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Purdue Football: Quick Guide to the Syracuse Defense

Revenge game. New Purdue offense. Similar Syracuse defense. Under the lights at Ross-Ade. This will be a good watch.

NCAA Football: Western Michigan at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Our boy Drew already previewed the Syracuse offense, and we talked about both sides of the ball for over half an our yesterday, but now it’s my turn to profile the Orange defense.

Basic Syracuse Defense

Formation: 3-3-5

The 73-year-old Syracuse defensive coordinator Rocky Long has had a very long (no jokes intended) coaching career and is one of the pioneers of this defensive scheme. He needs beef up front, three speedy linebackers behind the beefy boys, and a rover paying the middle of the field as the corners and safeties drop into coverage. The rover is essentially what’s developed into the more common STAR position, meaning a guy big and strong enough to provide support on a run play while being fast enough and good enough with his footwork and hip movement to where he can drop back in coverage seamlessly on a pass play.

This scheme is used primarily to not give up deep plays and to have a pass rusher coming from somewhere an offense would not typically expect, but I’ve called it a “feast or famine” defense before. The OLB or the cornerback being brought forward to attack the quarterback can confuse the hell out of an offense or it can leave open a receiver in the middle of the field. That, in turn, can result in a lot of yards after the catch if the quarterback can keep composure, extend the play, and find someone open relatively shallow with the opposing secondary so far downfield.

Until proven otherwise, I will dub Syracuse a good tackling defense, but given their competition (or lack thereof) in their first two games, we’ll have to see if they can tackle as solidly against a power five team. If Hudson Card can avoid pressure, it could be a long evening for the Orange.

They tend to keep the same core of guys in the secondary but rotate linebackers and (to a lesser extent) defensive lineman relatively frequently, so if Graham Harrell can figure out a way to gas their secondary, including a very solid cover corner in Jeremiah Wilson and so-far lockdown safety Alijah Clark, the Orange will need to find answers late on in the game.

Players to Watch

Kevon Darton - Nose Tackle

We saw Darton give the Boilers issues in last year’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Game. The guy is built like a compact wrecking ball, listed at 5’11” and around 275. With that low center of gravity he was crawling under an offensive line much like a smaller running back would hit a hole in the defensive line that his offensive line provided for him.

With Purdue’s offensive line making a solid jump from the week one loss to the week two victory, containing the aforementioned wrecking ball is a tough task but I like the Boilers’ chances. It’s at home, it’s at night, it’s a sell-out crowd, so I like the chances more so than on the road on a weird playing surface when it comes to preventing Darton from having a disruptive game like he did last year.

Also, I never mentioned this in the podcast, but with a mobile QB like Card, I don’t like Darton’s chances chasing him down with the same ease he provided issues for Aiden O’Connell last year. As long as the OL doesn’t completely fold, I can see this being a game during which Darton struggles. I can also see it going the complete opposite direction and he’s a total pest creating space for other pass rushers. That’s why we play the games.

Leon Lowery - Outside Linebacker

Lowery is one of many of their highly-rotated backers, but I expect him to have a breakout year in 2023.

The redshirt sophomore arrived at Syracuse during the COVID-shortened season, so last year was technically his redshirt freshman season after two years of limited duty on special teams and as a garbage time rotating linebacker. He proved huge as a redshirt freshman, recording 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks. His numbers have been quiet through two games, with just four total tackles, but I see those numbers jumping up as he’s utilized more frequently in games that require using your best edge rushers a bit more than against Colgate and Western Michigan.

I think this is the first game Syracuse really tries to unleash him like the guy I think he can be for the Orange, so Purdue’s offensive tackles better be ready for the pressure he can provide for the visiting team at Ross-Ade.

Remember, this is a Syracuse team that has the defensive philosophy of “bring pressure from where the offense least expects it” so none of these talented linebackers are likely to run away with leading the team in sacks at the end of the regular season, but if one were to do that, I’d guess Lowery.


This is a super interesting matchup given Purdue’s offensive style of play going against this Syracuse defense. We really have no idea if The Cuse is good or not, and most P5 teams would be top ten in total offense and total offense if any of those teams played Syracuse’s first two opponents. This defense could give Hudson Card a lot of Hero Ball to play or, if he can extend plays, make this look like a glorified game of pitch and catch with guys like Mockobee, Sheffield, and what has shown to be an accidentally deep tight end room.

Personally, I see Purdue with a new offense (featuring a much more mobile QB) tiring out this defense. It’s going to be a close one, but I think the Boilers will be able to chip away against a scheme like this, have that defense exhausted late in the game, and pull out a close win under the lights in West Lafayette.

We don’t know if Syracuse is good enough to stay looking like they have against cupcake opponents, but the team certainly has the tools to be decent and based upon what we’ve seen, the players have done their jobs aside from one running play against Western Michigan, and they showed they can be disruptive with this defensive scheme last year. Tomorrow, we’ll know a lot more about them.