The Syracuse Orange football program is back even at .500, this time at 5-5. They have matched their winning total of last season but have yet to post a winning record this season, which can change with a victory over Missouri this week.
Even more importantly for the Orange, a win over the Tigers makes them eligible to be invited to a bowl game for the first time since the 2010 New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
As the Orange prepare for their nighttime match, it is imperative to know their opponent, the Tigers.
History under head coach Gary Pinkel:
Pinkel is in his 12th season at the helm of the Missouri Tigers football program.
He has guided the Tigers to seven consecutive winning seasons, advancing to a bowl game in each of those campaigns, coming out the victor in four of those seven matches.
In the time that Marrone has been at Syracuse, Pinkel has helped to put together 31 wins in 44 opportunities.
This season, however, has been a more difficult campaign with Missouri moving from the Big 12 Conference to the Southeastern Conference (SEC). They come into the game equaling Syracuse at .500, with an overall record of 5-5.
The Missouri Tigers did not make it easy on themselves to get back even, amounting 64 yards of total offense in the first half of last week's match-up with the Tennessee Volunteers, but they came back to gain 390 in the second half.
Their defense also awoke in the latter half, giving up 202 yards after allowing 383 in The Opening half, showing that they have learned resiliency, which will give the Orange a definite challenge on the road.
Offensively for Missouri:
On the pass. Quarterback James Franklin has exhibited leadership as of late, helping the Tigers down the field to tie the game in the fourth quarter and then to outlast the Volunteers through four overtimes.
He is a dual-threat quarterback, the fifth to face the Orange this season. Syracuse is coming off their best performance against a running quarterback, defeating Teddy Bridgewater and the formerly undefeated Louisville Cardinals. Syracuse has won half of their matches versus running quarterbacks, with the second coming in the final three seconds of the game against South Florida, with their quarterback B.J. Daniels gaining over 100 yards on the ground in the first half alone.
Orange defensive tackle Deon Goggins stated that being productive against Bridgewater was all about getting back to fundamentals, getting their feet right and hands right. The team, according to Goggins, had been focused on beating the other team on every play instead of just doing the fundamentals on every play.
Along with using his legs, Franklin can throw the deep ball. Last week, Franklin stood a step in front of his own 40-yard line and threw the ball downfield for a completion to wide receiver Bud Sasser inside the Tennessee 10-yard line. Four different players have been involved in passing plays by Franklin of more than 40 yards that have led to touchdowns.
Not only can he air it out, but with a threat like Sasser who will go up and get it, the Syracuse cornerbacks and safeties will have get high and defend against the passing line to take away the top-shelf grabs by Sasser.
What is also dangerous about the Tigers is that receivers who have not been utilized much throughout the season are the ones stepping up as of late, showing depth for Missouri. Both Sasser and fellow receiver Jimmie Hunt are averaging at least 20 yards per catch and despite having less than 10 receptions apiece, they have combined to gain 350 yards and three touchdowns. With four other receivers who has caught more than 20 passes each, Franklin knows how to spread the ball around and has the talent to allow him to do that.
Syracuse's secondary will be challenged with the ball being spread about. Cornerbacks Ri'Shard Anderson and Brandon Reddish have struggled in single coverage throughout the season, while Keon Lyn has been more successful but seems to take plays off at times. However, Anderson and Reddish have both gotten better at reading the opposing quarterback and jumping the route.
With Franklin making 83 pass attempts between the last two games, which is atypical for him, his efficiency has not risen along with the amount of attempts he has made. Franklin completed 43 of those 83 pass attempts to get his completion percentage barely over 50%. His difficulty to link up with his receivers at times can lead to even more plays on the ball by the Orange secondary if they continue their level of play as of late, where they are showing more of an understanding of where the ball is heading and then speeding to the spot.
Also a factor in this match will be Franklin's health after having labrum surgery before the season on his shoulder and recently working through a strained knee. With a Syracuse defense that likes to pressure the quarterback and has shown hard-hitting ability, they may be able to slow Franklin if they can get break through to him.
Breaking through to Franklin has been made more probable by the season-ending injuries of Justin Britt, Taylor Chappell, and Travis Ruth as well as Jack Meiners who still does not have a date of return as a result of his injury. Missouri's offensive line has allowed 24 sacks so far this season. The Orange entering with 11 players who have been involved in sacking the opposing quarterback does not make the environment any more manageable for the Tigers, which can play in favor of Syracuse if they can yake advantage of a line who has lost most of their starters.
