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Purdue at Syracuse Preview

Purdue is off to upstate New York for the first time.

NCAA Football: Louisville at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Is it just me, or does this game feel bigger than it should? The loss to Penn State originally dampened my enthusiasm a bit for this season, but it turns out that the Big Ten West kind of sucks. Yes, Minnesota might be good, but they need to play a real opponent first. Iowa cannot move the football. Nebraska has fired its coach. Northwestern just lost to Duke. Illinois is better than Iowa at offense, but not by a ton, plus they lost to Indiana. Wisconsin surprisingly lost to Washington State. The West really is there for the taking even with the Penn State loss.

That loss is still there though, and suddenly Purdue’s road games are more daunting than originally thought. Maryland is better than I thought. Purdue hasn’t won at Minnesota or Wisconsin in a very long time. Then there is Syracuse. The early season’s results show that this one will not be easy.

I still think Purdue is a good team, but it really beat itself with poor tackling and poor clock management against Penn State. Syracuse is another “prove it” game. While it does not count in the Big Ten standings, it feels like the type of game Purdue needs to win if it wants to win the West. A win on the road restores some confidence. A loss opens the door for a spiraling season with a dangerous FAU team coming next followed by a trip to Minneapolis.

If Purdue wins, a 9-10 win season is still very much on the table. If Purdue losses, it could mean a struggle to reach bowl eligibility.

Syracuse Orange

2021 Record: 5-7, 2-6 ACC

Bowl Result: None

Blog Representation: Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 1-0

Last Purdue win: 51-0 at Purdue on 9/5/2004

Last Syracuse win: None

Head Coach: Dino Babers (31-43 in 7th season at Syracuse, 68-59 overall)

Syracuse’s season so far:

The Orange have been pretty impressive so far. In week 1 they rolled to an impressive 31-7 home win over Louisville. Are the Cardinals good? They lost the turnover battle 3-0 and did not score in the second half, but they bounced back with a win last week at Central Florida. We will learn more this week when they host Florida State Friday night.

Last week Syracuse did what Purdue did in Week 2 last year: they went to UConn and won big 48-14. I would even say that so far 2022 Syracuse is a good analog for 2021 Purdue. They are coming off of three straight seasons with no bowl game, including a 1-10 pandemic year. They started off with a near must-win home game and followed it with a road blowout at UConn. Now they get, on paper, their toughest opponent yet like we did last year at Notre Dame. This is a team that has exceeded expectations so far not so much in being 2-0, but in how dominant they have been in getting there.

Who to Watch on Offense

Sean Tucker – RB – Tucker is one of the best running backs in the nation. He had 626 and 4 TDs yards during Syracuse’s pandemic season, then exploded last year for 1,496 yards and 12 TDs on the ground with another 255 yards and 2 TDs as a receiver. He is down to 4.4 yards per carry so far, but he has 212 yards and 2 TDs on 48 carries, plus 10 receptions for 101 yards and a score. He is very much a high usage back, and he torched Louisville for 100 yards on the ground and 84 through the air, plus a touchdown each way. I liken Syracuse offensively to a Michigan State 2021 with Kenneth Walker III or Boston College 2018 with A.J. Dillon. Like in those cases, Tucker is a feature back that is clearly option 1 offensively, and he is probably playing on Sundays next year.

Garrett Shrader – QB – Perhaps the biggest surprise so far has been the play of Shrader. Last season Syracuse was one of the worst passing teams in the country, ranking 122nd out of 130 teams. They barely threw for 1,800 yards on the year. So far Shrader has thrown for 528 yards and 5 TDs while completing 79.2% of his passes and not throwing an interception. He has also rushed for another 118 yards and three scores. He has been sacked five times, but he is a versatile weapon that gives Syracuse a much needed second dimension offensively.

DeVaughn Cooper – WR – Shrader has spread the ball around to 11 different receivers thus far, with Tucker leading the way with 10 receptions. Cooper is next on the team with 7 receptions for 92 yards. Shrader has also hit on some big plays to Damien Alford (47 yard TD), and D’Marcus Adams (39 yard TD).

It is hard to overstate how much better Syracuse is with improved quarterback play. In both games so far Shrader has surpassed his best game from 2021. He has a tendency to get sacked a lot (26 times last season), but by making the offense two dimensional it makes Syracuse a much better team than last year.

Who to Watch on Defense

Garrett Williams – DB – Williams has done a little bit of everything so far. He has 16 tackles, a sack, and an interception in their unconventional 3-3-5 defense. In 2020 he had a pick-6, so he is an experienced leader within their defense. He has 132 tackles and 19 passes defensed in his career and is only a junior. As expected, Purdue’s passing game will test him. Darian Chestnut at the other corner spot was also a Third Team all-ACC selection last year on the other side.

Mikel Jones – LB – Jones was a Second Team all-ACC selection last season and so far he is second on the team with 15 tackles, plus a sack. He had 109 tackles last season with three sacks, and he will occasionally be a blitzer within their defense. For good measure he intercepted four passes in 2020.

Marlowe Wax – LB – Wax is somewhat of a rush end linebacker in the 3-3-5, and he leads Syracuse with 1.5 sacks last year. He also has 12 tackles and has both forced and recovered a fumble this year.

A significant stat to see for Syracuse is turnovers. They only collected seven all of last year and they have five so far. They have yet to turn the ball over on offense, either. This is a defense that finished second in the ACC last year, but inconsistent offense was their largest struggle.

Who to Watch on Special Teams

Andrew Szmyt – K – Szmyt has had a strange career. In 2018 he won the Lou Groza award as a freshman when he connected on 30 of 34 field goals as the range went 10-3. He was a solid 17 of 20 the next year and 9 of 11 in 2020, but slipped to 9 of 14 last year. He came back for his free COVID season and is so far 3 of 3, making him an impressive 68 of 82 in his career. He needs 21 more field goals to take the career FBS record for made field goals. He also has a career long of 54 yards.

Game Outlook

I am worried about this game. Syracuse has been surprisingly competent on offense, and that is paired with a good defense and one of the best kickers in college football history. Shrader and Tucker are a potent 1-2 punch that run the read option well, but now Shrader is a very competent passer. They are going to mix it up more than Penn State did. If the tackling issues from the game against the Nittany Lions resurface we will be in trouble.

Neither team has thrown an interception yet. How long can you dance with fire there? In terms of pure passing Aidan O’Connell is better than Shrader, but Shrader is miles better as a runner. Their offense is very balanced so far, and they are only giving up about 110 yards per game on the ground. Can Purdue stick with the run if it is working?

This is one of those games that looks much tougher than originally thought. It is Purdue’s first game in New York state since playing Fordham at the Polo Grounds in 1941. I am not worried about the distance of the road trip, as UConn was further last year, but Syracuse is a much better opponent. I feel like this game will set the tone for the rest of the season. The Orange are a good team and they are playing well. That’s not good for us.