The Syracuse University football secondary and Duke defensive line had every reason to salivate while reviewing film throughout the week, and the unit that pays off with a feast could ultimately decide today’s Atlantic Coast Conference matchup.
The Orange (1-2 overall and ACC) will return from its bye week to host the Blue Devils (0-4) at 12:30 this afternoon in the Carrier Dome, which will be televised locally on YES Network. No fans will be permitted to attend due to state COVID-19 regulations.
Syracuse enters ranked second in the nation with 10 takeaways behind its deep stable of defensive backs and will now face the Duke offense that has committed 15 turnovers — the highest mark in the FBS.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, possess a fearsome pass-rushing duo and have tallied 12 team sacks, tied for the fifth highest total in the FBS. That unit will now take aim at the SU offense that has surrendered 15 sacks to opponents to sport the nation’s second-highest rate.
Syracuse showed improvement last game, allowing just one sack on quarterback Tommy DeVito, and fifth-year coach Dino Babers said that he expects a similar turnaround in the turnover category for Duke while praising coach David Cutcliffe as one of the sharpest minds in the game.
“I tie it into the same thing with our sacks, we had seven sacks a game and then in our last game, we had one, and it’s just a matter of putting a major, major emphasis on it,” Babers said. “Coach Cutcliffe is an amazing coach, he’s been around a long time and coached some of the best players not only in college but in the NFL, he’s not going to allow that to continuously happen. … I expect that to be cured.”
The medical status of Syracuse All-American junior safety Andre Cisco is uncertain after he sat out the 37-20 victory over Georgia Tech on Sept. 26 before the bye due to a collision with a teammate during pregame warmups. Babers confirmed earlier this week that Cisco suffered a lower-body injury but declined to provide further details that he believes would provide Duke with a competitive edge.
The Orange maintained its stellar secondary play without its centerpiece last game, hauling in four interceptions and tallying five total takeaways. The four picks represented the highest total for SU since 2006, and the Orange remains tied for the national lead with seven interceptions after its bye week. Syracuse also ranks third in the FBS with a plus-six turnover margin.
Along with mainstay standout juniors — Trill Williams and Ifeatu Melifonwu — SU started redshirt freshman Garrett Williams and true freshmen Rob Hanna and Ja’Had Carter in the back of its 3-3-5 alignment. The latter two rookies each hauled in a pick against the Yellow Jackets.
The SU defensive backs will be looking to haunt Duke quarterback Chase Brice, who is throwing for 248 yards per game but has tossed seven interceptions to just three touchdowns, while completing 52 percent of his passes.
The veteran SU secondary members are familiar with the 6-foot-3, redshirt junior graduate transfer from Clemson. Brice came on in relief of Trevor Lawrence to help lead a second-half comeback for the Tigers against the upset-minded Orange in 2018 at Death Valley, throwing an interception to Trill Williams for the SU star’s first career pick in the process.
“Those guys are a band of brothers and when I say they hang tough with each other, those guys hang really tough with each other,” SU wide receiver Nykeim Johnson said of SU defensive backs. “When you see a guy that’s a potential draft pick like Andre Cisco or Trill Williams, you got to watch those guys, so the young guys coming up, they have a great example to pay attention to. … No guy acts bigger than the other guy, they all focus on the same thing.”
On the other side, Babers is eager to see if SU’s pass protection woes were truly fixed during its most recent outing when the Orange faces the challenge of another top pass-rushing unit.
Since the start of the 2018 campaign, SU is 13-4 when allowing three sacks or less, and has posted a 3-8 record when allowing four or more sacks, including 0-2 to start this year.
Duke defensive ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje each appear on multiple award watch lists and have combined for 53 tackles for loss and 29 sacks during their respective careers, while fellow standout Drew Jordan has added 12 TFLs and eight sacks.
This year, Dimukeje has delivered four sacks, five tackles for loss while forcing and recovering a fumble. Rumph II has added 1½ sacks, two tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
“They’re a disciplined defense, while the receivers are struggling to get open versus that man to man, those two edge rushers are coming down on your quarterback and getting there in a nasty mood,” Babers said. “It’s the key to what they do, and they have the ability to get to the quarterback with four-man pressures while their back end can still hold up playing man to man.”
Duke is favored by a point and leads the all-time series, 3-1, with SU’s lone victory a 49-6 thrashing at Wallace-Wade Stadium last November as nine-point underdogs.