Ziniu Chen | Staff PhotographerFootball
Tough test: Stout Rutgers defense poses challenge for Syracuse
Two weeks ago, Lewellyn Coker was a second-string linebacker whose principal game experience came on special teams. One week ago, Coker was an unsung hero as a smash-mouth fullback in Syracuse’s 14-13 win over Pittsburgh.
This week, Coker is a confidence-oozing hitting machine on an offense that prepares to face the No. 2 rush defense in the country and No. 1 scoring defense in the Big East come Saturday.
And with a smirk that broke out into a full-on smile, Coker prodded the beast that is the Rutgers defense.
“We’ll see if they’re No. 1,” he said.
A bold statement by a player with roughly 14 days of experience at a new position, but it’s one that encapsulates Saturday’s game between Syracuse (2-3, 1-0 Big East) and No. 20 Rutgers (5-0, 2-0 Big East). The Scarlet Knights defense has been nothing short of dominant in holding opponents to 10.8 points per game, and whether or not Coker and Co. can solve the most intricate puzzle put before them so far this season will likely determine which side remains undefeated in conference play.
As Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood explained during this week’s Big East coaches teleconference, his defense is an experienced one that benefits from upperclassmen leadership at all three levels on the field. There are two fifth-year seniors along the defensive line, one linebacker and three more in the secondary. Plus a sixth-year senior that doubles as a cornerback and punt returner.
“If you’ve got that leadership on the back end of your defense and up front, it’s always a positive,” Syracuse offensive tackle Justin Pugh said of Rutgers’ defense. “Look at our (2010) team; we had a lot of fifth-year seniors. It just adds to that consistency.”
And consistency is one thing SU’s offense has lacked through its first five games. Slow starts against Northwestern, Southern California and Stony Brook were offset by explosive second halves in which the up-tempo, spread offense looked unstoppable.
But twice the deficit was too big to erase in losses to the Wildcats and the Trojans, while struggles against Stony Brook — even in victory — only cast doubt. Back-to-back poor performances since then against Minnesota (10 points, four turnovers) and Pittsburgh (14 points, one turnover) haven’t helped.
Attempting to put together a complete game and find a rhythm against a team tied for second in the nation in interceptions is an uphill battle.
“You’re going to have a difficult time if you’re playing a defense like this,” Marrone said during the teleconference. “That, probably, if you look in our past of when we played someone, is probably statistically the best defense we’ve played overall since we’ve been here in the four years that I’ve been here.
Yet Flood billed this game as his defense’s most difficult challenge as well. He called SU quarterback Ryan Nassib “the best in the Big East” and labeled the Orange’s receiving corps the best in the league.
And though it just made its debut last week against Pittsburgh, the “Tank” package already caught the eye of Flood and his staff, who view stopping the run as their top priority defensively.
It sets the stage for what will likely be a battle in the trenches on Saturday, with whoever wins the line of scrimmage — Syracuse’s offense or Rutgers’ defense — having a great chance at coming away with a win.
The Scarlet Knights bring a tremendous amount of pressure defensively that Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said eliminates many of the short 3- and 4-yard gains. But it also leaves gaps vacant, which presents opportunities that he hopes to exploit when calling plays on Saturday.
“Any time that you have a team that pressures, they void a zone,” Hackett said. “If they void a zone and we can expose that zone and find out where it is at that moment, then it can be a big play.”
The return of big plays to the offense would be a welcome site for Syracuse, which managed zero plays of more than 25 yards against Pittsburgh last week and only one of more than 19 yards.
But as long as the offense can get the ball close, Coker is confident that punching it in won’t be a problem. And he dared Rutgers to try and stop it.
“They can try to talk about (the ‘Tank’ package) all day,” Coker said. “I ain’t trying to sound cocky or anything, but you’ve got to stop it. You can say anything you want, but you’ve got to stop it.”
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