Staying with the topic of injury, if Franklin were to come out of the game on Saturday, quarterback Corbin Berkstresser would be the next option. In the two games where Berkstresser had been asked to play in Franklin's absence, he threw for 198 yards versus Arizona State and 126 yards against Alabama. In both matches, Berkstresser failed to connect with any of his teammates for a score through the air. He did, however, find the opposing team three times, throwing three interceptions between these two games.
The Syracuse secondary, despite struggling at times, has had five different players gain interceptions. Though Franklin is the better option between him and Berstresser, both have had difficulty keeping away from sending the ball to the wrong jersey this season.
Berkstresser's upside is that, like Franklin, he can also run, crossing the threshold twice on the ground during this current season.
On the run. After gaining 31 yards on seven carries in the first half last week against Tennessee, Kendial Lawrence opened up the second half with 77 yards on his first carry, leading to a touchdown.
But, Lawrence has had a roller coaster-type season. His 77-yard rushing play outdid his output in five different games this season. In contrast, Lawrence has had four 100-yard rushing games, including his best performance, coming last week where he amounted 153 yards on the ground.
The fluctuation does not stop with yards for Lawrence. He has had four different games where he scored multiple times on the ground and the same amount of matches where he has failed to gain even one score while carrying the ball. Which Lawrence comes to play against Syracuse will dictate how the Orange defense will need to respond.
Either way, what is known is that Lawrence is a speedy back and also a rusher who must learn to protect the football better, allowing himself to be stripped last week.
Syracuse's rush defense turned on to slow three straight Big East opponents before getting sent back on their heels by South Florida and Cincinnati. They returned to halt Louisville, allowing a mere 48 rushing yards despite the Cardinals having a dual-threat quarterback and a two-headed backfield (before Senorise Perry going out due to injury), which typically causes issues for the Orange defense. Syracuse will be facing off against a running quarterback and one dominant back in Lawrence. If the defensive line can slow the ball carrier initially, as they have before, the linebackers and secondary can come to aid, giving the Orange a similar outing as they had versus Louisville. Every member of the Orange defensive line deserves credit for their penetration, pressure, and tackling as different players have had success at different times with the aid of those around them doing their jobs.
Overall. Missouri has a special package known as "12 extra large", where they bring in numerous big-bodied players with the majority of them staying in a bunch around the quarterback. The Tigers utilized this package twice on 4th-and-1 last week to their success, with Lawrence and Franklin both taking carries past the first-down marker.
Defensively for Missouri:
Against the run. Missouri allows spacing, no matter where the run comes from. In the middle moreso, though, than on the ends, the Tigers struggle to stop the run, failing in traffic by giving lanes for opposing rushers to find an exit path.
Jerome Smith has barreled forward to create lanes for himself. The Missouri rush defense is something he should look forward to playing if they have the same type of outing that they had versus Tennessee where the Tigers left space on almost every run.
Along with the power of Smith, Prince-Tyson Gulley has also been effective bouncing to the outside as well as going between the tackles. Getting in the open field is his forte, according to Gulley, because he knows he can make guys miss there. With Missouri leaving open pieces of land, look to Gulley to continue to move Syracuse forward as he uses his elusiveness and speed in space.
Having a balanced offense last week aided the Orange to a victory just shy of a three-touchdown divide between them and the Cardinals. The fake also has helped Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib on his keepers, so running the ball will essentially provide for better opportunities and keepers and passes of being successful.
Against the pass. Not only do the Tigers leave wide gaps in the middle of the field for opposing rushers, but their coverage team allows big areas of open space versus the pass, also.
Nassib has made smart passes, placing the ball in the right spot for his receivers to make plays on the ball while keeping the ball away from the opposing defense. If the spacing allowed in the Tennessee game continues, Nassib will be able to spread the ball out and move the team upfield. His passes over the middle to Gulley and tight end Beckett Wales also stand to open the offense up more if Missouri fails to close the gap they have been leaving in the middle of their defense.
But despite leaving open areas, Nassib will have to account for leaders against the pass in each line of the defense: defensive lineman Kony Ealy, linebacker Andrew Wilson, and defensive back E.J. Gaines. Ealy leads in pass breakups with seven, Gaines with six, and Wilson has had four. In total, 12 different defensive players on the Missouri roster have broken up at least one pass attempt.
