Defense, not offense, the key cog in Syracuse improvement

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Forget up-tempo, high-powered offense. Syracuse’s defense is the new fast.Though Syracuse hired head coach Dino Babers for his offensive genius, the Syracuse defense deserves the bulk of the credit for the Orange’s (4-3, 2-1 Atlantic Coast) resurgence. It has fueled what’s shaping up to be Syracuse’s best season in four years, disrupting opponents’ offenses and allowing its own the time it needs to click.The upset over then-No. 2 Clemson Friday offered a showcase of just how far this defense has come. On the biggest stage in recent program history, the SU defense harassed Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant before knocking him out of the game. It held the defending national champion’s run game to less than half of its season average yards per game. As Syracuse’s offenses continues to put up strong numbers in Year 2 under Babers, it is clear the defense has found the right ingredients to slow down opponents.“We’re just a completely different unit top to bottom,” said senior linebacker and captain Zaire Franklin. “I’m not just saying that. Parris (Bennett) is not the same player he was last year. We all just got better and I think at times we played great but other times we underachieve and that’s disappointing.”“When we take that next step,” Franklin said last month, “we’re really going to be something.”AdvertisementThis is placeholder textThe thing is, Syracuse has already taken that step. Backed by a strong defense, the Orange is a win over No. 8 Miami away from its first stretch of three consecutive conference victories in 16 years. Sixteen years. Yet Syracuse is without safety Antwan Cordy and defensive linemen Kendall Coleman and Josh Black. Graduate transfer Jordan Martin was forced to move to safety, where he has thrived.Yes, the Orange still needs two wins to be bowl eligible for the first time in four years, so don’t get overly excited with five more games — three against Preseason Top 25 teams — remaining on the schedule. But with a chance to upset a second straight Top 10 team and a bye week forthcoming, it’s hard not to imagine the possibilities.Andy Mendes | Digital Design EditorBabers arrived at Syracuse with the promise of a big-time offense. That came in Year 1 and has continued this year. A quick look at this year’s defense shows it’s one of the most improved in college football. Considering the strength of Syracuse’s schedule, SU may have the most-improved defense in the country. In 2016, SU finished 122nd out of 128 FBS teams in total defense. The year prior, Syracuse finished 99th.In the second year of its Tampa 2 system, Syracuse has bucked the trend, placing 38th in both total and rushing defense. Offensively innovative and defensive-minded, the Orange has allowed 35 or more points only once this season. That happened six times a year ago under defensive coordinator Brian Ward’s scheme.“The determination they all have has been ridiculous,” senior offensive lineman Jamar McGloster said. “They’re playing harder than I’ve ever seen them play.”The quick turnaround starts with the defensive line, which takes away pressure from the linebackers and has stymied, punished and befuddled opposing quarterbacks. The unit has forced four starting QBs to leave a game. Syracuse’s front has proved to be the heart of the defense and foundation for strong coverage.The defensive line is much bigger and stronger, led by Chris Slayton and Kayton Samuels, said Julian Whigham, a former Syracuse cornerback and ESPN Syracuse analyst. Last year, highlight reels too often showed SU defensive backs running down field at receivers who had beaten them. This year, big plays are rare. They have molded to the Tampa 2, a zone coverage scheme designed to prevent big plays, and have kept most players in front.On Sept. 30 against N.C. State, the Orange allowed 26 first-half points because it could not defend on the edge. Poor containment and tackling allowed Wolfpack outside runs to routinely stretch for 10 or more yards, though it’s worth mentioning that SU held NCSU to only seven second-half points. Against the Wolfpack, Pittsburgh and Clemson, the big plays came on runs. Those suck the air out of a team. When Syracuse buckles down to limit big plays, it pilots the offense, buying it more possessions and time to shine.“They re-energized themselves to come out this year and prove to everyone else that not only are there good coaches,” Babers said, “but there are good players on that side of the football as well.”Before the season, Babers said SU would have to play better defense to make a bowl. Then, SU would have to lock down in the red zone, get more turnovers and stop teams on third downs. Through seven games, Syracuse owns the country’s third-best third-down defense and 23rd-best red zone defense.“We’re playing a lot faster, a lot smarter,” Franklin said. “I can’t wait to see the finished product.”Look out, because it’s unfolding before our eyes. Comments Published on October 18, 2017 at 9:44 pmlast_img

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