Ahead of Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl between the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4) and the Syracuse Orange (7-5), we were able to connect with Christian De Guzman, a writer for Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician, and he was kind enough to field our questions.
The Daily Gopher: Syracuse started the season 6-0, ranked as high as No. 14 in the AP Top 25, and even led Clemson in the fourth quarter. But that game slipped away from them and so did their season, with that loss giving way to a five-game losing streak. What happened to the Orange in the second half of the season?
Christian De Guzman: Well much like Minnesota, Syracuse ran into a gauntlet of a schedule. Facing Clemson, Notre Dame, Pitt, Florida State, and Wake Forest in a row is not something I’d wish most mid-Power 5 teams to experience. What didn’t help is that Syracuse suffered a ton of injuries, both season-ending and temporary, that shifted the power balance of the team. The biggest one (which we’ll get to in a moment) was a knock to Garrett Shrader that severely hampered the Orange offense. Add that to a rough schedule and, in all honesty, I’ll take a 7-5 record. Much better than a combined 11-24 record in the prior three years (hurls in corner).
TDG: Garret Shrader seemed to be the straw that stirred the drink on offense for Syracuse through the first half of the season, but then he was banged up for much of the second half. What does Schrader bring to the Orange offense when healthy?
CDG: Creativity and explosiveness with his feet. Shrader is about as pure as a dual-threat quarterback as you can get. He’s great at the short-to-intermediate pass game, which the new Orange offense recognized and built the team around. What he’s even better at is making plays with his feet. His lack of mobility in the second half of the season made Syracuse’s offense predictable and removed the scramble ability that extended some drives. He’ll occasionally wow with his arm, but the real threat he possesses is on the ground, whether by design or not.
TDG: With running back Sean Tucker declaring for the NFL Draft and opting out of the Pinstripe Bowl, what can we expect from the Syracuse rushing attack?
CDG: Now given my last answer, you might think that Syracuse would just give the ball to Shrader and say “do something.” And while a month off should in theory give Shrader enough time to get his legs back underneath him, the Orange offense first starts with the running back. Yes, Sean Tucker’s off to play on Sundays, which means you’ll see true freshman LeQuint Allen make his first start for the Orange. He was the Gatorade Player of the Year from New Jersey and immediately took the backup spot to Tucker this season.
In some limited action (because Syracuse didn’t dare take Tucker off the field), Allen showed some nice agility and breakaway speed. He doesn’t have the same bruising strength as Tucker, but what I imagine we’ll see is more of a horizontal start to Allen’s run routes before he decides to cut upfield. There’s a lot of people who like Allen’s game, and while he may not be the same as Tucker, he should be serviceable enough to open up the rest of the Orange options on offense.
TDG: Though he is no longer with the program after accepting a position at Nebraska, former defensive coordinator Tony White orchestrated a remarkable turnaround on defense in his three-year tenure with the Orange, in part by implementing the 3-3-5 defense. How was he able to transform a once beleaguered defense into a respectable unit?
CDG: The big reason why the 3-3-5 works is that it unlocks the linebackers. The 3-3-5 makes the linebackers the stars of the show and while they need to be versatile, they’re the ones who are given the green light to make plays on the ball carrier. In recent memory, guys like Cameron Lynch, Zaire Franklin, and Parris Bennett have been Syracuse’s best players on defense. Each of those guys are linebackers.
The Orange now take advantage of that with the scary tandem of Mikel Jones and Marlowe Wax. Each carries a frightening combination of speed, strength, and football IQ that makes matchups a nightmare. Jones will split time as a rusher and quarterback spy, while Wax will come firing from the left side of the line. The linebacker play has been a big part of Syracuse’s defense in the last decade or so, and Tony White’s 3-3-5 gave those players permission to “fly around and make plays” as they so often say.
TDG: How does this Syracuse defense match up against a Minnesota offense that is going to want to run the ball early and often with first-team All-Big Ten running back Mohamed Ibrahim?
CDG: Pray that Ibrahim doesn’t play. No, seriously. That’s what Syracuse has to hope for. Another big reason for Syracuse’s five-game losing streak was the run defense. Syracuse’s defensive line is, to put it nicely, undersized. Coming against a big Minnesota offensive line with all-conference talent and a generational running back spells doom for Syracuse.
Only look at what Will Shipley did to the Orange to know that this is not a good matchup. Dino Babers said on signing day that the Orange staff targeted size in the trenches, and it’s needed, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
TDG: Dino Babers is in his seventh year at Syracuse and is below .500 with a 36-48 overall record as head coach of the Orange. How warm is his seat?
CDG: So it’s weird, because a few fans will tell you that it’s hot. But from an administration point of view, I’d almost guarantee it was never going to be hot this season. Babers received a contract extension after Syracuse went 10-3 in 2018. While details of the contract were never revealed, it’s believed that the extension runs to 2024 and any associated buyout is substantial. Syracuse isn’t exactly flush with cash so any attempts to fire Babers early would come at significant cost. Many people said at the beginning of this season that it was a bowl-or-bust year. While the bowl appearance now makes his seat significantly cooler, I question if it was even hot to begin with.
TDG: What is your score prediction for the game?
CDG: We're big fans of former SB Nation-er Bill Connelly and his SP+ system at NunesMagician. His prediction was 28-14 Minnesota, and that didn’t account for opt outs or additional injuries. With more Syracuse players declaring for the draft and entering the portal, I think this gets quite bad, at least for Syracuse’s defense. Even without Tucker, a healthier Garrett Shrader should produce some more offense than what was shown at the second half of the season. I’m going 34-17 Minnesota as Ibrahim has another career day against a weak Orange rush defense.