Opponent outlook: How has coach Dino Babers turned Syracuse around?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

What a difference two years makes.

In the two seasons prior to head coach Dino Babers’ 2016 arrival, Syracuse had gone a combined 7-17. Babers’ first couple seasons were not pretty, although the Orange showed flashes last season by downing No. 2 Clemson and nearly upsetting LSU and Miami.

In season three, Babers has the No. 12 Orange rolling with four straight victories and a chance at a 10-win season. A healthy quarterback in senior Eric Dungey has helped SU place No. 14 in total offense and No. 7 in scoring offense.

Once a putrid defense, the Orange are now No. 10 in sacks and No. 2 in turnovers gained with 25. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book has never faced a pass efficiency defense like that of SU, which ranks No. 49.

Will the No. 3 Irish have a tough time against an Orange squad that continues to surprise? We caught up with Stephen Bailey of Syracuse.com for more insight on the Orange.

How much of this season has been a surprise and what do you think the future holds for Dino Babers?

Bailey: “Syracuse’s 8-2 record this season has been a perfect storm of sorts. Both of the lines projected to be better, and they have been, paving the way for consistent play on offense and defense. SU has also avoided significant injury for the first time in the last five years, allowing the team to lean on the depth it has at some positions without being forced to play unproven entities.

“Catching Florida State in a down year and scheduling Connecticut, perhaps the worst team in FBS, have been key factors in a schedule that’s much more favorable than the first five ACC slates the program faced.

“As far as Babers, he’s growing into an appealing coaching candidate for high-Power-Five jobs. Everyone in Central New York is interested to see what the school will bring to the table financially and whether the administration will be able to hold onto him when a traditionally better program comes calling.”

Beyond Babers arrival, what initiated the drastic improvement in SU’s defense?

Bailey: “First and foremost, time. The upperclassmen have two-plus years of experience playing in the system and mastering the verbiage. Younger players have older players with game time to learn from.

“There’s also enough depth this year to rotate the entire defensive line, which is probably the strongest unit on the team (kickers excluded). Defensive tackle Chris Slayton consistently demands double-teams, in turn opening up one-on-one opportunities for ends Alton Robinson (nine sacks) and Kendall Coleman (seven), as well as providing clean run fits for a group of first-year starting linebackers.

“The secondary has been strong, though banged-up a bit in recent weeks, while the ‘backers have hit their stride over the back half of the season. Middle linebacker Ryan Guthrie, a JUCO addition last January, has probably been the most improved player on the team during the year.”

Dungey missed 10 games over the last few years due to injury. How important has his health been and how do you expect he will fare against an ND defense that ranks No. 6 in defensive pass efficiency and No. 25 in total defense?

Bailey: “Dungey being healthy has been tremendous for this year’s Orange. While it’s the first season during the Dungey era that the team has two capable signal-callers (redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito has a bright future), Dungey being on the field throughout this season has been a key variable in the team’s success.

“Dungey’s experience and versatility has allowed him to execute Babers’ gameplan of taking what the defense gives him. He cleaned up his fundamentals and shredded North Carolina State with his arm three weeks ago before pulling down RPOs against a Wake Forest team content to sit back in zone coverage.

“The senior has been prone to floating passes when he doesn’t get his feet under him. So if UND can take advantage of those slip-ups, the Irish will be able to mitigate his playmaking.”

SU’s pass defense might be the best Book has faced. However, it appears SU’s top cornerbacks might be out with injuries. What is their status and how do you expect the Orange secondary to perform?

Bailey: “Junior Scoop Bradshaw, who started the first nine games on the field side, left the Louisville game on Friday with his arm in a sling. Redshirt freshman Ifeatu Melifonwu, a proven backup, has missed the last two-plus games with a hamstring injury and did not dress against the Cardinals. Babers is hopeful both will play, but hasn’t provided any hard news about them.

“Redshirt junior Chris Fredrick has been excellent defending the boundary this year while true freshman Trill Williams wound be in line to start in the field should Bradshaw and Melifonwu be out (he might either way). Williams is huge for a freshman at 6-2, 202 pounds and hasn’t really been tested in his limited experience thus far.”

ND and SU struggled against Pittsburgh. What did that game tell you about what makes SU vulnerable?

Bailey: “Syracuse was slumping a bit after the Clemson loss and bad weather certainly didn’t help the team’s passing game. That contest was also right in the middle of Dungey’s worst passing slump of his SU career. Taking advantage of his errant throws is definitely near the top of the “How to beat Syracuse” list. Pitt also did well to trick SU’s linebackers in the run game; that group should be better prepared for any window dressing at this point in the year.”