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He said it multiple times leading up to the season, and he said it again postgame. Dino Babers didn’t know what to expect out of his defense — nobody’s ever implemented this style during a pandemic.
Now, Babers knows. Engineered by defensive coordinator Tony White, SU’s 3-3-5 held the high-powered UNC offense that averaged 33.1 points per game in 2019 to 10 in three quarters. The 3-3-5 confused quarterback Sam Howell, who holds the record for most touchdowns in a season by a true freshman (38). It won the turnover battle and gave SU multiple short fields.
The defense played more than well enough to put Syracuse (0-1) in position to upset No. 18 North Carolina (1-0). But the Orange offense failed to capitalize on the prime chances the defense provided, and the Tar Heels took advantage of an overtaxed unit in the fourth quarter. Still, after the season-opener, SU can return home with a strong defensive foundation to build on.
“Now after seeing (the defense) against good personnel, we’re starting to get an inkling of what we’ve got,” Babers said.
Before every play, Syracuse’s defense would look over to the sideline for White’s signal. The combination of signs was like a third base coach in baseball — a sequence could be a “three” signal followed by a double-fisted flex and a clap.
A fixture of the 3-3-5 is the confusion it causes. Although there are only three defensive linemen on the field, SU varied how many linebackers joined them in the trenches and how they lined up. Four players lined up sometimes in a heads up three-point stance, meaning they’re right across from a blocker. Other times they’d line up in a gap. No matter what, it was almost never clear which players were blitzing and which were dropping into coverage.
For much of the first three quarters, Howell appeared lost. After he orchestrated a precise 10-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to open the game, Howell went 20-for-26 for 234 yards and two interceptions.
The first of Howell’s two giveaways came on the Tar Heels’ second drive, when he forced a ball into a tight window on a drag route. Cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu stretched his arm, tipping Howell’s pass right to linebacker Mikel Jones. SU’s offense took over on UNC’s 31-yard line, but turned the ball over on downs.
“Obviously, the defense did a fantastic job of getting the ball back to us,” Babers said. “We had numerous opportunities to punch it in on offense and make this thing a game.”
SU’s defense then forced a three-and-out. On third down that drive, Syracuse forced Howell out of the pocket by sending four rushers, and Howell checked down to a receiver nowhere near the first down marker.
The 3-3-5, which puts five defensive backs on the field at all times, suits the Orange since the secondary is their strongest position group. Preseason All-American Andre Cisco, playing the rover position, picked off Howell in the third quarter by watching his eyes and undercutting a deep post. His 13 career interceptions are the most out of any active FBS player.
Melifonwu, Garrett Williams and Trill Williams also made plays. Williams, a redshirt freshman, was often tasked with defending wideout Beau Corrales. Despite Corrales’ size advantage (6-foot-3, 205-pounds to 5-foot-11, 184), Williams held his own. Corrales finished with five catches on seven targets for 47 yards, but Williams largely limited his yards after contact. He also led SU with nine total tackles.
Trill Williams, on the opposite side of the field as Garrett Williams, was hardly — if ever — targeted. The secondary allowed Syracuse to get pressure on Howell, since he had to hold the ball longer as his receivers struggled to get open. On one play, defensive end Kingsley Jonathan beat his matchup with a speed move to blindside sack Howell, flexing his bicep on one knee to celebrate.
“As a unit, our main goal is to disrupt the quarterback,” Jonathan said. “Our back end had holded it up for us to get to the quarterback and help each other as much as we can.”
But the pattern of the defense getting stops and the offense failing to capitalize continued. In total, Syracuse scored just six points off three turnovers generated by its defense and special teams — each of which gave SU possession in UNC territory. Had the Orange turned those field opportunities into touchdowns, they would’ve entered the fourth quarter up multiple scores instead of down 10-6.
Instead, SU’s defense wore down in the fourth quarter. Since the offense struggled to move the chains — Syracuse had just one drive of over three minutes — the defense was forced to stay on the field. Four consecutive three-and-outs put immense pressure on the defense.
“Those guys are going to get their conditioning, their legs are going to get fresher and fresher,” Babers said. Twenty-one unanswered fourth quarter points turned a 10-6 game into a blowout.
Babers said postgame that he’s not even sure everyone’s playing in the right positions at the moment. Two or three weeks of shuffling may be needed to optimize the defensive lineup, he added. It’s an unfinished product, which should encourage the coaching staff.
“Take off those camp legs and put on a new pair of legs to get ready to play in the ACC,” Babers said. “I think they can get better. I think in two to three weeks, you’re going to see a better defense. As long as we stay healthy. I was really encouraged with what I saw defensively.”
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