Opponent outlook: Why did Syracuse regress so much after going 10-3 in 2018?

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Quarterback Rex Culpepper committed a blunder that ended Syracuse’s chances of beating NC State last Saturday.

On third-and-goal, Culpepper took an 11-yard sack. In hopes to stop the clock, Culpepper spiked the football with one second remaining in the fourth quarter. But his decision came on fourth down and effectively ended the game. They lost 36-29.

It’s been that kind of season for Syracuse (1-9, 1-8 ACC), which holds the worst record in the conference. Stopping the bleeding will be difficult for the Orange when they come to No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).

Syracuse ranks No. 126 out of 127 FBS teams in total offense (250.4 yards per game). The Orange also comes in at No. 124 in rushing offense (78.3 yards per game), No. 109 in passing efficiency (172.1 rating), No. 118 in scoring offense (17.5 points per game) and No. 118 in third-down conversion percentage (25.2 percent).

The Orange also struggle in their 3-3-5 defense under head coach Dino Baber and first-year coordinator Tony White. They are No. 102 in total defense (453.5 yards per game), No. 100 in run defense (201.7 yards per game), No. 61 in pass-efficiency defense (137.0 rating), No. 83 in scoring defense (31.5 points per game) and No. 107 in third-down defense conversion percentage (47.5 percent).

Under Babers, Syracuse has found some success. The Orange upset second-ranked Clemson 27-24 in 2017. The Orange captured a 10-3 record in 2018 but fell to the Irish 36-3 at Yankee Stadium. Then came the regression. Dating back to last season, they’ve lost 16 of their last 21 games.

Why did Syracuse regress so much? We caught up with Stephen Bailey of 247Sports for more insight on the Orange.

Things were going so well for Syracuse and Dino Babers the season Notre Dame faced them in 2018. What happened?

Bailey: “At the time, I think there was hope within the program that the 2018 season would mark a breakthrough. Now, it feels like more of an anomaly. The presence of a healthy, veteran offensive line in front of two Power-Five-quality quarterbacks allowed SU to turn in that 10-3 season. The last two years have been dragged down by injuries at both positions. This year, the team is down close to 20 players who figured to be starters or contributors going into fall camp. That list now includes the team’s top two quarterbacks, top three running backs, five total offensive linemen and the two most talented defensive players in safety Andre Cisco and slot corner Trill Williams. I’m expecting Babers to revisit his offensive approach during the offseason. White has done better than the final scores on SU’s schedule indicate.”

Babers seemed on the rise and signed a contract extension after that 2018 season. What is the perception of him now? What will he need to do to turn things around?

Bailey: “I think it’s mixed. The quick-to-react fans who parachute in before basketball season every fall are the ones calling for him to be removed. But I would be surprised to see that happen before at least the end of next season. Financially, the buyout cost is reported to be about $17 million. But from a program growth perspective, I don’t think the ship has sailed. Players are still competing as evidenced by the team’s 36-29 loss to NC State this past weekend. A team relying on young and inexperienced players at key positions hasn’t quit despite not holding a lead for more than 300 consecutive minutes of football — a stretch that was snapped in the second quarter versus the Wolfpack.

“The road to improvement starts in the trenches. Syracuse’s front five needs to be better for Babers to run the veer-and-shoot how he’d like. Even still, finding ways to tweak the system to better fit his personnel (lack of speed on the outside) would be wise. And, as Babers himself admits, he’ll need a real offseason to accomplish his goals. SU cannot afford to have another spring ball canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.”

To what do you attribute Syracuse’s offensive struggles?

Bailey: “It really does start up front. Babers said on Monday that the team almost canceled its season due to the lack of viable offensive linemen during the preseason. Senior fullback/tight end Chris Elmore started the first nine games of the year at left guard. Those issues, which were at their worst to start the year, became compounded when starting quarterback Tommy DeVito went down with a season-ending injury in Week 3. The team does not have a second quarterback capable of making all the throws needed in the offense.”

What is the core philosophy of White’s 3-3-5 defense?

Bailey: “Attack. Be aggressive. Fly around the field. The 3-3-5 is meant to confuse quarterbacks and utilize personnel flexibly. White has gradually installed more and more of the scheme during the year and it’s catching on. The hope is that when mistakes do happen, players behind them moving as quickly as possibly can erase them. Young safeties and running plays on which the line slants away from the flow have led to SU allowing too many big plays.”

How do you think the Orange will approach the Irish strategically?

Bailey: “Offensively? Don’t commit turnovers. That unit has shown nothing that makes me think anything besides a gadget play has any chance of working vs. ND. I’d expected the Irish to stack the box like NC State did and force Culpepper to beat them with the pass. Defensively? Try to take away the run and trust standout corners Ifeatu Melifonwu and Garrett Williams. Third downs have been a disaster for SU. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them utilize more pressures there as zone coverages have gotten shredded all year long.”

Score prediction: Notre Dame 52, Syracuse 10.

Bailey: “The Orange’s defensive front will fight early, but short breaks and physical disadvantages will become overwhelming before halftime. SU will be lucky to escape without any career-ending injuries.”

The Syracuse football team before they enter the field in a game against Liberty on Oct. 17.
Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper (17) throws a pass in the first quarter against Wake Forest.

Who: No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0) vs. Syracuse (1-9)

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST

Where: Notre Dame Stadium


Radio: WSBT (AM 960, FM 96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 33 1/2