Football

3-point stance: A look at what Syracuse needs to do to defeat the Wildcats in the opener

Winning at home

By scheduling a pseudo home game against Southern California in Metlife Stadium on Sept. 8, Syracuse sacrificed its sixth game of the year in the Carrier Dome.

That means the Orange has just five chances to impress a fan base that is already apathetic toward a team that failed to win a game after Oct. 21 last season.

Put simply, a bad home loss cannot happen. It would only invite the basketball fans to begin their countdown several weeks earlier.

It makes the season opener against Northwestern, a team traditionally in the bottom half or middle of the Big 10 pack, a bit of a must-win game.

Earlier this week, USA Today ranked the eight Big East football venues from best to worst, with the Dome finishing fourth. When full, the Dome is one of the more unique venues in college football with a domed roof that captures sound and truly makes for a “Loud House.”

The problem is that the Dome hasn’t been full in years. Three seasons ago, against the same Northwestern team that comes to Syracuse on Saturday, a raucous and passionate crowd was treated to a three-point thriller.

Unfortunately, that scene is a rarity for modern-day SU football. When No. 11 West Virginia set foot in the Dome last season, a decent crowd of 45,265 was in attendance for a monumental SU upset. But three weeks and two losses later, 4,000 fewer fans watched Syracuse’s next home game.

The fans are fickle and they want to see a winning team inside the Dome.

Each of this year’s five home games is exponentially more valuable because the team has one fewer chance to win over those spectators teetering on the fence of disdain.

Big plays in the passing game

Quarterback Ryan Nassib set a program record for passing yards, but he only surpassed the 300-yard mark once — against Football Championship Subdivision opponent Rhode Island. His longest pass of the season outside of that game came against South Florida when he found Alec Lemon for a 58-yard touchdown with less than four minutes remaining and the Orange trailing by 20 points. The quarterback often settled for short passes to Nick Provo, who owns the career record for receptions by an SU tight end.

We’ll see if the Orange unveils a more aggressive game plan Saturday that allows Nassib to take shots down the field. SU will need to score points to win its season-opener over Northwestern, which has a dynamic quarterback in Kain Colter. The Wildcats ranked fifth out of 12 teams in the Big Ten last year in scoring offense with nearly 29 points per game.

Its defense was among the worst and finished last in the league in sacks with 17. The Wildcats surrendered an average of 38.6 points per game in their first five Big Ten games in 2011, including 38 to an Indiana team that went winless in the conference and 1-11 overall.

Nassib and the SU offense should be able to take more chances against a defense that enters the season with plenty of question marks.

The play of Syracuse’s offensive line

Syracuse’s offensive line has three starters who have never appeared in a single game at SU. Two of those players — Ivan Foy and Lou Alexander — never convinced head coach Doug Marrone and his staff that they truly deserved the spot. The Orange’s goal of executing more “big plays” starts against Northwestern, and the performance up front will be key to making that happen.

Northwestern has one of the worst defenses in the country, let alone the Big Ten. The Wildcats gave up 6.1 yards per play, had a 50-percent third-down conversion rate and had only 17 sacks.

Even if Northwestern’s defense is improved in 2012, it still will not be a formidable unit. If the Orange is going to lose, it cannot be because the O-line failed to give quarterback Ryan Nassib time in the pocket.

If the offensive line can’t figure out a way to hold off the Wildcats’ defense, how do you think it would do against Southern California? Or any other team, for that matter?

The line has a chance to prove itself this weekend. Alexander, Foy and left tackle Sean Hickey have the chance to prove they deserve to be starters.

Syracuse wants a better, less conservative offense. Building the foundation for that starts Saturday. But if the offensive line plays poorly and foils those plans, then there would be little for SU fans to feel good about going forward.

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