Each week, I’ll (hopefully) talk to a beat writer who covers Duke’s opponent. Today, we have Nate Mink, part of the small army that covers Syracuse football for Syracuse.com and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Check out Nate’s work here, and follow him on Twitter at @minknate.
1. So this season hasn't exactly played out as the Orange had hoped. I'm sure you've spent many, many keystrokes detailing why, but in the Cliffs Notes version, what are some of the main problems been?
We’ll start with team health, simply because it’s the most obvious, but I’m not sure if that totally encompasses what all has transpired here.
Starting quarterback Terrel Hunt broke his fibula Oct. 3 against Louisville and appears to be a longshot to return this season. This would prove to be significant because Hunt had been the only quarterback on roster who had taken a college snap entering the season. He, as most quarterbacks tend to be, was the engine to the offense.
Syracuse has had several wide receivers in and out of the lineup most the season, and two of its best, Ashton Broyld and Brisly Estime, have been dogged by injuries for the last two-plus months. Up front, Syracuse has been missing its starting right tackle for more than a month, and three of its other four starters have been recently playing through injuries. Quite simply, it has been a hot mess of hurt on the offensive side of the ball.
Even with the team at full strength, things were not pretty. The offense was not scoring enough points and running efficiently enough to keep George McDonald as the offensive coordinator. He was demoted in early October and replaced by quarterbacks coach Tim Lester. It led to a brouhaha of mixed messages from the head coach and McDonald in which the latter said he would’ve never left Arkansas to take a job at Syracuse if he knew a demotion would be possible after 18 games.
The third peg here is the schedule. Syracuse had a brutal five-week stretch in which it faced, in order, Notre Dame, Louisville, Florida State, Wake Forest and Clemson. Only the most loyal zealots expected more than two wins in that stretch, and most objective observers believed just one victory in that stretch was attainable.
2. From a distance, it's easy to imagine how the loss to N.C. State was particularly deflating—Dave Doeren came in with an 0-12 ACC record. Did you get the sense that that loss was particularly crushing for this team?
It was certainly crushing for my ego. I had correctly picked back in the preseason the outcome of each game up until that point.
As for the football team, I think it’s disappointing to lose any time you don’t face a significant personnel disadvantage. Nobody was mistaking NC State with Florida State or Notre Dame, and Syracuse, leading in the second half with a chance to move ahead by two scores, committed a costly pick-six that swung the game back in NC State’s favor. Those are the games you walk away from feeling like you let one slip away.
Obviously, the bowl game ramifications were significant, too. Syracuse must now defeat Duke and win its final two games on the road at Pittsburgh and Boston College to find a backdoor into the postseason.
3. Let's flip to something positive, briefly—what is the strongest unit on this team?
I could say punter. In fact, I might have to strongly consider saying punter because Riley Dixon has been a nice complement to a defense that has carried this team all season (and he threw the game-winning touchdown pass in double-overtime way back in Week 1 against Villanova).
But if you’re looking for a less menial answer, linebacker is a safe choice here.
Cam Lynch has been the defense’s most consistent playmaker, and it will be interesting to see how much recognition the ACC gives him at the end of the season. He leads the team with 73 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 6.5 sacks and plays a ton of snaps.
Dyshawn Davis hasn’t filled up the stat sheet like Lynch, but he still must be accounted for in this blitz-heavy defense. Davis has forced three fumbles and has hit the quarter back seven times.
The Mike position is much less experienced, and there’s a good chance you’re going to see more of true freshman Zaire Franklin this week. A very smart, instinctive player who was one of the school’s best recruits last cycle, Franklin represents the future of the position for SU.
4. Generally starting a true freshman quarterback isn't a recipe for success. How is A.J. Long coming along, and was he at all ready for this role he was forced into?
Welp. We mentioned injuries already, right?
Because it was announced Thursday morning that Long is highly doubtful for Saturday’s game against Duke because of a nerve issue in his arm. Redshirt freshman Austin Wilson, who suffered a concussion Oct. 11 vs. Florida State, is expected to play if Long is not available.
The issue is significant because the staff really wanted to use the second half of the season to take a hard look at Long once it knew Terrel Hunt was not going to be available for a while. Its cliché to write about, but the staff’s curiosity was piqued by Long’s gravitas and bravado in practice. He was ready to step into the role when he did because he had been preparing to do so most of the last year. His plan had always been to enroll at Syracuse early in order to get a jumpstart on working in the strength and conditioning program, learning the offense and acclimating to college life. Were there going to be freshman mistakes along the way? Absolutely, especially against teams such as Florida State and Clemson.
Now, Syracuse is down to quarterback No. 3 in Wilson, who has a very strong arm, but again, does not have a wealth of experience under his belt.
5. How can Syracuse beat Duke this weekend?
Syracuse needs to have another strong showing from its defense and likely will have to turn Duke over multiple times to have a chance to pull the upset. Then again, this a defense that turned Notre Dame over five times and Clemson four times only to watch its offense score a combined 15 points in those games.
Unlike Hunt and Long, Wilson is limited in the running game, but he can deliver the ball downfield, and that might help Syracuse establish a ground game.
Plus, how often does it come easy for Duke? Its previous five conference victories have been one-score games. If Syracuse can avoid turnovers itself, I don’t see Duke blowing the doors off the Carrier Dome.
Thanks to Nate for his time.