No. 14 Syracuse will travel to No. 5 Clemson on Saturday for what will be Death Valley’s first meeting between 6-0 teams or better in its 81-year history. The Orange will look to break the Tigers’ 37-game home win streak, CFB’s longest active such streak. With the Atlantic Division on the line, this battle of undefeateds will highlight the 12:00 slate on Saturday.
Syracuse enters as 13.5-point underdogs against a Clemson team led by junior quarterback DJ Uiagaleilei, who has finally emerged as the elite passer, and Heisman Trophy candidate, Clemson fans expected as a five-star prospect. This will only be the Orange’s second away game of the season and its first road ACC matchup. However, Syracuse is used to the noise, as its last game against NC State reached 121 dB in the JMA Wireless Dome, the 7th-highest in college football recorded history. Now, SU will be on the opposing side of that raucous.
“This will be the first opportunity for our offense to operate the way other people’s offenses operate at the JMA,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said.
Here’s everything to know before Saturday’s undefeated ACC contest.
Syracuse defense is the real deal
SU ranks first in the ACC and sixth in the nation in scoring defense, with opponents averaging just 13.17 PPG. SU’s secondary is led by highly touted prospect Garrett Williams, who ranked second in PFF’s early 2023 cornerback draft rankings.
Sophomore corners Duce Chestnut and Alijah Clark start alongside Williams, reuniting at SU after playing together at Camden High School in New Jersey. Together, this close-knit unit has led Syracuse to the ACC’s best pass defense, allowing just 173.8 yards per game. Williams and Chestnut ranked second and third in passes defended in 2021, each garnering NFL interest as a result.
The front seven has also stepped up, dubbing themselves and the rest of the SU unit “The Mob.” Led by linebackers Mikel Jones and Marlowe Wax, Syracuse is second to only one ACC team in rush yards allowed per game, and that’s Clemson.
SU’s ‘next man up’ mentality makes “The Mob” an appropriate name. They don’t have individual defensive players at the top of the leaderboards. Head coach Dino Babers and defensive coordinator Tony White have thrown out creative looks with differing personnel to create an overwhelming defensive presence. They also love to bring the pressure, with lightning-fast linebackers who can shoot the gaps hard, trusting their physical corners in man coverage. Expect an extremely aggressive game plan from an outsized Syracuse defense.
DJ Uiagalelei’s resurgence
After 13 extremely mediocre starts last season from DJ Uiagalelei, Clemson fans were clamoring for five-star recruit Cade Klubnik. But Dabo Swinney stuck with the Samoan, and it paid off. His completion percentage is up 8.4%, his yards per game is up 65.1 and he has almost doubled his TD total from last season already.
DJ has started trusting his offense and his receivers more. Last season, he looked uncomfortable waiting for reads to get open in the pocket. Now, he is willing to take a hit if it means he can deliver a strike from the pocket. Clemson fans have seen the patient, pro-style quarterback they were promised when DJ was a prospect. DJ has led the Tigers’ offense to the third highest-scoring offense in the ACC after ranking ninth last season.
Similar offensive production through different means
Starting quarterbacks Garrett Shrader and DJ Uilagaleiei average 237.9 and 239 yards per game, respectively. They also rank fifth and sixth in total yards, with Clemson in front, 247.4-to-244.3. However, Syracuse averages 9.3 yards per play, while Clemson averages 7.5.
SU has a proclivity for the big play, courtesy of running back Sean Tucker, who ranks second in the conference in rushing. They have also found a rising star in Oronde Gadsden II, who played high school football with Broncos’ corner Patrick Surtain II and was coached by his father. He has 507 yards and five scores on 31 catches this season, leading the Orange in all three categories and ranking second in the ACC in receiving yards and first in touchdowns. Here’s his 46-yard touchdown catch against Purdue that gave SU the lead halfway through the fourth quarter.
Oronde Gadsden takes it 46 yards for the score on 4th down‼️
📺 ESPN2 pic.twitter.com/2t9PCvKBFr
— Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) September 17, 2022
Meanwhile, the Tigers have been prone to more methodical drives by leaning on the run game. They lead the ACC with 266 rush attempts, while Syracuse ranks 10th with 233. Clemson averages just 4.5 yards per rush yards per rush, as its rushing attack has not been able to penetrate the third level often. Apart from a 53-yard dash by Will Shipley against Wake Forest, Clemson hasn’t generated many big plays in the run game.
Clemson averages 7.5 yards per pass play, ranking ninth in the conference, yet they haven’t scored less than 30 all season, illustrating the efficiency of this game plan. Dabo Swinney’s offense rarely gets dropped behind the line and they are phenomenal on third down, going 16/23 (69.6%) in their OT thriller against Wake Forest. Its season-long third-down percentage is .505 on 109 attempts, meanwhile, SU only has 67 third down attempts with a .448 conversion rate. This further illustrates Syracuse’s pass-centric, big-play offense compared to Clemson’s rush-centric, meticulous approach.
Importance of early downs
The teams’ opponent third-down percentages are only 0.001 apart (Syracuse with 0.367 and Clemson with 0.368), so early-down yards will be vital for both offenses in this battle of unbeatens. Third downs have been on lock for both of these defenses. Both squads feature running backs with significant NFL potential in Sean Tucker and Will Shipley, so those guys will need to be successful in the early downs to give their team the edge.
Tucker is averaging over 100 yards per game for the second-straight season. He’s a big back with surprising speed at 5’10” 210 lbs and runs track for SU in the offseason. Tucker’s rare blend of breakaway speed and toughness between-the-tackles has given him NFL buzz after he led the ACC in rushing yards last season. Shipley ranks fourth in yards but third in touchdowns. A tough runner with elite elusiveness, Shipley regularly slips lower-body tackles and falls forward on carries. He’s not quite the physical presence that Tucker is, but his speed is just as game-breaking. These guys will be the X-Factor for their respective offenses, especially considering Tucker’s heavy involvement in the pass game.
What to expect
Expect Syracuse to come out slinging. Clemson ranks first in the ACC in rush defense, but fifth in passing defense. Meanwhile, the Orange rank first in passing defense and second against the rush. Clemson’s front seven, led by nose tackle Bryan Bresee, was ranked first on CBS’ best front seven units this season. It has double the number of rushing yards as its opponents this season.
Expect more of the same from the Clemson offense: Slow, methodical drives with the occasional deep shot to one of their towering outside receivers/tight ends. Uiagalelei’s significant improvements from last season will be tested against the Tigers’ second-highest-ranked opponent of the season. This is set to be a defensive battle, but each of these offenses has the potential to break out if they attack the right spots.
This will be a close game between Babers in Swinney. In their six matchups, Syracuse has one shocking victory in 2018 as well as a three and four-point loss. It seems that Babers has been able to stay competitive against Swinney despite the significant talent difference in past seasons. Syracuse is still massively outsized on both sides of the line of scrimmage, but this could be a David and Goliath situation as the Orange rally an electrified fanbase celebrating their first 6-0 start since 1987. Don’t count out the Orange.
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