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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Syracuse - Opponent Preview

The Orange are perhaps better than their record would suggest

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4) close out the 2022 season on Thursday in a Pinstripe Bowl matchup with the Syracuse Orange (7-5) at Yankee Stadium at 1 p.m. CT.

Can Syracuse score on offense?

The Orange will have a new offensive coordinator for the Pinstripe Bowl. Quarterbacks coach Jason Beck was promoted to the position on Dec. 9 after previous offensive coordinator Robert Anae left to take the same position at NC State. Beck and Anae have been attached at the hip for a decade, with stints together at BYU, Virginia, and Syracuse over the past 10 years.

Beck has been credited with shepherding the development of Syracuse quarterback Garrett Schrader, a former Mississippi State transfer who was instrumental in leading the Orange to a 6-0 start this season. Through the first six games, Schrader was 106-of-152 (69.7%) for 1,434 passing yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions to go along with 300 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground. But he struggled in the second half, hampered by injuries. Over the final six-game stretch, during which he was sidelined for a game against Pittsburgh, Schrader was 67-of-114 (58.7%) for 876 passing yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions, along with only 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

Syracuse is likely hoping that the month-long layoff between the end of the regular season and the Pinstripe Bowl will provide enough time for Schrader to get at least close to a hundred percent. The Orange offense is at its best when it is able to use the entire field in the passing game. Nine different pass catchers have caught at least one touchdown for Syracuse this season, but their most dangerous weapon is 6’5”, 216-lb. wide-receiver-turned-tight-end Oronde Gadsden II. He is a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses and leads the Orange in receptions (54), receiving yards (891 receiving yards), and receiving touchdowns (6).

The Orange will be without the services of starting running back Sean Tucker, who has declared for the NFL Draft and opted out of the Pinstripe Bowl. Fullback Chris Elmore and left tackle Matthew Bergeron have both also opted out of the bowl game.

With Tucker out of the game and the quarterbacks coach calling the plays, I would expect Syracuse’s offensive game plan to revolve around Schrader, who can make plays with his arm and with his legs, creating headaches for opposing defenses. It was when injuries limited his mobility that the Orange offense started to sputter. The Minnesota defensive line will need to keep him contained in the pocket With nickel back Michael Dixon and sam linebacker Braelen Oliver off to Rutgers and Georgia Tech, respectively, the Gophers may have to rely on a couple new faces in coverage if Syracuse decides to spread the field in the passing game.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Syracuse will also be without defensive coordinator Tony White, who left to take the same position at Nebraska under new head coach Matt Rhule. They have since hired Rocky Long as White’s replacement, in part because they plan to continue operating out of a base 3-3-5 defense.

White brought the 3-3-5 to Syracuse with him when he was hired three years ago and it helped him orchestrate a remarkable defensive turnaround. The Orange ranked 115th in total defense and tied for 88th in scoring defense the season prior to his hiring. Three years later, Syracuse ranks 30th in total defense and 35th in scoring defense — though ranking 68th in run defense (149.3 rushing yards allowed per game) is a glaring weakness in an otherwise solid defense.

The 3-3-5 was essentially introduced to counter spread offenses, substituting a defensive lineman for a defensive back. You have less size up front, but you’re increasing the amount of speed in the back end of your defense. The challenge for Minnesota will be anticipating the type of stunts Syracuse is going to use up front to try and attack and confuse their offensive line.

Caleb Okechukwu is their most disruptive defensive lineman. He has racked up 10 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and five quarterback hurries this fall. Against the run, expect to see a lot of linebacker Marlowe Wax, who leads the team with 89 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, seven quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. It would be a big boost for the Orange defense to get back linebacker Mikel Jones, who has been described as the “heartbeat” of their defense, after losing him for much of the season due to injury.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

Even with the defections on offense for Syracuse, I expect this to be a close game due to them getting healthy at other positions. This was a good team for the first six weeks of the season before injuries contributed to their five-game slide. With a month to prepare, I think we’ll see an Orange team that more closely resembles the version that started the year 6-0. With that said, I think Minnesota is more well-rounded on defense, and Mohamed Ibrahim is going to be on a mission in his final game in maroon and gold. Minnesota 24, Syracuse 17.