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Thursday, July 18, 2013
Early look at the Syracuse Orange

By Josh Moyer

Every weekday over the next three weeks, NittanyNation will take a closer look at a different game this season and how the matchup stacks up for PSU. Up today: Syracuse.

If there's one team on PSU's schedule that has as many -- or, possibly, more -- question marks, it's Syracuse. With a new head coach, a new quarterback and a new conference, this season-opening matchup should be an interesting one.

Gone is head coach Doug Marrone, who left for the NFL, and three-year starting QB Ryan Nassib, who was drafted in the fourth round. Their replacements? Both untested. New coach Scott Shafer, whose focus is defense, hasn't yet held a head coaching job -- but, as defensive coordinator, he transformed Syracuse from poor to respectable.

And at quarterback? That's yet to be determined. Terrel Hunt was listed first on the spring depth chart, but Oklahoma transfer Drew Allen arrived on campus this summer and could unseat Hunt for that top spot.

When: 3:30 p.m. Aug. 31 at MetLife Stadium. ABC regional telecast; also ESPN2 national coverage.

Last season: Syracuse (8-5, 5-2 Big East); won Pinstripe Bowl vs. WVU, 38-14

Series history: PSU 42-23-5

Biggest question marks: Besides the obvious at quarterback, the trenches are what could really turn the Orange blue in the opener. The entire left side of the offensive line has departed -- and gone on to the NFL -- so this is no longer a strength for Syracuse. Their center, Macky MacPherson, is on the Rimington Award watch list, but that's not enough to make up for the two big losses. The biggest weakness, however, appears to be the defensive line.

Three of the four projected defensive linemen will be first-year starters, so stopping the run could become an issue for Syracuse. Shafer has experience on defense, but that's a big hole to fill. Tailbacks such as Zach Zwinak could wreak havoc on an inexperienced line.

Biggest strengths: The corps of running backs here might just be tops in the ACC and one of the better groups in the nation. Jerome Smith returns as the workhorse who rushed for 1,171 yards and averaged 5.2 yards a carry last season. But the No. 2 ball-carrier, Prince-Tyson Gulley, also returns after rushing for 830 yards and had nine TDs last season.

But wait, there's more! Syracuse also has two very talented redshirt freshmen who will definitely see carries this season -- George Morris II and Devante McFarlane. That kind of depth could be trouble for a PSU front seven that's short on numbers.

On the defensive side of the ball for Syracuse, linebackers are clearly the strength. Marquis Spruill will lead this unit as the middle linebacker.

Who to watch: DT Jay Bromley. He'll likely command double teams on a weak defensive line -- and he's spent a lot of time in the weight room this offseason to combat that. If he can't handle the extra work, or gets too tired too quickly and hits high, the entire defensive line could be in trouble.

What you might not know: Read Shafer's defensive philosophy, and it sounds eerily like PSU defensive coordinator John Butler. It's all about attacking and reacting. Here's what Shafer said back in January of 2009: "[W]e're always trying to put pressure on the offense. That doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to blitz every down, but we want to be pressure oriented with the way we read our keys."

And here's what Butler said back in January of this year: "[Y]ou got to create confusion with your opponent, meaning we're not going to sit back on our heels in one look, one coverage, and let the offense dictate how we're going to play them. Aggressive doesn't mean we're going to blitz them every snap."

Early prediction: PSU 28-24. The Lions rely a lot on the running game and open the season with a close win.