Football

‘What better time than now?': Syracuse defense looks to pressure, rattle No. 2 Florida State star Winston

Spencer Bodian | Asst. Photo Editor

Defensive end Robert Welsh and Syracuse have done a better job at getting to the quarterback, something that will need to continue against No.2 Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Jameis Winston.

For most of the season, Syracuse’s front seven got to the quarterback fast enough. The secondary just couldn’t hold cover.

Against Penn State, Northwestern and Clemson, the Orange allowed a combined nine passing plays of 30-plus yards. Eight of 40-plus. Four of 50-plus. But in SU’s back-to-back wins against Wake Forest and Maryland, it’s given up none longer than 26.

Even without top cornerback Keon Lyn, the defensive backs have mended the “alignment issues” Julian Whigham said plagued the group early on. The improved secondary is comfortable switching sets and coverage assignments on a play-by-play basis.

It’s caught up to the front seven — just in time for the defense’s biggest challenge of the season: Jameis Winston and No. 2 Florida State.

“We want to put pressure on him,” Whigham said. “We were watching tape and we realized that not a lot of people have put a lot of pressure on him. They really get vanilla with him.

“So our game plan is really just coming after him like we always come after people and see where that gets us.”

Syracuse (5-4, 3-2 Atlantic Coast) and its balanced defense fly south to Tallahassee, Fla., as five-touchdown underdogs to take on the nationally contending Seminoles (9-0, 7-0) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. After six games of tweaking, the Orange proved it could seamlessly rotate between its traditional 4-3, a 3-4 and a 3-3-5 — also known as the “Okie” package — and will need to stay deceptive to keep Winston uncomfortable.

“You’ve really got to play a flawless game in all three phases to even put yourself in position (to win),” defensive tackle Jay Bromley said.

And then you need a break.

“I hope Jameis Winston loses his helmet and can’t find one, and can’t play the game,” Bromley joked.

But upset or no upset, any bid starts in Florida State’s backfield. That’s where Bromley and Co. have been successful all season long, racking up 27 sacks.

Bromley’s eight sacks rank fifth in the ACC and his three forced fumbles are tied for first.

First-year starting defensive ends Robert Welsh and Micah Robinson picked up tells from opposing centers in the last two weeks, and Dyshawn Davis announced his return from a high-ankle sprain with a crushing 13-yard sack on C.J. Brown to end Maryland’s first drive last Saturday.

“If we let (Winston) sit back in the pocket just like most good quarterbacks, he’ll pick you apart,” Bromley said. “Corners can’t cover for four or five seconds and expect to be in great coverage.”

Five seconds is asking too much, but at least now the defense can ask.

The most glaring lapses from SU’s early-season defeats all came from the secondary.

Jeremi Wilkes biting on a pump-fake as Penn State’s Allen Robinson ran past him.
Fifty-one yards. Touchdown.

Whigham turning to watch Northwestern’s Tony Jones sprint by him, uncovered, up the right sideline. Forty-seven yards. Touchdown.

Ri’Shard Anderson stumbling out of the break as Clemson’s Sammy Watkins burned him on a stop-and-go. Ninety-one yards. Touchdown.

Whigham said the frequent formation shuffling led to many of the gaffes. But now the defensive backs are comfortable. They became the aggressors against Maryland.

Durell Eskridge stayed back on a Brown pump-fake with six minutes left in the second quarter and leapt to intercept his overthrow. Whigham jumped a corner route he saw earlier in the game for SU’s second turnover. Then Ritchy Desir helped jar loose a fumble just before halftime.

“We’ve got some guys with good ball skills, and when the opportunities present themselves, I think our guys have done a good job,” defensive backs coach Fred Reed said.

It’s all connected. The varying formations, the pass rush and the secondary. Robinson said the Okie has been most effective because it’s the most multiple. Adding a fifth defensive back, and sometimes sliding the safety Wilkes into the “star” position, has confused opposing quarterbacks.

“It’s got to be crazy for the quarterback to figure out where the pressure’s coming from every down,” Whigham said.

That execution will be crucial for Syracuse to hang with Florida State. It might not be enough, but it would give SU a chance.

“What better time than now?” Bromley said. “Thanksgiving’s in a couple weeks.”

  • Bostonway

    SU’s pass-D is horrible, so pressuring the QB is the only way to limit FSU’s passing success. If SU can’t do this, look for 350+ yards passing by FSU. This will get ugly!

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