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Syracuse's Offense Faces Tough Clemson Defense, Crowd on Saturday

AJ Long said this will be one of the most fun games he’ll ever play in his career. When he meets the Clemson defense, he may feel otherwise.

Syracuse (3-4, 1-2 ACC) travels to South Carolina on Saturday to face the No. 21 Clemson Tigers, which allows the fifth fewest yards per game in the FBS.  Last week, Long ended Syracuse’s four game losing streak with a 30-7 win at Wake Forest.  But he realizes he’ll have a harder challenge in his second career start.

“They have by far the best defensive line in the country and one of the best secondaries, if not the best,” Long said. “Across the board, they’re athletically gifted as anybody in the country so this week is going to be a challenge for us.”

With recent stars like Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins, Clemson rose to national prominence with its high-flying offense.  But this year, the Tigers have dominated with defense and it’s only gotten better as the season has gone on.  They rank 19th in the country by allowing 20 points per game.  During the past three games, they’ve given up half that total. 

Syracuse prepared for Clemson’s defensive pressure by blitzing nine players during some drills this week.  Long said he plans to move around the pocket to prevent Clemson’s pass rush from doing too much damage.   He also wants get passes out in 2.5 seconds.    

But he’s also going up against the Clemson crowd, which can create some havoc of its own.

“I don’t think there’s any venue better than Death Valley,” Long said.  “You go in there on homecoming weekend and they run down the hill with thousands of balloons flying out. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Long has been a pleasant surprise for the Syracuse offense, after taking over for Terrel Hunt midway through the season.  He became the first SU freshman quarterback to win his starting debut. He’s completed 64.4 percent of his passes and thrown two touchdowns in two games and also ran for a score in last week’s victory.

Long and the Orange will be making the first trip to Memorial Stadium in team history.  The Tigers are 10-1 at home since the start of the 2013 season.  Clemson’s only loss in that span came last September against Florida State, the eventual champions.

The Orange will use a silent count to limit the effect of crowd noise, according to offensive coordinator Tim Lester.  Syracuse has been pumping noise into Carrier Dome practices to simulate the atmosphere.

Playing in Clemson with a freshman passer is, perhaps, the toughest test for Scott Shafer in his brief tenure as head coach. But Shafer joked that the on-field dimensions at Death Valley are just the same as everywhere else, referencing a famous speech by Gene Hackman in the movie, Hoosiers.

“It will be a very good experience for our players and coaches alike,” Shafer said.  “I’ve never been there, but to go down to Death Valley and experience that thing is going to be pretty awesome.”

What to Watch For

  • Clemson’s offensive injuries – Syracuse won’t be the only team in Death Valley playing without its starting quarterback. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson Watson is out at least another two games with a broken finger.  Cole Stoudt will play in his absence. Tigers running back Adam Choice also suffered a season-ending knee injury last week against Boston College. But Shafer said that he doesn’t expect much of a drop-off in talent.  “Their backups are very good football players as well,” he said.  “I feel bad for the kid. I’m glad we don’t have to tackle him, I guess. But I do feel bad for all these kids that go through the injury process. But they do have quite a few weapons behind him.”
  • Return of the H-Back – The Orange catches a break this week with the comebacks of two of its own injured stars.  Ashton Broyld makes his first appearance since injuring his leg against Maryland.  Brisly Estime will also play.  “We got a couple guys back,” Shafer said.  “Not as many as I want, but I’m excited that Brisly’s excited to be playing as well.”
  • The Beast of Beasley – The talk of the town this week as been about Clemson linebacker Vic Beasley.  The senior outside linebacker leads the team with 8.0 sacks.  He’s projected, by many forecasting sites, to be picked in the first round of next year’s NFL Draft.  “I’ve seen it get to the point where that man doesn’t get touched by left tackles or right tackles, depending on where he lines up,” Long said.  “He’s so fast off the ball.  His hand-eye coordination and his reaction time are second to none.”

News and Notes

  • Center John Miller is probable, after missing last week’s game with a lower-body injury.  Guard Rob Trudo (also probable) is expected to play as well. Syracuse has used six different offensive line pairings in seven games due to injury.
  • Last week, Syracuse had its first game with two defensive touchdowns since 1966.
  • Steve Ishmael, Syracuse’s star freshman receiver, is the only SU receiver with at least one catch in every game this season.
  • The red zone woes don’t get any easier for Shafer.  The Tigers are sixth in country in red zone defense (66.7 percent).