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Behind Enemy Bylines: Syracuse

Tiger Sports (TS): Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey is one of the most underrated players in the ACC, if not the nation. He is also arguably the most dangerous pro-style quarterback that the Tigers will face this season. What type of problems could Dungey present for the Clemson defense?

Daily Orange Sports (DO): Dungey will present plenty of problems with his arm, but arguably Clemson must worry more about his legs. The SU junior has 419 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, nearly double the next-highest rusher, who is an actual running back. Dungey’s ability to extend plays and stretch the field seems a worthy opponent to Clemson’s elite defensive line. That’ll be the battle worth tuning in for. 


TS: After two close calls on the road against LSU and NC State, do you feel like head coach Dino Babers has Syracuse on the cusp of being highly competitive once again?

DO: Tough to call. You can say yes, because the Orange has held its own against those teams and kept itself within two or three plays the entire game. You can also say no, because the story of the Orange for the past four years has been, “Well, if they made a couple more plays…” with LSU, Virginia Tech and others. Babers certainly believes this team his close, as evidenced by his frustrated post-LSU press conference in which he said: “These kids don’t know how close they came.” Empirical evidence remains to be seen. 


TS: Clemson steamrolled through the ACC for the most part in 2015. However, it struggled at times during its matchup at Syracuse. Perhaps the Carrier Dome had something to do with that. As a fairly unique venue in college football, do you feel like the Carrier Dome provides a competitive advantage for the Orange?

DO: The Orange has always played tough teams well in the Carrier Dome, including staying within a touchdown of Louisiana State, two touchdowns of Clemson and actually upsetting then-No. 17 Virginia Tech last year. But I am dubious that the Carrier Dome itself has anything to do with that. Maybe it’s a lack of travel or a certain level of comfort, but the actual venue seems not to be the cause. The Dome rarely gets more than two-thirds full, even for those big home games, and players notice. I think that negates any home-field advantage. 


TS: Of course, Dungey receives a decent amount of national attention, but do the Orange perhaps boast some offensive weapons who are flying under the radar?

DO: Any offensive weapons worth considering from the Orange must come from the passing game. The offensive line is arguably the team’s worst unit and the running game, aside from Dungey scrambles, has struggled at times to break even three yards per carry. The Orange has a prolific passing game highlighted by pass-vacuuming slot man Erv Philips and big-bodied outside threat Steve Ishmael. Those two are the names to watch every time Dungey gets a snap, because he’s targeted either Philips or Ishmael on almost 60 percent of his passes. 


TS: The Tigers and the Orange will do battle this coming Friday at the Carrier Dome. What is your score prediction, and why?

DO: Clemson 31, Syracuse 17. The Tigers prolific defense will stifle Syracuse’s high-octane offense and, no matter who starts under center, Clemson pulls out a win. The gulf between these two programs is systemic, because Clemson recruits on a level only a handful of programs nationwide do, and because the cultures surrounding these two programs is so starkly different. I see the Orange sneakily covering the opening -21.5-point spread but there’s a near-zero chance that the Orange pulls the upset. 


Daily Orange Sports (DO): While this Clemson team is obviously very good, it’s not the same as last year’s national champion. Who and what are the biggest changes?

Tiger Sports (TS): The Clemson offense lost a tremendous amount of talent to the NFL in the spring. From the leading passer to the leading rusher and three of the four leading receivers, the Tigers definitely saw some valuable commodities walk away. However, they were replaced by plenty of rising talent in their wake. Kelly Bryant has proven to be especially productive at the quarterback spot. While he does not boast the same level of pure talent and playmaking ability as predecessor Deshaun Watson, he is quite good and very dangerous in the running game. Also, instead of featuring workhorse Wayne Gallman at the running back position, the Tigers are using a running-back committee this season, with a couple of talented youngsters in Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster consistently making plays for the Tigers. On defense, the intensity and physicality is still at the same high level that it has been in recent years. But, with defensive coordinator Brent Venables at the helm of the defense, that should be expected year in and year out, regardless of who is on the roster. The biggest change for Clemson this season is the approach of the offense. With plenty of inexperienced players on the offensive side of the ball, the offense is much more frenetic that it was with Watson under center. Featuring constant rotation of players in the game, as well as the tendency of a variety of different players to experience success at varying times throughout the game, the Clemson offense is incredibly versatile this season.


