As defensive line coach Tim Daoust stated to CuseNation.com, the defense has been evolving. Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer echoed those sentiments when he got an opportunity to talk on the defense as a whole going into their match-up with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
"More than anything, it's not a particular group or a player," said Shafer. "It's just playing team defense and making progress day by day, understanding what the situation is, being smart to the situation, communicating to one another. And then playing team defense, and understanding that you got teammates running to the ball and where to try to put the ball and force it back to your help."
"…That's what I'm most pleased with is they're doing a good job at trying to play one play at a time and not worrying about what happened prior to or what the score is," Shafer continued. "…Just saying, ‘Hey, I got a second down and six, I'm playing the second down and six tendency, and I'm playing it as hard as I can for as long as I can and I'm not worried about anything else.'
"I know it sounds simple, but that's the truth. That's the approach and I've been pleased with the kids fighting their buns off to back that approach up by putting it on video tape."
In Syracuse's last three games, the defense has aided the Orange to two wins. Against Stony Brook, the rush defense improved from allowing over 170 yards on the ground in the first half to a mere 45 in the second half.
Versus Pittsburgh, good coverage and staying with the ball by free safety Jeremi Wilkes led to a fumble, which was picked up by teammate, linebacker Dyshawn Davis, and taken in for a touchdown, the score that ended up giving Syracuse just enough for a victory.
Even in the game against Minnesota, the Orange defense got to Golden Gophers' quarterback Max Shortell and took him down, while forcing numerous fourth downs that led to three-and-outs and negating opportunities for passing touchdowns.
Despite giving up two touchdowns on the ground, the Syracuse defense worked diligently to give the offense numerous chances to overcome the touchdowns they let in, never giving up on the game, no matter what mistakes had come during the contest.
But two wins in the last three outings has not taken Shafer's focus off of the present.
"We're looking at their favorite plays and formations and just trying to be really sound, trying to play physical, downhill football.," Shafer expressed. "Trying to do a good job mixing up all the calls, that sort of thing. But really, at the end of the day, trying to make that ball go sideways."
The player that will attempt to get the ball vertical, as opposed to sideways, is Rutgers' quarterback Gary Nova, who enters the game with 10 touchdowns to a mere two interceptions. Shafer has been impressed not only with Nova's output, but how he achieves success in preparing the Scarlet Knights' offensive line.
"Nova is a very good football player," Shafer stated. "He's a much improved quarterback. He does a great job setting up protections. He keeps everybody upfront on the same page. He's not gonna take a hit.
"It says he has three sacks, but really they were grounding calls, ‘cause he got rid of the ball and didn't take a hit. So, I've been really impressed with Nova."
With Nova having a strong line in front of him, Syracuse will see opportunities downfield that they will have to negate to keep the Rutgers' offense at bay. One player that has struggled in coverage this season for the Orange has been cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson. Shafer discussed what the staff is doing to aid Anderson, while establishing faith in the corner.
"I think [Secondary] Coach [Donnie] Henderson's done a nice job keeping an even keel with him, teaching him the intricacies of playing the corner position and trusting your technique," said Shafer. "Ri'Shard's a good football player and I trust him and I'm looking forward to him having a good game Saturday."
While some have struggled, others have stepped up, including defensive end Brandon Sharpe, who was responsible for four sacks last week against Pittsburgh, equaling his season total from his time as a freshman. When asked about Sharper's success, Shafer emphasized that the team creates positive outcomes, not just the individual.
"I think the whole team needs to take credit for any individual accolades because really the focus is always gonna be on the guy that gets it on the stat sheet," stated Shafer. "But what about the tackle that did the job well inside so the guard couldn't double? What about the linebacker that showed the pressure, then got out and made it a one-on-one situation for that player?
"So really, you always understand that the people on the outside are gonna look at the individual, but the people on the inside of the program are gonna focus on one another and play true team defense, true team football. And that's the thing that I've been most pleased with with the kids."
Whether or not the Syracuse defense can continue their evolution will be answered soon enough as they take to the road to visit Rutgers on Saturday in search of a win that has eluded them for almost two years. The Orange have not won a road game in the Big East since the last time they visited Rutgers back on November 13th, 2010. The quest for 2-0 in the conference begins at noon eastern.