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Scouting the opponent: Syracuse presents unique defensive scheme for Duke football

Duke travels to upstate New York desperate for its first win of the season.
Duke travels to upstate New York desperate for its first win of the season.

The Syracuse and Duke football teams from just two years ago would not even recognize their 2020 selves.

The 2018 Orange steamrolled their way to a 10-3 record and bowl win while Daniel Jones anchored the Blue Devils to a bowl victory of their own. But 2018 is long gone—both of these programs have seen a sharp decline in their success since, and this season has been no different.

Both squads will be looking to turn it around, however, this Saturday at 12:30 p.m. when Duke travels to Syracuse, N.Y., to take on the Orange in the Carrier Dome. Let’s take a closer look at the Blue Devils’ next opponent.

3-3-5

Those three numbers mark the lineup of Syracuse’s new defensive formation. The Orange are the first team to bring this defensive scheme to the ACC, and it is dramatically different than the standard 4-2-5 nickel defense. Only three players have their hand in the dirt, leaving the other eight with the flexibility to roam around the field and confuse the opponent’s offensive line. 

Duke (0-4, 0-4 in the ACC) may have a slight advantage in comparison to the rest of the ACC in this regard, though, as its own star defensive end Chris Rumph II often roams around instead of getting in a three-point stance, so the offense should have some practice against a three-man front. 

What Syracuse (1-2, 1-2) does really well with its unique formation is put its athletes in positions to make plays on defense. Safeties Andre Cisco and Trill Williams can do things that most FBS safeties can’t, and this 3-3-5 defense puts them both in a position to fly around the field. The way Duke’s spread offense stacks up against Syracuse’s defense is going to be a chess match all afternoon.

Keep it Trill

Cisco gets most of the love when people break down Syracuse’s defense. But after suffering a fluke pregame injury before the Georgia Tech game, it is unclear if the IMG Academy product is going to play Saturday. Fortunately for the Orange, they’ve got another premier defensive back in Williams. 

Defensive coordinator Tony White slid Williams over to rover to fit the new defense, and after a rough start in week one he looks to be settling in. Against the Yellow Jackets, he posted an interception in addition to a touchdown return after teammate Ja’Had Carter had an interception of his own and lateraled the ball to Williams near midfield. Williams is yet to put a game together where he dominates in run support and in pass coverage, but his speed and size make him essential to the Orange defense.

Deja-Vito

Syracuse doesn’t do anything on offense that is overly exceptional or different than any of Duke’s previous opponents. The Orange’s offense primarily runs out of the shotgun while mixing in two different running backs. They like run-pass options just like the rest of the ACC, and their receiving core is led by emerging star Taj Harris.

The only real difference is quarterback Tommy DeVito’s ability and willingness to throw the long ball. Syracuse’s entire offense relies upon the fact that any opposing defense has to respect DeVito’s ability to launch a pinpoint pass 50 yards down the field. The redshirt junior quarterback may not be playing up to expectations so far this season, but he is still connecting with his receivers on the deep ball consistently enough to force opponents to honor his arm.

Against Georgia Tech, DeVito only completed 13 of his 24 pass attempts for 194 yards. Nevertheless, he still managed to throw two 40-yard touchdown passes right into the bread basket of two different receivers, helping lead Syracuse to the 37-20 win.

Big boys and ballhawks

Syracuse is tied for first in the NCAA with seven interceptions, despite the fact that the Orange have only played three games. Interestingly, not all of the interceptions can be chalked up to good defensive back play—two of the team’s four picks against the Yellow Jackets came from tipped passes by the defensive linemen. 

This is especially important because by only looking at the stat sheet, you would see that Syracuse has six sacks this year, a respectable but not overly-impressive total. But when you look at that number with the tipped passes they are causing, that defensive line looks a little bit better. 

The Orange’s defensive line is an experienced unit, with their three starters being seniors. And in their 3-3-5 look, that experience comes in handy considering the added pressure of controlling the line of scrimmage with only three people. 

Young bucks

On the other end, Syracuse starts two sophomores on its offensive line, and Rumph and Victor Dimukeje must be licking their lips when they see that one of those sophomores lines up at right tackle.

Georgia Tech struggled to take advantage of the Orange’s inexperience up front offensively, but Duke’s strength is its defensive line, and the Blue Devils will surely have a scheme in place to get Rumph and Dimukeje some free passes at the quarterback. 

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