North Carolina State Wolfpack Football Preview: Scouting Syracuse
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Scouting Syracuse

NC State football will play the 10th game of its 2020 football season on Saturday, Nov. 28 at Syracuse in the Carrier Dome at noon on the ACC Network.

The Wolfpack (6-3, 5-3 ACC) is coming off of a 15-14 win over Liberty and the Orange (1-8, 1-7 ACC) were shut out by Louisville on the road, 30-0.

Here is the full scouting report on Syracuse:

Syracuse football head coach Dino Babers
It has been a challenging season for head coach Dino Babers (orange) and Syracuse.

Five Syracuse players to watch

• Junior receiver Taj Harris: The high school teammate of former NC State star Kelvin Harmonwas a preseason All-ACC selection by Phil Steele (third team) and Athlon(fourth team).

Harris has been a consistent performer since arriving at Syracuse. He caught 40 passes for 565 yards and three scores as a rookie during the Orange’s 10-win season in 2018. He followed that up by making 37 catches for 559 yards and two scores last year, and through eight games played in 2020 he had 37 receptions for 518 yards and four touchdowns.

Harris leads Syracuse in receptions, receiving yards and scoring catches this season, and is ninth in receiving yards per game in the ACC (64.8)

• Redshirt junior corner Ifeatu Melifonwu: NC State head coach Dave Doerenraved about the 6-3, 213-pounder in his press conference Monday [ADD HYPERLINK], and for good reason. Melifonwu, touted as one of the ACC’s best defensive backs, has 41 tackles, eight pass breakups and an interception thus far this season.

He has the second-highest grade in the ACC among corners who have played at least 100 snaps, per Pro Football Focus (PFF).

• Redshirt junior kicker Andre Szmyt: Szmyt has challenged NC State’s Christopher Dunnover the past three seasons for the title of the ACC’s top placekicker. Szmyt won the Lou Groza Award for college football’s best kicker as a redshirt freshman in 2018, when he went 30 for 34 on field goals with a still-career-long of 54 yards. Lindy’sranked him as the No. 3 kicker nationally entering this season.

He is 7 of 9 on field goal attempts this year and 54 of 63 in his career.

• Freshman running back Sean Tucker: Tucker is a speedy rookie who arrived at Syracuse after rushing for 2,760 yards and 28 touchdowns his last two seasons at Calvert Hill in Baltimore, and also winning the state title in the indoor 55-meter dash two seasons in a row while taking first in the 100 and 200-meter dashes as a junior.

That speed has translated to the ACC. In Syracuse’s last six games, Tucker has emerged as the feature back for the Orange. He’s rushed 94 times for 484 yards, a healthy average of 5.1 yards per carry in that span. That included a pair of 100-yard rushing efforts (vs. Georgia Tech and Liberty) and a 93-yard game at Louisville.

• Redshirt freshman corner Garrett Williams: Williams has been pressed into action as a redshirt freshman, but the native of Waxhaw, N.C., has held up well to give the Orange a nice cornerback combination on a defense that ranks seventh nationally in interceptions.

PFF has Williams as the third-highest graded defensive player on the Syracuse defense. Thus far this year, he has 52 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups.

What to watch for from Syracuse

1. Uncertainty at quarterback. The starter to begin the season was redshirt junior Tommy DeVito, but he was lost to a season-ending injury after four games. Fifth-year senior Rex Culpepper had the first shot at replacing DeVito, and after three ineffective performances the Orange went with true freshman Jacobian Morgan. However, Morgan left the most recent game, a loss at Louisville, with an injury, and it’s unknown what his status will be for Saturday.

Regardless, Syracuse has real questions with whomever starts. Culpepper has completed just 45.7 percent of his passes and has more picks (seven) than touchdowns (six). Morgan has succeeded on 63.3 percent of his attempts, but he was just 12-of-40 passing for 40 yards before leaving against the Cards.

In that game against Louisville, Morgan and Culpepper combined to throw for 45 yards. Neither has been a big running threat either.

2. Competent special teams: If it does turn into a close game, Syracuse has the special teams to make a difference. Redshirt junior kicker Andre Szmyt is a former Lou Groza Award winner, and fifth-year senior punter Nolan Cooney is averaging 45.2 yards per attempt this year, the third-best clip in the ACC, while booting over half his kickoffs (16 of 31) for touchbacks.

Kick returner and senior wideout Nykeim Johnsonis averaging 12.9 yards on punt runbacks and 23.2 yards on kickoffs. He is sixth nationally in combined kick return yardage (463).

3. A North Carolina flavor on the defense: Two starters — senior defensive end Kingsley Jonathan and redshirt freshman corner Garrett Williams — plus two of its top reserves — sophomore linebacker Lee Kpogba and freshman linebacker Stefon Thompson — all played high school football from the state of North Carolina, although Jonathan is a native of Africa..

Jonathan has 9.5 career sacks in 41 games, while Williams is tied for sixth in the ACC with two picks, including one off Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence that he returned for a score, the QB’s first career pick-six.

Kpogba has twice had six tackles in a game this season, while Thompson has 5.5 tackles for loss in eight games this year, including four at Louisville.

Three keys to the game for NC State football

1. Score points: Syracuse’s offense has not been good this year. They rank 121st nationally in points per game (16.2), 121st in rushing yards per game (86.7), 112th in passing yards per game (163.0) and 125th in total yards (249.7). They have thrown 11 interceptions, which ranks 119th nationally, and given up 3.89 sacks per game, which is 121st.

For some perspective, there have been 127 teams that have played a game thus far this fall.

Syracuse should not score many points on NC State’s defense. If the Pack can score a few touchdowns, preferably early, that might be all it needs. NC State is averaging 31.4 points per contest, but it is also coming off a game where its offense accounted for just 13 points in the nail-biting win over Liberty.

2. Show up on defense: As the above stats point out, Syracuse’s offense is not potent. Throw in the question marks at quarterback, and this is a game where the Pack’s defense simply needs to be dialed in, focused and disciplined. The latter-most category has been an issue at times this season. NC State’s 80.69 yards of penalties per game is worst in the ACC and 124th nationally.

3. Win the explosive plays: Head coach Dave Doeren noted Monday that Syracuse’s defense tends to play well the majority of the game but has a habit of suddenly giving up the big play that will skew the final stats. In a game like this, if NC State can spring a few explosive plays on offense, that’ll certainly help the cause.

More important is preventing Syracuse from getting many itself. Explosive plays, along with turnovers, are two areas where a two-touchdown underdog like the Orange can make a game more interesting than it’s supposed to be. NC State must make Syracuse consistently have to drive the field to score, something it has not shown it can do consistently this season.

Three numbers to watch

3 NC State junior kicker Christopher Dunn needs three more field goals to tieNiklas Sade’s school record for most all time at 55, and kicking in the Dome has always been advantageous for the specialists.

20 Thus far this year, the Orange has scored at least 20 points in just four of its nine games. Th Orange ranks 121st in the country in points scored per game (16.2). Syracuse head coach Dino Babers has never won a game in his career (0-19) when the Orange has scored less than 20 points.

400 Syracuse has yet to gain more than 400 yards of total offense in a game this season, and that traditionally has not been good for Babers squad. Babers is now 6-31 as a coach when his team does not gain at least 400 yards offensively.

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