Prior to its bye week, Syracuse produced its two lowest rushing totals of the season. It’s also the only times the Orange has rushed below 200 yards this year. Uncoincidentally, it also produced SU’s only losses in 2018.
The Orange’s difficulties running the ball and, inversely, inability to stop the run on defense were the two most glaring red flags for a team that could just as easily be 6-0 as it is 4-2. But this week against UNC, Syracuse can, at least temporarily, bury the offensive hatchet. However, the Orange can’t just show up and expect it to happen naturally like it could against a team like Wagner or UConn. There are a couple keys to finding that rushing success.
Establish Dontae Strickland
Ever since ceding the starting running back position, Strickland looks like a different player. After averaging just 3.3 yards per carry in his first three games, he’s more than doubled that figure to 6.9 in his last three games. The senior has more yards in those games with less than half the touches. Strickland has only carried the ball 16 times over the last three games, which is something that needs to spike against UNC. While Strickland has enjoyed his success, Moe Neal has seen his numbers drastically drop. After never posting a game below 70 yards in his first four, the junior didn’t eclipse 40 in his previous two games. Neal should still be the starting back on this team, but there should be a closer split. The running backs’ successes comes from the balance that Neal and Strickland’s contrasting run styles complement each other with. Lately we’ve seen a lot more flash than muscle, but now there has to be a more even distribution with the two. Getting Strickland involved early on will help Moe Neal return to his home run hitting ways.
Attack Tomon Fox’s Replacement
In case you forgot, UNC got into some hot water with the NCAA before the season started (surprise, surprise). A total of 13 players were caught selling off their team-issued Air Jordan 3 Retros and were suspended anywhere from one to four games. Is it dumb? Yeah. But that’s just how the NCAA operates at this point. (P.S. if you check the resale market, they’re fetching about $8,000 a pair). Now you may be thinking that by week seven all these suspensions would have been served by now. But UNC struck a deal with NCAA to stagger certain players’ suspensions in order to not decimate the team’s depth. Consequentially for the Tar Heels, this week is starting defensive end Tomon Fox’s turn to sit. The sophomore is one of the best players on the UNC defense and sits third on the team in tackles for loss, despite missing a game from suspension. Against Miami (the only game Fox has served so far), Allen Cater stepped in at end and the Hurricanes gashed the Tar Heel defense for 229 rushing yards (the most allowed this season by UNC) in a 47-10 rout. Running at what will likely be Cater not only attacks the weak spot, but also avoid Malik Carney on the other side, who is the team’s leader in tackles in the backfield with 7.5, despite only playing in 3 games.
Don’t Give Up on Running
Syracuse has entered every fourth quarter this season with a lead. In its latest two losses, running backs have gotten the ball on less than 20 percent of plays. When the goal at that point is to drain the clock, the Orange needs to trust in its running backs. A perfect example of that is last year’s win against Clemson when Syracuse held the ball for more than 12 minutes in the fourth quarter. Once the Orange had the lead, it gave the ball to its running backs on 55 percent of its plays. Now, SU faces a mediocre at best run defense in UNC which will be short handed. The Orange cannot afford to give up on its running backs late in games, especially if this one gets tight down the stretch.