‘Cuse Countdown’s Analysts Breakdown Syracuse’s Matchup with Clemson

(AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Saturday, Sep 29, 2018 at 12:01 am by Sports Editor

Syracuse football heads to Death Valley with a perfect record, but a powerful Clemson squad awaits the Orange. What is the key to Syracuse repeating history? The Cuse Countdown analysts tell you what the Orange need to do to come away with the win.

Mike Adzima
Key to the Game: Protect Eric Dungey at all Costs

Yes, Syracuse going 4-0 for the first time since 1991 is outstanding. But this Orange team has yet to face anything like the monster that is the Clemson defense. Clemson ranks fourth in the country in total defense, and the Tigers defensive unit is tied for second most sacks in the nation, getting to the quarterback 16 times in the first four weeks. Even with the work Dino Babers has done to beef up the protection on the O-Line for Syracuse, this team still has to do everything it can to protect its injury-prone QB from this tenacious Clemson pass rush.

Prediction: Clemson 38-21

Even with how menacing the Clemson defense is, Eric Dungey and the Orange offense have been firing on all cylinders so far this year, inspiring some faith that they can put up a few scores. The most interesting storyline heading into this game is Clemson deciding to start true freshman QB Trevor Lawrence. Lawrence already has 600 yards in the air this season on just 39 completions, which could easily cause fits for a Syracuse secondary that has shown vulnerability to the deep ball. SU could make this game interesting early on, but look for Lawrence and the Tigers to pull away late and hand the Orange their first loss of the season.

Jenna Fink
Key to the Game: Pressure Trevor Lawrence

Trevor Lawrence was named Clemson’s starting quarterback on Monday. With veteran QB Kelly Bryant announcing his intention to transfer, all eyes are on the true freshman who now doesn’t have an upper-tier quarterback to split reps with. The biggest key for Syracuse this week is to pressure Lawrence. The five-star recruit could undoubtedly become one of the best quarterbacks in college football. So far this season, he has thrown for 600 yards and nine touchdowns. Despite his impressive stats, this game is still his first career start. Even the best players can struggle as rookies. Syracuse’s defense needs to take advantage of the situation and pressure the pocket passer as much as possible. SU has forced 13 sacks, seven interceptions and 29 tackles for loss in their first four games. This is dramatic improvement from the first two seasons under Dino Babers. If the ‘Cuse can prevent an explosive performance from Lawrence, the Orange could advance to 5-0 for the first time since 1987.

Prediction: Clemson 38-31

This 4-0 matchup is the biggest test for the Orange so far this season. Clemson is hungry for revenge after an upset in the Carrier Dome last year. Syracuse has yet to win a game in Death Valley. But after last year’s win, anything is possible. The Tigers and Orange have similar offensive numbers through four games. SU averages 50 points and 523 yards per game while Clemson averages 41 points and 505 yards. The defensive side of the ball, however, is a completely different story. The Tigers rank fourth in total defense with 40 tackles for loss and 16 sacks. Syracuse’s defense has improved, but it doesn’t compare to Clemson. The Tigers are a more well-rounded team. The SU offense will keep the game close but ultimately, Clemson will come away 5-0.

Gill Gross
Key to the Game: Block The Beasts

This game is a classic example of strength on strength. The most imposing part of Dabo Swinney’s squad is the defensive line. Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant off the edge and Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins on the inside are all potential first round picks. Four future impact NFL players on the D-line… absurdity. Luckily for Syracuse, their big boys might be up to the task. The Orange returned four starters from last year’s offensive line and transfer Koda Martin has plenty of experience for Texas A&M. SU has delivered nearly double the number of sacks it has taken. And Syracuse’s 5.3 yards per carry on the ground is stellar. Cody Conway, Koda Martin and co. need to block like they’ve never blocked before if Syracuse is going to put up points.

Prediction: 43-33 Clemson

Don’t get caught up in the “Clemson is out for revenge” narrative. Last year’s loss has nothing to do with whatever happens on Saturday. Trevor Lawrence, on the other hand, will have something to do with it. In limited time, Lawrence is 39-of-60 passing, with 600 yards and nine touchdowns. He can push the ball downfield as well as anyone, evidenced by his average of 10 yards per pass attempt. Offense won’t be a problem for SU, as their offensive line is good enough to contain Clemson’s monstrous front. But Lawrence is about steal headlines around the country with a huge game on the heels of Kelly Bryant’s departure.   

Cameron Macaulay
Key to the Game: Silence The Crowd

Death Valley belongs among the toughest places to play in college football for a reason. The ‘Cuse has played in tough environments before, but if Syracuse is going to have any shot in this game, they’ll need to do something to quiet the crowd down. The Orange need to avoid sacks, turnovers, and limit big plays from the Clemson offense as much as possible. If they can hang around for a while, doubt may creep into the minds of the Tigers and give the SU a chance in Death Valley. SU won’t sneak up on Clemson like they did last year, but if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot early on and can silence the crowd, they might just convince Clemson they have some competition in the ACC Atlantic.

Prediction: Clemson 38-21

Don’t be too harsh on the Orange here; this is a game nearly every team in the country would be an underdog in. The real aspect is how long SU can hang around and keep Clemson nervous. Clemson is very good, and Trevor Lawrence starting will give the Orange a new style of problems. This game is a good barometer for how good SU really is this season; if they can keep the deficit to 10 or fewer, Dino Babers should be happy with his group’s performance.

