Syracuse Football: SU defense will have to be elite to contain top-flight QB

Syracuse football (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Syracuse football (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

Talk about a tough first task for the Syracuse football defense.

The Orange opens its 2022 campaign at home this Saturday evening, its first season opener on the Hill in numerous years. And while excitement is brewing over the team’s potential for a breakthrough stanza this fall, the promising ‘Cuse defense will have to be on point right from the get-go.

That’s because this Saturday, the Orange will welcome to Central New York fellow Atlantic Coast Conference group Louisville and its prolific offense, led by star-studded quarterback Malik Cunningham.

The 6-foot-1 redshirt senior, who hails from Montgomery, Ala., went full beast mode a season ago, as Cunningham in 2021 accumulated nearly 4,000 total yards while scoring nearly 40 total touchdowns. Yikes.

Syracuse football defenders, at all three levels, must be precise versus Louisville.

In all fairness, yes, the Cardinals were just 6-7 in 2021, which is only slightly better than the Orange’s 5-7 mark a stanza ago. But much like the ‘Cuse, Louisville in 2021 fell short by small margins in a handful of battles.

If you include the Cardinals’ three-point setback to Air Force at the First Responder Bowl in Dallas in late December, Louisville lost four contests by a grand total of 13 points.

Similar to the Orange, the Cardinals have new pieces on their roster in 2022, as compared to last year, but Cunningham remains under center, and I foresee that as a likely problem for the ‘Cuse, given his dual-threat capabilities.

In 2021, Louisville had a relatively balanced attack between its ground and passing games, and the Cardinals averaged nearly 32 points per encounter a season ago, along with close to 450 yards of total offense per affair.

Having an offense that isn’t so one-dimensional will certainly keep Syracuse football defenders more on their toes – and guessing more as to what the Louisville offense will do from play to play and series to series.

In the off-season, the Cardinals did have some shake-ups at the wide-receiver position, so we’ll have to see how that may affect the team’s offense heading into the 2022 opener on September 3 at the JMA Wireless Dome.

Last season, Cunningham was electric. Within the ACC, he finished at No. 5 in the league in total rushing yards, as he tallied 1,031 yards on the ground to go along with a ridiculous 20 rushing touchdowns.

Through the air, in 2021, Cunningham completed 62.0 percent of his attempts for 2,941 passing yards. He threw for 19 touchdowns against just six interceptions.

In mid-November of 2021, from Cardinal Stadium, Louisville absolutely shredded Syracuse football by a final count of 41-3. It was an embarrassing outcome for the ‘Cuse, in my humble opinion.

And Cunningham showed his ability to be highly efficient in the passing attack. He was 13-of-18 in the air while producing four touchdowns and no picks.

Ahead of the 2022 stanza, the ACC’s preseason media poll forecasted Louisville to finish No. 4 in the league’s Atlantic division, while the Orange was picked to finish No. 7, or last in that division.

Cunningham himself finished in a tie at No. 6 in the conference’s 2022 preseason player of the year award voting, with Syracuse football All-American running back Sean Tucker checking in at No. 8 here.

Look, I’m really optimistic that the Orange defense is going to be excellent in 2022. The line-backing group and the secondary can hang with anyone across the country. The defensive line holds promise, but it is young and inexperienced.

I don’t expect the ‘Cuse defense to stop Cunningham, but I also don’t think that Syracuse football is going to conquer the Cardinals if the Orange allows 40-plus points like it did in 2021.

Since Cunningham has the capacity to crush the ‘Cuse defense either with his legs or with his arm, to me, the key for Syracuse football to find success is two-fold.

First and foremost, the Orange offense has to sustain some lengthy drives, to give the team’s defense ample rest, and put up a sizable amount of points on the scoreboard.

Additionally, the Syracuse football defense is going to have to take some chances versus Cunningham, hoping that he’ll make some mistakes with his passes or even on the ground.

Turnovers, whether through interceptions or fumbles, are vital for the ‘Cuse in this ACC clash.

The young defensive line has to find ways to pressure Cunningham, but the dilemma is that he can beat you with his running abilities even if and when you get to him.

The Orange’s three linebackers and five defensive backs will have to hold their own in terms of not just covering receivers, but also being ready to contain Cunningham when he bursts full-steam ahead on the ground.

This is a huge test for the Syracuse football defense in week one. I’m glad this game is at home. I think the ‘Cuse can prevail, but the Cardinals’ dual-threat QB will make it anything but easy.

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