After a 79-0 drubbing of Howard last Saturday, Maryland football welcomes its first true test of the season to College Park this week in No. 21 Syracuse comes.
The Orange were one of the more surprising programs in 2018, managing to finish 10-3 and nearly pulling off an upset of eventual national champion Clemson in ACC play. They managed to go 6-0 at home and 3-2 on the road thanks to an offense that averaged 40.2 points per game and a defense that gave up 27 points per game in return.
Let’s break down what makes Syracuse a tough opponent.
In college football, the easiest way to make an opponent fold into your hands is to apply pressure at the right time and capitalize on mistakes; and that is exactly what Syracuse does. The Orange tallied 31 turnovers in 2018 – which was the most out of any Power Five team — and are on quite the same path after forcing four turnovers in their season opener against Liberty last Saturday.
For Syracuse, that pressure all starts with the defensive front. Despite graduating lineman Chris Slayton — now a member of the New York Giants — the Orange have experience in their front four, which is tough to beat.
The Liberty Eagles learned quickly about those skills up front, as senior defensive end Alton Robinson is able to stop the edge rush while fighting off his blocker. Having experienced linemen up front makes things tricky for an offense because rather than trying to rush through an offensive linemen or standing up at the snap, they are able to blend the two and make more plays.
Syracuse then relies on a host of talented defensive backs to feed off of errors and make stops on short yardage plays that pass the second level. Leading the way for this group is senior Christopher Fredrick and sophomores Andre Cisco and Ifeatu Melifonwu, the latter two of whom pulled in one interception each against Liberty.
There are still gaps in which the Syracuse defense is vulnerable though, and that mostly leans on the fact that they have had heavy competition to find replacements at linebacker for the second year in a row.
The defense was able to help create enough separation and get some lucky bounces against group of five foe Liberty, but facing a Power Five school like Maryland with an experienced quarterback could reveal more faults than what was seen in week one.
The Veer and Shoot
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers is a member of the Art Briles coaching tree and has brought his version of the veer and shoot offense to upstate New York.
This offensive philosophy is fairly similar to that of the more commonly-known run and shoot in that receivers are often given option routes and are tasked with finding open space in the defense to make the quarterback’s job easier. As defenses try to drop more back in coverage, that then leaves more room for short runs to try and keep the opposing defense honest.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito has taken over the offense from graduated senior Eric Dungy, and helped lead the Orange to a 24-0 season-opening victory. The wide receiver option was easily noted in the second quarter against Liberty when sophomore wide receiver Taj Harris was able to cut his route towards the middle of the field, creating space above the safety/linebacker who bit on the play fake and inside of the cornerback tasked with covering him.
Plays like this help take larger chunks of the field away, but also open doors for the running game to help chip away at yardage along the way. Senior Moe Neal was able to take advantage on Liberty also stacking the box late in the game, bursting through the line and up the field for the final touchdown of the game.
The Syracuse offense was able to reach new heights in 2018, but has a ways to go before reaching similar levels in 2019. The offensive line is not one that will control the game – as Maryland often sees against some Big Ten foes – but has the ability to help the team make plays.
DeVito completed just 48.6 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions with no touchdowns against Liberty, showing he has room to grow as a starting quarterback. The Maryland defense can help itself the most by not succumbing to vanilla play calling and remaining true to its play calls.
The bottom line
This game is likely to be one that is fought until the end. Both teams came off of week one wins, but Syracuse left more to be desired and should be coming into College Park looking to prove itself worthy of the top 25 ranking it currently holds. Maryland has a chance to step up and show its growth on a national stage, but will only be able to do so if it can mitigate pressure from the Orange defense and limit the big play from their offense.