DO: Clemson is 6-0 and the only game where the Tigers have come close to losing was a 14-6 win against Auburn. What is the closest thing Clemson has to a weakness?

TS: Clemson’s primary weakness ties in with the biggest change mentioned above. Without many reliable veterans in the starting lineup on offense, the Tigers have gone cold offensively at times this season. Very streaky in nature, the Clemson offense has been stagnant from time to time this season, occasionally struggling to convert lengthy drives into points. For example, Clemson scored just seven points through three quarters against the Boston College Eagles a few weeks ago, only to score at will and drop 27 points in the fourth quarter. That streakiness could serve as a problem if the Tigers were to face off with an offense that can adequately keep up with theirs. Louisville met that qualification, but the Cardinals’ defense was woeful against the Tigers, ruining any chance Louisville might have of winning. Therefore, a quality defense combined with a fast-paced offense could take advantage of the lulls sometimes displayed by the Clemson offense.


DO: If Kelly Bryant is limited on Friday, how will that impact Clemson’s offense?

TS: Reports indicate that Kelly Bryant is ready to go for Friday’s game, but just how limited he will be is up for debate. The ankle injury that he suffered last Saturday could have potentially been severe, but Bryant, who is known for his toughness, is going to fight through it. If he were to be limited in the backfield, the threat that he poses with his feet could take away a usual advantage for the Tigers. However, Clemson’s four-man running back stable could finally be looked to in order to carry the Tigers to victory. Thus far this year, Clemson’s running backs have thrived most when Clemson has held a double-digit lead. This time around, they could be the centerpieces of the offense from the get-go. It also helps that two phenomenal young quarterbacks in Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson could potentially enter the game and fill Bryant’s shoes quite nicely. While they are not nearly as mobile as Bryant, they both sport cannons for arms and are poised in the pocket. Regardless, Bryant’s health could dictate the flow of the game.


DO: Facing Syracuse’s pass-heavy offense, what’s the outlook of Clemson’s secondary? And what’s been the key to besting them so far this season?

TS: Interestingly enough, the Clemson secondary is arguably not as deep or talented this year as it was in 2016. However, perhaps due to a drop in offensive efficiency in its opponents, the 2017 Clemson secondary has actually been better than the 2016 one through the first half of the season. While all of Clemson’s close calls from early on last year were close mostly due to blown coverages in the secondary, this year, the lone close call came in a 14-6 defensive slugfest with the Auburn Tigers. Needless to say, spotty secondary play did not play a factor in that one. Of course, reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson experienced some success against the Clemson secondary, but it was mostly during garbage time in the second half. But the Tigers’ defensive backfield could certainly be exposed by a great downfield passer like Dungey. With the exception of first-string strong safety Tanner Muse, the starting secondary for Clemson is fairly undersized, so tall receivers could definitely pose a problem. With that being said, the only legitimate struggles on behalf of the Clemson secondary came in that second half in Louisville, which Muse missed due to being ejected earlier in the game. Also, starting cornerback Trayvon Mullen and starting free safety Van Smith have been dealing with injuries recently, preventing the defensive back corps from settling into a rhythm. So a steady downfield attack firing on all cylinders could certainly best the Clemson secondary.


DO: What would need to happen for Syracuse to come away with a W?

TS: I predict that Clemson will come away with a 35-17 victory at the Carrier Dome on Friday night. I also predict that the Tigers will not gain any substantial breathing room until the fourth quarter. With Dungey in the fray, Syracuse definitely has a chance to give Clemson a run for its money in what should be a hostile road environment for the Tigers. If Syracuse were to pressure Bryant for the entirety of the contest, much like Auburn did, the Orange could have a chance at victory. The main key to the game, though, will be how the Syracuse offensive line is able to hold up against Clemson’s vicious pass rush, which has been as good as any in the nation this season. Clemson responded well in a difficult primetime road test recently when it beat the Virginia Tech Hokies fairly handily at Lane Stadium, so the Orange will have its hands full in limiting the Tiger offense. All in all, it should be an exciting game.

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