N.C. State vs. Syracuse: Stats and Stuff

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

I hope you enjoy the sterile, predictionless preview.

Welcome to the new line of preview stories that eschews overconfident predictions in favor of the mindless recital of statistics. We'll all be safer this way. (Speaking of which, if any of you guys are amongst the folks burning crosses in my yard and waiting for me outside with pitchforks and various homemade spiky club-like things, can you please knock it off and go home? I have learned my lesson after the Wake Forest debacle, and I have a family.)

As the chart below illustrates, N.C. State and Syracuse are remarkably similar animals, bullying the weak but getting exposed for the bottom tier BCS programs they are whenever they face off against their own kind. Combined, the teams are 5-0 against non-BCS foes and 0-5 against their BCS-conference brethren. The Orange average 13.5 less points per game against schools from the BCS compared to their overall average, while the Pack score 14.1 fewer points against stiffer competition. Defensively, the Pack hold up a bit better, allowing 6.4 more points against teams from automatic qualifier conferences; the Cuse has been jacked up for 40 points per game against BCS schools, 12.6 more than it allows overall.

Syracuse

Stat

N.C. State

2-3

Record

3-2

0-3

Record vs. BCS Opponents

0-2

32.8

Points per Game

27.6

19.3

Points per Game vs. BCS

13.5

27.4

Points Allowed per Game

20.6

40.0

Points Allowed vs. BCS

27.0

5.5

Yards per Play

5.8

4.7

Yards per Play vs. BCS

5.1

5.7

Yards per Play Allowed

5.0

6.8

Yards Allowed vs. BCS

5.4

0.0

Turnover Margin

0.0

-1.7

Turnover Margin vs. BCS

-1.5

The yards per play and turnover data are also particularly telling. The Orange were a combined -2.1 yards per play in losses to Penn State, Northwestern, and Clemson. The Pack is a more respectable -0.3, but they have also hoed an easier road. The Nittany Lions, sanctioned to near extinction by the NCAA, are not particularly good this year, but a close, neutral site loss against them still seems less unimpressive than the spanking the Pack received on the road against a terrible Wake Forest team. Northwestern, ranked 19th, is 4-1; its only loss came against #4 Ohio State. Of course both teams hosted Clemson, and N.C. State played the Tigers much more competitively than did the Orange. But we saw how little that matters last Saturday against Wake Forest, a team that was also throttled by the Tigers. The bottom line is that these teams have blown chunks against their peers, so they are both probably really looking forward to playing each other, and if either team has designs on a bowl game, they can't afford to lose this one.

As noted above, neither team has been able to win the all-important turnover battle against better competition, so Saturday's game will likely come down to who screws up the least. And who screws up the least will likely be determined by the play of Cuse redshirt freshman quarterback Terrel Hunt, who was Jameis Winston good in wins over Wagner and Tulane but came crashing back to earth Harrison Beck style against Clemson. Hunt was a ridiculous 31-for-39 (79.5%) in Syracuse's wins, throwing for 440 yards and seven touchdowns without an interception. Against the Tigers, Hunt completed just eight of 24 passes for 52 yards and was picked three times. Regardless of how things are going through the air, Hunt is a threat to take off; he has 149 yards rushing on 26 carries, giving him an impressive 5.7 yards per carry average.

Of course, unlike the jet-sweepin' quarterback-keepin' Pack, the Orange prefer to do their running the old fashioned way. In junior Jerome Smith, they have a very capable back for Hunt to hand to. Smith, who rushed for 1,171 yards last season, leads the ACC with seven rushing touchdowns (and eight total TDs) and rumbled through the Clemson defense for 125 yards on just 18 carries last week (6.9 per carry). At 6-feet, 230 pounds, the young fella is a load. He and Robert Caldwell should have some monumental collisions on Saturday.

If both Hunt and Smith get rolling, it will be hard for the run-first Pack to keep up. Though the Syracuse secondary has been porous, the team has been stingy against the run, allowing just 3.2 yards per carry (24th among FBS defenses). It's hard to imagine the vertical-passing-game-challenged Pete Thomas or a rusty, broken-footed Brandon Mitchell winning this or any game without offensive balance. Jay Bromley, whose sack-per-game average is ninth at the FBS level, will likely make life miserable for whoever the Pack QB is if he is forced into numerous obvious passing situations.

