This weekend the Syracuse Orange will face the unenviable task of walking right into the Nittany Lion’s den to take on the defending Big Ten champions, Penn State.
In this renewal of Syracuse’s most played rivalry, the Orange come in as heavy underdogs to the 5th/7th ranked Nittany Lions, who smoked Akron last week 31-7.
Last season, the Lions visited the Carrier Dome and laid an epic 55-13 beating on the Orange. However, after Syracuse’s overtime loss to Minnesota last week, Penn State coach Joe Paterno believes that this year, Syracuse looks like a different team.
"Syracuse looks like a pretty darn good football team to me," he said. "Maybe they weren't so good last year, but this is a different year. This is a different kind of football team. They hustled and made some plays."
That may be the case, but of course the question remains; can Syracuse win?
The grim reality is that the Orange are a long shot at best. The Lions are replacing some talented players who contributed to the pounding they gave Syracuse last year, but the thing about Penn State is, they’re one of the few programs in college football who annually reloads rather than rebuilds.
If the Orange are to compete with Penn State on Saturday there are a few key match ups that Syracuse will need to do well in.
Greg Paulus vs. Penn State’s secondary:
The Nittany Lions are replacing all four starters from last year’s secondary which held Syracuse to a pathetic 110 passing yards last season. Both safeties, Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino, as well as cornerback D’Anton Lynn are sophomores, with the lone upperclassmen being senior corner Knowledge Timmons.
The unit played well last week against Akron, allowing only 158 passing yards to the Zips.
Greg Paulus played efficient football for Syracuse in his first collegiate start, completing 19 of his 31 pass attempts (61.3%) for 167 yards, a touchdown and an interception against the Gophers. While his completion percentage was solid, Syracuse is going to need more total passing yards from him if they want to have any chance to win. They’ll need to take a couple more shots down field than they did against Minnesota because Penn State will likely be keying in on the Orange’s short passing game.
One thing working for Paulus is that Penn State’s young secondary has not yet faced an elite receiver like Mike Williams this season. If Williams can get free, he could be the deep threat Syracuse will need to score some points.
The Orange defensive line vs. Penn State’s offensive line
This is one match up that may be putting one of Syracuse’s strengths against a possible weakness of Penn State.
For Syracuse’s defensive, it all begins up front with senior nose tackle Arthur Jones. One of the top defensive tackles in the nation, Jones will command a double team on nearly every snap. Last week against Minnesota, Jones registered five tackles, including one for a loss.
He’s surrounded by other talented lineman like freshman Brandon Sharp, who registered a sack, Mikhail Marinovich who swatted down three passes and Art’s brother Chandler Jones who had four tackles, including one for a loss last week.
The offensive line charged with stopping this formidable group, is replacing three starters from last year.
Moving over from guard to center is junior Stephen Wisniewski, and also returning is senior tackle Dennis Landolt. Stepping in to fill the remaining three spots are redshirt freshman guard Matt Stankiewitch, junior guard Lou Eliades and sophomore tackle DeOn’tae Pannel.
This unit paved the way for the Penn State to run for 136 yards on 30 carries against Akron last week, including Evan Royster's 61 yards on 14 carries. On the flip side, Syracuse’s defense allowed only 112 rushing yards on 32 carries against the Gophers.
The Orange secondary vs. Daryll Clark
Penn State’s senior quarterback Daryll Clark looked like a Heisman candidate last week against the hapless Akron defense. Despite breaking in three new starting receivers, Clark completed 29 of his 40 attempts for 353 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
As a junior last season, Clark was very good. He completed 59.8% of his passes for 2,592 yards, 19 touchdowns and only six interceptions.
Syracuse’s secondary was one of the surprises of the game against Minnesota last week. They played much better than expected, and they gave Minnesota’s veteran quarterback Adam Weber problems for most of the game.
Weber completed only 19 of his 42 pass attempts for 248 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He appeared confused by Syracuse’s defensive scheme for much of the game, and was bailed out on a number of occasions by one of the nation’s top receivers Eric Decker. Decker had had nine catches for 183 receiving yards (all but 65 of Weber’s passing yards).
The secondary is lead by junior safety Mike Holmes, who had a team high eight tackles and an interception. Corners Nico and Kevyn Scott combined for nine tackles and Kevyn had one pass broken up. Safety Max Suter also had four tackles and one terrific pass breakup in the end zone when he was left in one-on-one coverage.
This is a unit that got picked on a lot last season, so it remains to be seen whether it was just a great game or if the Orange secondary has turned a corner. If they play as well as they did last week, Daryll Clark won’t be putting up the same kind of numbers as he did against Akron.
In the end, these are just a couple of areas that Syracuse could have some success in. When it’s all said and done though, the Orange could excel in all of these areas and still lose the game, thanks to a serious difference in overall team talent.
My prediction is that the Syracuse defense will again look good this week, but the offense will be unable to score enough to take advantage of it. Penn State’s defense should make running the ball very difficult with Syracuse’s offensive line problems. Paulus could perform well, but he likely won’t be able to hurt the secondary enough to make up for a struggling running game.
Penn State wins 31-13.