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Wake Forest-Syracuse football: Here's what the beat writers are talking about
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Wake Forest-Syracuse football: Here's what the beat writers are talking about

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Syracuse Florida St Football

Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader has averaged nearly 4.6 yards per carry on his rushing attempts in five games.

Wake Forest’s football team is approaching rarefied air here.

The 19th-ranked Demon Deacons have gone on one road test and passed. Now it’s time to do it again. They head up to Syracuse on Saturday, with a shot at moving to 6-0 for the first time since 1944.

For help on learning about the Orange, the Journal leaned on the expertise of Chris Carlson of the Syracuse Post-Standard and syracuse.com:

EJ: Hey Chris, as you are well aware, the ACC has been weird this season. Wake Forest is rolling right now as the conference’s highest-ranked team, Clemson is sputtering still, and I don’t think any of us are prepared for what the rest of the season will look like.

I feel like Syracuse has been a bit of an enigma. I’m constantly surprised by their results. Beating a potential No. 1 pick one week, Malik Willis and Liberty, and then a loss to a struggling Florida State team. So let’s start there: Is that a consistency issue, or does that disparity come from somewhere else?

CC: I wrote before the season that anyone that wasn’t picking Clemson to win the league and was picking those trendy North Carolina and Miami teams was just looking for attention. Oops. That’s what I get for assuming Clemson was Alabama.

There’s certainly more teams that can end up winning the ACC championship game than any of us have seen for a long time and it makes the season more enjoyable for a lot of fans, even if it hurts the league’s national relevance.

Consistency has certainly been an issue but it’s an issue, at least partially, because they’ve been a team that is still figuring out who it is and what it can do well. For five-plus years this team’s motto has been “Orange is the New Fast” and they’ve been running up-tempo, veer-and-shoot spread offense. But for the past two years it just hasn’t worked. The coaches are trying to figure out what they can do on offense, with players recruited to that system, to win games and avoid an embarrassment like last year.

They’ve certainly found something in sophomore running back Sean Tucker. The early part of this year has been largely about settling on the idea that he’s the focal point and then trying to figure out what they can do around him to build a functional offense. Fitting him into what they usually do wasn’t cutting it. They’ve had to make him the focus.

Syracuse was able to overpower Liberty to some degree on offense. That didn’t work quite as well against Florida State. But offensively they might have had their most promising game. They added in some runs from quarterback Garrett Shrader, who is tough to bring down. He makes two players in the backfield that you generally need multiple guys to tackle in the run game. And they seemed to find a little bit of a passing game by getting him throwing on the move.

The interesting thing to watch for from the Syracuse side this week is probably how Wake Forest defends that style now that it’s on film. Did Syracuse find something that will lead to success as the season goes? Or did it find something that worked because Florida State wasn’t ready for it, or because the Seminoles were ill-equipped to handle it?

That’s the really impressive thing about Wake Forest right now. Everyone knows what they are generally trying to do but they’re so sound that no one can stop it. That’s a much better place to be.

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One thing I’ve found myself wondering this week is which units are the most critical when defending Wake’s offense and who has had the most success. Syracuse has some interesting pieces in its 3-3-5. The linebackers are very good. But the defensive line isn’t dominant on its own and the safeties are probably the most vulnerable spot. That seems like it could be an issue in stopping that slow-mesh RPO game.

EJ: Honestly, I can’t imagine a more frustrating assignment for a defensive coordinator than dealing with this Wake Forest offense right now. It’s so reactive and can find the weak spots almost every time.

It doesn’t help that so many Deacons on that side are well past experienced in what they try to do.

Louisville did the best job I’ve seen so far against it. You look at the final score and could say “Really, dude?!? 37 points?” But there was a stretch there where the Deacons faced some short series and an interception. A lot of that stems from the Cardinals fighting against the sideline stuff, which quieted A.T. Perry. He had a late touchdown, which was one of only three catches total. But you can see from the stat sheet, Wake Forest reacted: Jaquarii Roberson and Taylor Morin both had over 100 yards receiving.

If you’d asked me at the beginning of the year, I would’ve said that the best way to fight this offense is maybe testing if the run game could beat you. But that’s what Virginia did, and Wake punished them for it. Established the ground and took big shots. That’s all she wrote.

Tell me a little bit more about the ‘Cuse linebackers. What’s the trait or two that stands out about them?

CC: They’re young, and the defense they run frees them up to rush from a variety of different places an angles, one of the strengths of the 3-3-5. One of the two outside linebackers usually finds themselves rushing from the line but the offense has to figure out who it will be. They use the defensive line to sort of occupy the offensive line and then send the linebackers through gaps or on twists, stunts and delayed blitzes.

Syracuse doesn’t recruit well enough to beat you with personnel alone, but defensive coordinator Tony White, who arrived last year, has shown an ability to keep opponents guessing and he’s done a nice job putting those guys in position to succeed.

Middle linebacker Mikel Jones led the team in interceptions, fumbles and tackles last year and is the leading tackler by a huge margin against this year. He’s a very smart and instinctual player and able to cover a lot of area. He looks like an NFL player to us up here.

Marlowe Wax always seems to be around the ball. He helped force the fumble from Malik Willis that won the Liberty game. He was in position to sack Jordan Travis and force overtime against Florida State when he was clearly held by an offensive lineman – you can reasonably argue that Wax used hands to the face also – that has Syracuse fans, Babers and even the athletics director publicly expressing some frustration with the ACC’s officials.

The best thing for Syracuse is they can all come back if they choose to, although the Orange hasn’t had much luck retaining guys who have a legitimate shot at the NFL in recent years.

EJ: I’ll end this with a short one. I’ve seen Wake Forest blow people out. I’ve seen them come out on the winning end of a late shootout.

What gives Syracuse its best chance to win: a firefight or a low-scoring affair?

CC: Syracuse wants it as low-scoring as possible. It would mean the Orange limited possessions against a better team, which is generally a good thing when you play someone better than you, and it also probably means Syracuse was able to run the ball effectively, which seems to me like the only way it wins.

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@ByEthanJoyce

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