After a tough loss to Vanderbilt this past Saturday in Murfreesboro, the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders look to get back on track on the road against the Syracuse Orange. This one will feature two high-powered, fast-paced offenses facing off in the Carrier Dome that should be a fun one for the fans. Leading up to this game, I had the opportunity to speak with John from the SB Nation site NunesMagician.com covering Syracuse and ask him some questions about the matchup.
1. For MT fans that aren't familiar with the Orange, what are 3 things that they NEED to know going into Saturday?
- Syracuse runs an up-tempo offense, taking advantage of the indoor atmosphere at the Carrier Dome. That's not going to be shocking to Blue Raiders fans, since you guys run a pretty fast attack yourselves. There are several lightning-quick skill position players to keep track of, including Ervin Philips and Moe Neal, plus freshman Nykeim Johnson, who already displayed some flashes of being a dynamic ball-carrier last Friday.
- The Orange aren't a great running team. Last year, we only averaged 3.2 yards per carry, and this year isn't looking much better so far. QB Eric Dungey's the most effective runner we have, which isn't great. True frosh Markenzy Pierre looked to have some upside in garbage time last week, though, so maybe we see more of him as Dino Babers pushes for more up-the-gut running.
- This isn't the same defense from last year. We'll see if that means it's better. While the Orange collected just one sack on Friday vs. Central Connecticut, there was a noticeably better pass rush from last year (when we had just 15 total sacks). The secondary struggled through injuries last year, but appears to be covering better downfield so far. Just don't expect last year's tape to tell you much.
2. Quarterback Eric Dungey had a very strong game passing versus Central Connecticut State, how would you describe his performance and how he creates his success?
Dungey's a very accurate passer, relying on short throws near the line of scrimmage to help set up deeper routes to bigger receivers like Steve Ishmael and Jamal Custis on the outside. He can also make plays with his legs, which is what makes him so dangerous for opponents. Against CCSU, he made quick throws, and didn't sit in the pocket when receivers weren't getting open. He can take some unnecessary hits here and there, but his success is created by making quick reads and finding his speedy wideouts for open throws.
3. Is the fact that Dungey also lead the Orange in rushing last week more of a statement about him or how bad the rushing attack is?
Both? Dungey's a dynamic player, and part of that is created by his agility, since it can keep the defense distracted while he finds one of four or five receivers for a pass. Most of his runs were by design on Friday, and he knows how to take advantage of an opening in the defense. That said, it becomes a necessity in short yardage situations since the rest of the run game's so bad. Still, we'd prefer the running backs saw more success so he could cut down the amount he's running in the open field.
4. The Syracuse defense almost pitched the shutout last week, what can MT expect to see from the defense? Strongest and weakest parts?
Syracuse's strongest asset is its senior linebacker group, as those players have progressed to hybrid skill sets equally adept at rushing the passer or playing in coverage in this Tampa-2 scheme. Zaire Franklin and Parris Bennett get the headlines after each collecting over 100 tackles last year, but this is a deep group with six or seven players that can easily be cycled in to keep legs fresh.
Mentioned a little earlier, but the secondary's still a bit of a question mark. Despite showing an ability to cover a bit better last week, it was still an FCS team, you can't simply erase last year's 8.9 yards allowed per attempt. The defensive backs are healthier and more experienced overall this year, but we also may have lost starting free safety (and best defender) Antwan Cordy to injury last week. There will likely be some opportunities to go over the top.
5. What was fan perception of Scott Shafer when he coached Syracuse and how do you expect fans to react now that he is on the other sideline?
Shafer was a continuity hire, and one that was met with a good deal of approval from the fan base (self included) when it happened. The first year was great, since we made a bowl game. But the offense was stagnant and the defense got worse over time. And recruiting never really ticked up as we'd hoped. Criticism started to rise, and Shafer kind of bunkered himself. Part of that is likely why he was let go late in 2015.
He still has plenty of fans among the Syracuse faithful, as plenty disagreed with his firing after three years, and he was a great defensive coordinator for the Orange during the Doug Marrone era. He'll get an ovation in all likelihood, and fans and players will be glad to see him return to the Dome (as long as you guys don't upset us).
6. Lastly, give your prediction of how this one plays out on Saturday?
The Cordy injury concerns me with regard to Syracuse stopping the pass, but not so much that I think it kills off Orange chances for a win. While MTSU didn't look great on offense vs. Vanderbilt, I think that's more a product of the Commodores' defense than anything else. The Blue Raiders have a great quarterback and a similarly quick and effective offensive system to Syracuse's. I'm expecting a shootout of sorts. Give me something like 41-31, Orange.