By Will Vandervort.
College football is a crazy game.
On one side of the field sits a team without its starting quarterback, without some of its skill players and with an offensive line that is starting its sixth combination in eight games.
On the other side of the field sits a team also without its starting quarterback, without some of its skill players and with an offensive line that has played only five players the last two games.
It might seem to the casual observer that this might be an evenly played game, but to Las Vegas one team is a 14.5-point favorite.
Of course No. 20 Clemson is that team and the Tigers (5-2, 4-1 ACC) are supposed to have little trouble against the Syracuse Orange, who will be making their first trip to Death Valley for a seven o’clock kick tonight on ESPNU.
The Orange (3-4, 1-2 ACC) will start freshman quarterback A.J. Long, who will be making his second career start. His first came in last week’s 30-7 victory at Wake Forest in which he threw for 171 yards, while completing 22 of 32 passes.
“He’s kind of got a little bit of a gunslinger mentality,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He throws a dart, he really does. He’s got a strong arm. He’s accurate, throws a nice deep ball.”
And that all might be true, but Long isn’t playing against Wake Forest’s defense on Saturday night. Instead he is going up against a Clemson defense that has held its last three opponents 264 or fewer yards – all three were season lows. In fact, the Tigers have held four of the last five opponents to a season-low in total yardage.
Boston College, who was averaging 315.7 yards a game on the ground prior to Clemson coming to town, was held to a season-low 120 rushing yards.
The Tigers are ranked fifth in the nation in total defense.
“They’re unbelievable, as you know,” Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer said. “When you play maybe one of the best talented fronts in the country, and really when I look at them, you can say they’re one of the best fronts I’ve seen in a long time – I’m talking years. I mean, this group is unbelievable.
“So for us, we’re just going to go in there and give it our best shot, try to change some things up, and try not to get our quarterback killed. I mean, these guys are unbelievable up front.”
On the other side of the ball, the Tigers are beat up like Syracuse, but the difference is quarterback Cole Stoudt.
Unlike Long, Stoudt is a senior, who understands the offensive system and was the starting quarterback at the start of the season before freshman sensation Deshaun Watson took the job away with his play at Florida State.
But Watson is out with a broken finger for a second straight week and Clemson will rely on the veteran who has already founds ways to score enough points on top 10 defenses Louisville and Boston College to win games.
“Cole Stoudt is finding his way with the offense. He’s got a lot of great tools around him, and I think the one thing they’ve shown is they’ve gutted through some learning experiences and found ways to win,” Shafer said. “Obviously, any time you have an injured player – we’ve gone through the same thing playing a guy that is now our third quarterback.
“So I think you have to get a feel for who he is and where you’re going to take your shot. The thing, I think, probably that those two schools you mentioned did a good job is they just played good, sound defense and didn’t try to get too innovative, and tried to force Stoudt and the offense to run their offense. One thing you know, you know (offensive coordinator) Chad Morris will do a great job every week increasing the innovation and the opportunity for production.”
One thing Morris knows too is that Shafer is going come with a lot of pressure. The Orange love to blitz and have already recorded 20 sacks this season. They have also forced 13 turnovers, including nine lost fumbles.
In last week’s win at Wake Forest, the Orange scored on two defensive touchdowns.
“They’re a dangerous bunch. They’ve got three of their four defensive linemen back that we saw last year,” Swinney said. “Cameron Lynch, one of their Will backers, is an excellent player, one of the leading sack guys in this league. Darius Kelly, their safety, I think, is a really, really good player. They play several guys in the secondary, but they blitz their safeties. They bring pressure from all levels.
“They’re very aggressive in how they attack you. They’re not a passive bunch. They kind of force the issue on defense. So from an offensive standpoint, we really have to do a great job of having these guys hat it up because, if you don’t, kind of like what happened in the Wake Forest game, next thing you know, your quarterback gets hit, ball tips off, defensive line picks it off and runs it in for a touchdown.”
And maybe that’s the only way Syracuse wins this game. After all, college football is a crazy game.