The offensive line will have to account for the fact that eight different Missouri players have been involved in sacking the opposing quarterback.
In the last three games, the Syracuse offensive line has allowed one sack per game, a definite improvement from a three-game span earlier in the season where they gave up eight sacks. With most of the sacks coming from the Missouri's frontline, Syracuse will have to continue locking up defenders at each of the five offensive line positions. The middle of the line has allowed some penetration, so the Orange must close that hole with enough to hold off defensive linemen, notably Sheldon Richardson and Michael Sam, who each have at least four sacks this season, with Sam edging Richardson by a half a sack going into this match. Richardson also averages close to 10 tackles per game and knows how to get offenses quickly, with 9.5 tackles for a loss. Linebacker Will Ebner will also be a force to watch out for, equaling Richardson's total tackles for the season with 70, passing him with 10.5 of those tackles being for a loss, and also hitting the opposing quarterback, sacking opposing man under center, breaking up a pass, and forcing a fumble.
Overall. The Missouri defense has forced 20 fumbles on the season, the most by any defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Of those 20, they have recovered 16.
Six Tigers' players have tackled the opposing team behind the line of scrimmage five or more times this season.
How the special teams unit looks. Wide receiver Marcus Murphy leads the entire FBS in touchdowns off of punt returns, of which he has taken three over the threshold. Murphy has also achieved a score off of a kickoff return, giving him four returns for touchdowns this season and making him a definite threat on special teams.
Murphy's teammate, wide receiver Jimmie Hunt, turned his own kickoff return into a touchdown last week versus Tennessee after going 87 yards to paydirt. Although they were some blocks made for Hunt, he made the moves in traffic to zigzag through the battleground to give the Tigers six points.
Even more impressive was that Hunt's return came on only his third kickoff return of the season.
Keys to the game:
Missouri: Limit the spacing. The Tigers left wide open areas on the field, especially in the middle of their defense, last week versus Tennessee. With a multi-talented, three-headed rushing attack and a professional-grade quarterback, that space will be exploited once again unless Missouri learns to condense it during the match.
Improve on coverage. Syracuse has so many receivers, including their tight ends and running backs, that without tight coverage, it makes sense that the Orange will move the ball forward with the talent that they have. Last week, the Tigers were allowing players to catch passes by giving them space. Missouri may not to take every receiver out of a play because Syracuse is so deep, but they will have to slow as many potential receivers as they can in hopes of stalling the Orange offense.
Throw the deep ball.Despite improvement, Syracuse's corners have been known to get beat in single coverage before so challenging them throughout the game can translate to six points for the Tigers.
Continue special teams prowess. With five returns for touchdowns between two players, the right players as far as speed and decision-making are receiving the kicks and punts.
Syracuse: Establish the run.Running the ball has opened up the offense more for the Orange by taking some of the pressure off of Nassib. Smith, Gulley, and Moore have all had respectable outings whenever they have been asked to step out onto the field. Their gains shorten the field for Syracuse as well as run down the clock when needed.
Have a balanced attack. When the defense does not know what is coming next, it is clear that you have a better opportunity to gain yardage on them. Without using both elements of the offense, Syracuse begins to get one-dimensional, typically to their demise. With all the talent the Orange have in the backfield and in the receiving core, it is irresponsible not to use it.
Challenge the secondary. With all the room they were leaving Tennessee quarterback %%MATCH_41%% last week, Nassib should not hesitate to take advantage of spacing in the passing game. Nassib can and has made some good throws in tight coverage, so if the Tigers give him room, he has the vision to find the holes, the arm to get the ball downfield, and the receivers to get the ball and make a move.
Pressure Franklin.Getting after Bridgewater caused him to force throws down the field last week. A running quarterback is only a threat if given the time to spot the openings in the defense. Not just hard hitting but smart hitting coupled with speed will be vital in taking away elements of the Missouri offense.
Prediction: Syracuse has only won one road game this season. But this match will be different from the typical road struggles. The Orange will score first, only to have that touchdown equaled. A field goal will follow for kicker Ross Krautman of Syracuse and the Orange will add another touchdown and field to go up 20-10 after a field goal by the Tigers.
After the half, Missouri will struggle as Syracuse gets two more touchdowns. The Tigers will get two touchdowns of their own, but the game will end with the Orange becoming bowl eligible and getting over .500 for the first time this season, winning 34-24.