Ziniu Chen | Staff PhotographerFootball
Defensive shift: SU must contain Daniels to get elusive win at USF
The Syracuse defense has transformed from one of the worst in the Big East to a swarming, formidable unit in a single season.
It’s a transformation middle linebacker Siriki Diabate said started with the “little things.” He watched as players jogged from the sidelines to the huddle in 2011. Now, they’re all sprinting onto the field for each possession.
“We’re worrying about the little things just enough,” Diabate said. “And making sure that when someone’s down, you’re picking up their tempo and making sure they’re rallying to the ball every time.”
Diabate credits the SU coaching staff for the change in mentality that has the unit ranked third in the conference in total defense. Playing with that tenacity will be crucial when the Orange (3-4, 2-1 Big East) takes on B.J. Daniels and South Florida (2-5, 0-3) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
The unit surrendered big plays and points in bunches to opponents in a forgettable 2011 campaign, but it is suddenly sparking the team to victories in 2012. The change has been on display in SU’s Big East victories over Pittsburgh and Connecticut, in which the unit held its opponents to 13 and 10 points, respectively.
The Orange will look to continue that dominant play against a USF team that has given it fits during head coach Doug Marrone’s tenure. The struggles have stemmed from the play of the Bulls’ dual-threat quarterback Daniels, who has started in the last three matchups.
“He’s been here as long as I’ve been here,” Marrone said during the Big East coaches’ teleconference on Monday. “He’s a very, very talented quarterback and the problem is when you try to contain him, he kind of really opens up things for other players on their offense.”
In USF’s last two victories over SU, Daniels has been stellar, throwing for 462 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 149 yards and a score. But in 2010, the Orange defense stole the show, holding Daniels to zero yards rushing while forcing him to throw two interceptions.
Daniels has been turnover-prone during his team’s five-game losing streak, throwing eight interceptions compared to seven touchdowns. Syracuse strong safety Shamarko Thomas said he and his teammates are looking to continue that trend on Saturday.
“He’s a good quarterback, but he also has mistakes,” Thomas said. “He throws it in the air and that gives DBs opportunities, and to capitalize on turnovers is great because it gives the offense the opportunity to score.”
But Thomas and his teammates also realize Daniels is still the same dynamic playmaker he’s been for three years. All they need to do is watch the film of last season’s 37-17 loss when Daniels ran all over the field for 117 yards.
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said he was outcoached that day. Shafer reviewed the film during the offseason, and he’s watching more this week to make adjustments and prepare his defense.
Diabate said it was tough to watch the defense struggle through the 20-point loss. And this year, Diabate said the coaches are stressing “rallying to the ball” on every play.
The linebackers and secondary can’t get lost covering wide receivers downfield this time, Diabate said. They need to stay focused on Daniels and where he is on every play to prevent him from taking off for big gains.
“He’s a freak athlete,” Thomas said. “He can make you miss on the ground, shake you so it’s contain him — blitz him and contain him and just make him throw it in the air and make plays off it.”
And that starts with the defensive line, which has been the force behind impressive defensive play.
Defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster said the linemen feel the outcome of the game comes down to them. Their position coach, Tim Daoust, has repeated the mantra all season.
When they do get Daniels moving in the pocket, Diabate and the rest of the defense need to finish the job.
“We’re going to come out there on Saturday just with a great intention of stopping him every single play,” Diabate said, “and focusing on the little things and make sure when we do make a mistake, we have everyone rallying to the ball so it’s not so much as bad as last year.”
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