracuse’s young linebackers have played well thus far, but their stiffest challenge is coming up Friday night.

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About Jim Stechschulte 725 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.