Lakeim Williams, you are dearly missed. For the first three games of the season Defensive Coordinator Tony White had his unit clicking on all cylinders. His defense held North Carolina’s explosive running back duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams to a combined 135 yards. The same tandem that just teamed up for 383 yards against Virginia Tech. to It was almost one of those, “this has to be too good to be true” moments. The 3-3-5 looked solid against UNC, Pitt, and Georgia Tech, but against Duke…weak.
The insane amount of injuries, especially to SU’s best defender in Andre Cisco, doesn’t help but it’s not an excuse. Even with Cisco, Syracuse would’ve been gashed in the run game. So after that embarrassment of a showing from the front seven, it’s time to take a look in the mirror and evaluate the problem. That problem being, the run defense (or lack thereof), let’s take a look at the film.
Duke runs a HB Trap here, pulling the right tackle and guard and opening up the middle for Mataeo Durant. Duke head coach David Cutcliffe called up this same design several times and gashed the Syracuse front. Defensively, White deploys three down linemen with two overhang linebackers and Marlowe Wax the lone second-level defender. The D-line actually does a pretty good job flushing this play out. Nosetackle Curtis Harper takes on his blocker and clears him out of the A-gap. Marlowe Wax does his job and fights off his blocker and is left 1 on 1 with the back in the hole, but he point blank misses the tackle. If he makes the stop there, the play is done. Instead, Durant gets free, jukes out another defender in Kevin Nudseo, and breaks off a big gainer.
The defense failed to execute here, missing tackles and getting pancaked in the second level; however, White is to blame here as well. It’s 1st and 10 and he’s sending a pass rush stunt…why? It’s clear at this point in the game that Cutcliffe wants to run the ball down your throat, you don’t dial up stunts to stop the run game. To Kingsley Jonathan’s credit, he nearly makes this play. He swims his defender and gets a hand on Jackson, but that’s all. Another missed tackle, and because SU’s stunting defenders played right into the hands of Duke. Two Blue Devil O-linemen get to the second level and destroy SU’s undersized linebackers and safeties trying to step up in the hole.
Here’s the HB Trap again, this time from the left side. Again, Cutcliffe milked this play because SU simply couldn’t stop it…even when they did, like on this play. SU goes three down, 2 overhang backers, with a single linebacker behind in Geoff Cantin-Arku. The Blue Devils run it perfectly once again. Safeties Cam Jonas and Rob Hanna make the correct read coming downhill to help in run support. Jonas just sits in the gap that Duke running back Deon Jackson cut into, but completely whiffs on the tackle. Playing in a 3-3-5 stopping the run is hard enough, missing point blank tackles like this simply cannot happen. To Jackson’s credit, that’s a heck of shimmy-shake but that’s a play Jonas is fully capable of making.
Let’s talk read-option. You bet Hugh Freeze at Liberty and Dabo Swinney at Clemson are looking at this and just drooling. Cutcliffe calls up a Y-lead Read Option to the left. So the wing will come across in a split zone concept, but his job is to chip an overhang defender like Steve Linton here and get to the second level to block for his quarterback. He executes his blocks to perfection, taking Linton out of the play and then getting to Jahad Carter. You bet Clemson’s gonna run this with Trevor Lawrence and Liberty with Malik Willis. Syracuse looks completely inept against this concept and it wasn’t a one time thing against the Dukies.
Speak of the devil, here we go again with the read-option. Two-point conversion late in the game: same play, same result. Brice fakes to Durant, keeps around the left end following the wing blocker, who takes out Carter, and Brice waltzes into the end zone. White and the defense need to figure this out asap or else they’ll continue to get gashed starting with Liberty on Saturday. If only Georgia Tech ran this with more with their dual-threat qb in Jeff Sims to prompt Syracuse to work on it at practice, but maybe now they’ll fix it.
Babers wanted the 3-3-5 and he got it. This defensive scheme is great for defending spread offenses that are pass-heavy, but it’s susceptible to the run game. In a system like the one White runs, the linebackers give up size to be able to cover, and only three down lineman can be on the field at once. Smart coaches will use the ground game to open up deep, play-action passes and it turns into a track meet.
Take Oklahoma for example, year after year, they run through the Big 12 and make it to the College Football Playoff, but get absolutely rocked on the big stage. The 3-3-5 works in the Big 12 because nobody plays defense in that conference. If opponents can establish a run game, it’s over. That’s why Georgia beat OU in the 2018 Rose Bowl with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and Kansas State shocks them year after year.
The reason why the 3-3-5 can work at Oklahoma and not Syracuse is because the Sooners have an explosive offense that can put up 30 a game easy, SU just doesn’t have that (this year at least). To the defenses credit, they can force turnovers. The Orange have forced the second most turnovers in the country since 2018. But, the offense has proven ineffective in taking advantage of the turnover margin and the extra possessions. Until that changes, this new defense could hold the team back in 2020 and beyond.