Bromley and Smith headline the list of individuals ranking in the top 25 statistically from each team:

  • Smith's eight total touchdowns rank eighth in the FBS
  • Smith's seven rushing touchdowns rank 12th
  • Bromley is ninth in sacks per game (one), 13th in tackles for loss per game (1.6), and 19th in forced fumbles per game (0.4)
  • Riley Dixon is 12th with a 45.2-yard average per punt

Niklas Sade dots and otherwise thinly Pack populated FBS leaderboard many times over:

  • Sade's 80% touchback rate ranks second
  • He is third with 11 made field goals
  • Fifth with 2.2 made field goals per game
  • 13th in average kickoff distance (64.4)
  • 14th in field goal percentage (91.7%)
  • 23rd in points per game (9.6)
  • Rashard Smith is 7th in punt return average (16.3)
  • Caldwell is 18th in tackles for loss per game (1.5)
  • Jarvis Byrd is 19th in forced fumbles per game (0.4)

As far as team rankings, Syracuse is tied for first nationally with only one lost fumble on the season. The Orange also:

  • Rank 12th in opponents' third-down conversion rate (28.4%)
  • 17th in tackles for a loss per game (7.6)
  • 18th in preventing red zone touchdowns (50.0%)
  • 21st with 2.8 sacks per game
  • 23rd with two plays from scrimmage covering 60+ yards
  • 24th with four plays from scrimmage covering 50+ yards
  • 24th in opponents' yards per carry (3.2)

N.C. State is one of several teams that have not allowed a punt return of over 20 yards, and the Pack are also in the top 25 at preventing big plays (seven of 30+ yards, which ranks 24th, two of 40+ yards, which ranks seventh, and just one of 50+ yards, which ranks 12th). Other rankings include:

  • Fifth in tackles for a loss per game (8.8)
  • 15th in fumble recoveries (six)
  • 15th in punt return average (15.5)
  • 17th in rushing yards allowed per game (107.6)
  • 17th in forced fumbles per game (1.4)
  • 18th in time of possession (32:58)
  • 20th in fourth-down conversion rate (66.7%)
  • 23rd in fumble recovery rate (66.7%)

Syracuse's rankings in third down conversion rate allowed, tackles for a loss, rushing yards per carry against, and red zone touchdown prevention would seem to add up to a defense that would not allow 27.4 points per game. Ah, but then you look inside the box scores and see that the Orange have allowed seven (!) touchdown passes of 40+ yards this season, including a 91-yarder to Sammy Watkins last week. They even gave up a 45-yard touchdown run against lowly Tulane. Their opponents haven't needed to reach the red zone, or third down for that matter, to put points on the board.  Defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough most certainly attended some Mike Archer camps in the past.

Unfortunately, the big play in the vertical passing game has been missing from N.C. State's arsenal; Thomas missed two deep throws to receivers that were 10 yards behind the defense last week alone. If Mitchell is back, perhaps the deep threat will be in play for the Pack. Otherwise, N.C. State's game plan with Thomas at the helm (jet sweep, bubble screen, handoff, QB seeing his first option is covered, putting head down and falling forward for three yards, and only looking downfield on third and forever) would seem to be negated by the few strengths the Orange have as a defensive unit. The return of Marquez Valdes-Scantling might help, as he had six catches of 20+ yards in the Pack's first three games before going down with a hammy.

Even if I were still in the business of selecting winners (or, more accurately, rationalizing how the Pack would win every gosh darn game), this would be a tough one. (Seriously, please put down that can of gasoline, those matches, and let the tow truck man load up my truck with the four flats you guys slashed.) These seem to be two evenly matched teams, both perhaps taking a tiny step back before beginning baby steps forward under a new head coach after suffering through years of mediocrity. So, who the hell knows? I'd just be happy if State manages to break 20 points.

For what it's worth, the Pack opened as a 4.5 favorite in Vegas and the line has moved to 6.5 or seven, depending on the source.

Bonus facts:

  • First-year Syracuse head man Scott Shafer has no previous head coaching experience, though he was the Cuse DC for four years and served in the same capacity at Michigan and Stanford
  • The two head coaches have combined for one win over a BCS opponent in nine tries (CDD's win over Kansas in 2012)
  • N.C. State has played Syracuse six times, all between 1972 and 1998, and won each meeting
  • Random: Thomas has completed seven more passes than Tajh Boyd this season, but Boyd has 12 more touchdown passes
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