Last season, the Orange finished 5-7 to clinch their third consecutive losing season. Perhaps one bright spot for SU was their hard-hitting defense, anchored by cornerback Garrett Williams. Limited to 10 of ‘Cuse’s 12 games, Williams led the team with nine passes defended. On the other side of the field, rookie Darian “Duce” Chestnut had three interceptions while defending eight passes.
This year, SU flips its top defensive contributors. In addition to the aforementioned Williams and Chestnut, team captain linebacker Mikel Jones returns to 315 after forfeiting the NFL Draft. Jones’ ability to cover ground against the run and react in the short passing game will pay dividends against a powerful Louisville offensive attack. Additionally, rushers Stefon Thompson and Marlowe Wax return for their second season after combining for 16.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks. Team sack leader Cody Roscoe posted 12.5 tackles for the loss in addition to eight and a half sacks.
SU’s linebacker unit is poised to return to its 2021 form, thanks in large part to the commitment of its ace.
“We call ourselves the force,” Mikel Jones said last month. “You’re going to see the force in action in the first game. I’m really excited to play with these guys once again.
Well, “The Force” will have its work cut out against the clever Malik Cunningham.
Last year, Cunningham sliced the Orange in a 41-3 blowout while operating largely on autopilot. Signalman Cardinal amassed just 228 yards from scrimmage – his second-lowest total of the season – while passing and rushing a total of 25 times – his lowest rating of the year.
But with an improved defense, Syracuse could well force the action into Cunningham’s hands. Defending dual-threat quarterbacks was a weak point for SU last year. On October 2, 2021 against Florida State, Syracuse gave up 113 yards to QB Jordan Travis. While Cunningham rarely raced against SU last year, he showed an aptitude for calling his own number. Cunningham rushed for 1,031 yards in 13 games last season, becoming the first Louisville quarterback since Lamar Jackson to produce at that rate on the field.
Cunningham runs with a flair similar to the NFL MVP, using his wheels to produce four games with 99 or more rushing yards in 2021.
Let’s not minimize Cunningham’s passing shots. Despite being a 6’1” below average among quarterbacks, Cunningham threw for four touchdowns against the Orange. The signalman threw for more than 200 yards in eight of his 13 starts.
Add it all up and Cunningham missed just 59 yards of a 3,000-meter passing and 1,000-meter running season – that’s an elite mark, and given SU’s inherent flaws against double-decker quarterbacks. threat that rocks linebackers in 50-50 guessing games, Cunningham is a real problem for the SU defense.
Bettors don’t like SU’s chances, giving Orange +25,000 chances to win the conference. It’s the second worst in all of the ACC. WynnBET gives Louisville a four-point advantage in Saturday’s game. Still, even the highest odds don’t deter Mikel Jones.
“We see [Louisville] like a good opportunity,” Jones said candidly last month. “We don’t think it will be a difficult challenge. We’re excited to play against these guys in week one.
Now, is that confidence a little cheeky for a team that lost 41-3 to Louisville a year ago? Maybe. But perhaps the force has awakened.
Of course, you can follow the action to find out if Jones’ confidence is in the right place by logging on to WAER at 8:00 am for kick off. Our live coverage begins at 7:00 a.m. with a season-opening one-hour edition of Countdown to Kick-Off.