Karl Moeglein
Key to the Game: Win the Turnover Battle

There are not a lot of areas where Syracuse has a statistical advantage against Clemson, but one number where the Orange have a sizeable advantage in turnover margin.  Syracuse is plus six in turnover margin, whereas the Tigers sit at just one, and have yet to record an interception this season. The Clemson defense is just one of five in the country without a pick this year. It likely won’t get any easier for the Tigers to reverse that trend against Eric Dungey. Syracuse’s senior quarterback has just one interception this season. Turnovers are especially important on the road. The Orange need to decrease the impact of Death Valley. Taking advantage of any mistakes from the Tigers is crucial to putting doubt in the minds of the Clemson faithful.

Prediction: Clemson 35-27

The days of Syracuse being blown away by the elite of the ACC are behind them. However, that doesn’t mean that the Orange will win every game this year either. This game is both similar and different to a year ago. Syracuse has answered the question marks they had coming into this season. Last year, receivers Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips stepped up in the upset. Whether it be Sean Riley, who excelled against UConn, or Jamal Custis, who has emerged as a deep threat, the Orange have made found receivers to make up for the production lost by last year’s seniors. Eric Dungey can always be expected to extend plays and use his legs. The difference comes with the Tigers. Syracuse scored 27 last year and will be in the same range again. Clemson is a better offensive football team with a healthy quarterback leading the way, and barring that changing, Syracuse will not pull off a repeat of last year’s stunner.

Sean Scott
Key to the Game: Neutralize Clemson’s Defensive Line

There’s no doubt that Clemson has one of the best defensive lines in the entire country. With four potential future first round draft picks on the line, opposing teams are practically facing an NFL front every week. Usually, when a team faces a dominant defensive lineman, the answer is to double team him. However, that becomes much more difficult when there are four great defensive linemen and only five offensive linemen to counter. The loss of tight end Ravian Pierce will be rough for a Syracuse team that needs every big, blocking body the Orange can get. Without Pierce, the Orange are left with two inexperienced tight ends, leaving their ability to block star defensive linemen in question. Syracuse needs to incorporate other ways to neutralize Clemson’s defensive line, whether that means more jumbo sets with Chris Elmore or using running backs to pick up incoming pressure.

Prediction: Clemson 41-24

Earlier in the week, this game had potential to be closer, but the news of Kelly Bryant transferring from Clemson makes this a near certain win for the Tigers. No Bryant means even more drives for the new starter, Trevor Lawrence, and that is bad news for Syracuse. Lawrence has guided the Clemson offense seamlessly in his freshman season, leading the Tigers to 45 more points than Kelly Bryant in just four more drives than Bryant. Also, this is Syracuse’s first major road test, and as hard as it is to win in Kalamazoo, it is infinitely tougher to win in Death Valley’s atmosphere; Clemson is an astounding 48-3 at home since 2011. The Tigers don’t want Dino Babers giving another locker room speech on ESPN, and they are ready for their revenge. Clemson remains a College Football Playoff contender, and Syracuse will see that first-hand in South Carolina on Saturday.

Corey Spector
Key to the Game: Eric Dungey Must Play His Best Game Ever

If Syracuse is going to put up a fight with the Tigers in Death Valley, Eric Dungey must play flawlessly. The senior signal caller was efficient in ‘Cuse’s 27-24 upset defeat of Clemson last season. But, that was in the Carrier Dome, aided by a Family Weekend crowd. This time, just “efficient” won’t be enough from Dungey to secure even competitiveness against this year’s Clemson squad on their home turf. “Special” and “herculean” are the type of descriptors we’re talking about. No interceptions, no fumbles, slotting footballs into tight areas, and three-digit rushing yards. If Eric Dungey evades the pressure, steps up or slides to avoid contact from the more than 1200 pounds of the Tigers defensive front attacking him for 80+ snaps, we can begin to have a conversation.

Prediction: Clemson 38-26

Dabo Swinney and his 2018 roster might be better than the 2017 version, because of the four starters on the defensive line who earned recognition on the All-ACC preseason team and because of who’s got his hands on the pigskin: Trevor Lawrence. The freshman is now engineering the offense full-time with the recent transfer of former Tigers QB Kelly Bryant. Lawrence has already been touted as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the Georgia native can sling it inside the pocket. That offense hasn’t even picked up steam just yet, especially with star wideout Hunter Renfrow quiet in 2018. The man on the receiving end of Deshaun Watson’s National Championship-winning touchdown in 2016 has just 12 catches in four games. ‘Cuse keeps hope for three quarters in this one, before the talent of Clemson prevails.

Owen Valentine
Key to the Game: Hit Trevor Lawrence Hard

The quarterback circus at Clemson is finally over, with Trevor Lawrence earning the role as ringleader.  The true freshman phenom outright won the starting spot for the Tigers, but what we haven’t seen is his ability to take a hit.  Lawrence has only been sacked once this season and if Syracuse can get to him early, it could spice this game up a little bit. The SU defense has done well getting to the quarterback this year, including six sacks against UConn last week, but Clemson’s offensive line is uncharted territory for the Orange.  If they can find a way around those Tiger hogs and take a few shots at Lawrence early, Syracuse could give themselves a chance to repeat last years antics.

Prediction: Clemson 41 -10

This game is going to go one of two ways: either a low-scoring, competitive game or a Clemson blowout.  Unfortunately for Syracuse, I think it is going to be the latter. Clemson’s offence under Trevor Lawrence has looked great, scoring nine of the team’s 11 passing touchdowns through the true freshman and averaging 4.2 points per drive.  Even though the SU defense has played above expectations this season, there is not enough manpower to bring the Tigers to a halt. When combined with the Clemson defense that has allowed just over 15 points per game, the Orange’s chances do not look too good.  This is going to be a tough pill to take for Syracuse, who have yet to struggle once this year.