Syracuse gets a night in college football spotlight against reigning national champ
(AP) — Syracuse’s Dino Babers has coached at 15 colleges since he started at Hawaii in 1984 as a graduate assistant, so he knows what he and his Orange will be up against with second-ranked Clemson.
“I played very, very, very good football teams before,” Babers said. “This Clemson team is like one of those teams.”
The reigning national champion Tigers (6-0, 4-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) visit the Carrier Dome on Friday night at 7 on ESPN. The game offers the Orange (3-3, 1-1) a chance to be in the national spotlight in primetime — for one night at least.
There are dreams of an upset just like last year’s Carrier Dome stunner against No. 17 Virginia Tech. That brought national attention to the Orange after Babers orchestrated a postgame rant that went viral. The Hokies were favored by just over 20 points in that one and Clemson is a 22 1/2-point favorite for this matchup.
“This is huge, to have the nation tuning in to the Carrier Dome,” Babers said. “It’s a heck of a task, there’s no doubt about it. But let’s ... watch and see what can happen.”
Syracuse is coming off an important 27-24 win over Pittsburgh, which kept alive the Orange’s hopes of playing in a bowl game.
Despite noticeable gains on defense (ranked 46th, allowing 357.7 yards per game) and special teams (Sean Riley has 399 return yards, punter Sterling Hofrichter is averaging 45 yards per kick, and placekicker Cole Murphy is 10 for 12 on field goals), the Syracuse offense still hasn’t developed the sort of rhythm to consistently put defenses on their heels, though it has the components to do so. Senior wideout Steve Ishmael has 56 catches for 729 yards to lead the nation in both categories and sidekick Ervin Philips isn’t far behind (52 catches, 475 yards).
Still, the uptempo offense behind quarterback Eric Dungey has struggled in each of the team’s losses. That the Orange rank near the bottom of the FBS, averaging 7.5 penalties per game, has been a factor, and the mistakes have been magnified by the slim margins of defeat. All three losses — to Middle Tennessee, LSU and North Carolina State — have been by single digits.
“It’s been a little bit frustrating,” Ishmael said. “We know that we’re there. I feel like we are a team that can compete. We’ve just got to do the little things better.”
Against Pitt last Saturday, Dungey brought two more receivers into the mix. Junior college transfer Ravian Pierce had a team-high nine catches for 99 yards at tight end, with all but one reception coming in the decisive second half, and Devin C. Butler had seven catches for 64 yards and a score. Ishmael and Philips combined for 13 catches for 152 yards and one touchdown.
“It puts a lot of pressure on defenses when you not only have to cover Steve and Erv,” said Dungey, who’s averaging 300 yards passing per game and has thrown for nine TDs with four interceptions.
But this Clemson defense is not the norm. The Tigers are ranked eighth nationally in total defense, limiting opponents to an average of 264.3 yards per game, and their front four — Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant — would rival most in the NFL.
The Tigers have given up just eight touchdowns all season, and six have come in the fourth quarter of games Clemson led by at least 20 points. No team has scored more than seven points against Clemson through three periods, and the Tigers are intent on keeping that trend going.
“We know the Syracuse offense presents a great challenge,” Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph said. “They’re very different. They’re going to sling it about 50 times a game. They’re going to have a chance to come up and make some noise.
“We’ve got to put down the confidence early and not give them hope. That’s what we plan on doing.”
Standout safety Antwan Cordy, who suffered a hairline fracture in his lower right leg in the season opener, had vowed to be back in the Orange lineup for this game. Babers said that won’t happen.