Football

Damage repair: SU defense prepares to face high-scoring Cincinnati team one week after being shredded by USF playmakers

Sam Maller | Asst. Photo Editor

Dyshawn Davis, Shamarko Thomas and the Syracuse defense is preparing to face Munchie Legaux and the highest-scoring offense in the Big East in Cincinnati on Saturday.

Marquis Spruill bit on the fake and incorrectly pursued the running back. He stepped to the middle of the field on a zone-read play by South Florida, only to watch quarterback B.J. Daniels keep the ball himself and break free to the outside.

By the time Spruill planted his left foot in the ground to change direction back toward the outside, Daniels had already turned the corner and reached full speed on what would become a 53-yard gain.

“There were a couple times I had missed an assignment and B.J. broke for like long,” Spruill, the outside linebacker, said with a chuckle, stretching out the word long to convey the negative result of his mistake.

And he wasn’t alone. The Syracuse defense had statistically its worst game of the season in last week’s thrilling victory over South Florida, giving up 552 yards of offense — 317 of which Daniels accounted for — before a last-second touchdown pass by Ryan Nassib salvaged a win.

Saturday brings an eerily similar challenge as the Orange (4-4, 2-1 Big East) travels to Cincinnati (5-2, 1-1 Big East) with the goal of containing another dual-threat quarterback and inching closer to bowl eligibility. A week of repairs designed to patch last week’s leaks has renewed the defense’s self-confidence as it prepares to face Munchie Legaux and the highest-scoring offense in the league at noon Saturday.

As he did last week, John Kinder once again drew the assignment of simulating the opposing quarterback. Kinder, a backup quarterback himself, is a run-first player whose tendencies are akin to those of Daniels and Legaux. It’s a role he played last season as well, doing such an admirable job in his mimicry that linebackers coach Steve Morrison said he was often the team’s most valuable player in practice.

And in facing dual-threat quarterbacks in consecutive games, the Orange had the opportunity to dissect its mistakes against Daniels and revise its plans for Legaux.

“There’s some carryover, certainly, from this week to last week,” Morrison said. “I’m sure that’s a good thing in our favor. We have to shore up some areas, but we’re certainly looking forward to getting another opportunity.”

First and foremost, Syracuse must improve its tackling. Safeties Shamarko Thomas and Durell Eskridge joined Spruill and Morrison in pointing out the poor tackling that allowed the Bulls to rush for 369 yards, which is 133 yards more than SU allowed in any game last season.

When asked what letter grade he would give to the Orange’s tackling last week, Spruill said somewhere between a D and a C-.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to stop them and we didn’t,” Eskridge said. “But I feel like going into this Cincinnati game, it will be hard for them to run because of the mistakes we corrected.”

Another area of concern for Syracuse was tempo. Eskridge and Morrison both said that the SU defenders struggled with South Florida’s brisk pace last weekend, something they hadn’t faced in several weeks. Eskridge even said there were plays where the defense was not in the proper alignment, and by the time he looked up, the Bulls were running another play.

The Cincinnati offense operates at a similar pace, but the SU defenders have noticed several differences between Daniels and Legaux. While Daniels often looks to run whenever the chance presents itself, Spruill said Legaux uses his foot speed as more of a last resort.

That was evident in the Bearcats’ 27-24 win over Virginia Tech in September, when Legaux threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns while only rushing for 27.

“Against Virginia Tech he had a hell of a game throwing the football, so obviously he is capable of that,” Morrison said. “I think every time in football, you want to try to make a team one-dimensional. I’m not sure if that’s ever fully possible, but first and foremost, we’ve got to try and stop their running game.”

Behind Legaux and tailbacks George Winn and Ralph David Abernathy IV, Cincinnati leads the Big East in rushing at 221.4 yards per game, using the same zone-read system that South Florida employs.

It’s when the run game is limited that opponents have had success, and Louisville’s come-from-behind victory last week speaks to that. The Cardinals allowed just three rushes longer than 10 yards in the second half.

And while stopping the Bearcats is certainly easier said than done, having Daniels shred the Syracuse defense could actually be a blessing in disguise. He probed the wall and found its leaks; all the Orange has to do now is patch it.

“We just know we have to get stronger at this point,” Eskridge said. “Around this time last year we slipped, so we know this is where outsiders think we’re going to slip. And that’s why we have to tighten up our screws.”

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