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Syracuse is bouncing back in 2022 on the strength of its revitalized passing game

Syracuse is one of two remaining undefeated teams in the ACC.

NCAA Football: Virginia at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Dino Babers was sitting on a warming seat after three straight losing seasons coming into 2022, and not much was expected to change for his program, as the Orange were picked to finish last in the Atlantic Division. But Babers—and perhaps more importantly, his quarterback—figured a few things out just in the nick of time.

Syracuse has a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, both of whom were casualties of the coaching change at UVA. Those additions have clearly helped Garrett Shrader, whose improvement as a passer this season has been dramatic. (And not merely the product of a forgiving early schedule.)

In league play last season, Shader completed barely 51% of his throws and averaged an abysmal 5.7 yards per attempt. In two ACC games this year, he’s at 69% and 8.8, respectively. He’s completed 66.4% of his attempts in four games against FBS opponents, and already has more touchdown passes (10) than he did in 2021 (9).

Obviously, it helps a lot when your passing game goes from awful to useful. And Syracuse still has all-conference running back Sean Tucker to rely on. Tucker ran for perhaps the quietest 1,500 yards in history last season, on account of the team’s visible struggles, and his workload has increased in 2022.

Tucker averages 22 carries per game and is essentially the only back who handles the ball. Only three guys have double-figure rushing attempts: Tucker, Shrader, and freshman running back LeQuint Allen, who is third on the team with ... 15.

Syracuse has gotten him more involved in the passing game as well: he has 19 receptions, which is second on the team, and puts him on pace to crush his reception total from last year (20). Pretty good idea, I’d say, to get the ball in his hands more frequently.

Shrader remains a solid threat with his legs as well, which is worrying for an NC State defense that has been leaky against mobile quarterbacks.

At receiver, Oronde Gadsden is in the midst of a breakout year and leads the team with 366 receiving yards and three touchdown grabs. At 6’5, he’s a big target who can create problems down the field. Four Syracuse players have double-digit receptions so far this season.

While the Syracuse offense has improved with a more diverse attack, its defense has proven as reliable as it was a year ago, limiting FBS opponents to 5.4 yards per play. There are a lot of young players on this side who have been productive, giving the Orange a chance to be pretty good here for a while.

The leader is linebacker Mikel Jones, who had 110 tackles a year ago and leads Syracuse with 35 this fall. He has 4.0 TFLs (including two sacks) and has forced a fumble.

Often you can look at turnovers as one reason for a team’s improvement, and Syracuse is a good example: the Orange managed only seven takeaways last season, and through five games in 2022 they already have nine. Syracuse was good at taking care of the ball in 2021, turning it over only 12 times, but nonetheless had to overcome a negative margin, which makes everything more difficult.

The Orange had a positive turnover margin in three games last year and this season have had a positive margin in four of five games. All four of their turnovers on the year came against Virginia. Syracuse’s defense also has two pick-sixes.

NC State is gonna have to be careful there, and probably have to find a way to win another low-scoring game. For all of Syracuse’s improvement, the Orange were still average against Purdue and UVA, putting up less than five yards per play. Purdue is the only top-25 defense Syracuse has faced, and that also happened to be Shrader’s worst game passing by a wide margin. The Pack’s defense is better, and hopefully can create similar results.

This is going to be a tough one, though. The environment will be more hostile than usual—the game is near a sell-out—and the Orange will come out flying after a bye week. It wouldn’t be the worst thing for State if this game gets bogged down early on. Gotta get through that feeling-out portion of the game without a calamity and just go from there.

You know, the usual big-game-on-the-road stuff. And this is a big game for sure.