Football: Daily Orange editor predicts NU victory in football opener

Josh Walfish, Gameday Editor

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The last time the Wildcats met the Syracuse University Orange in the Carrier Dome, the Orange came out on top thanks to a last-second field goal. The Wildcats went on to finish 8-5 in 2009. This year, the pressure is on the Cats to start off the year well and finally win a bowl game for the first time since 1949.

In preparation for Northwestern’s football opener with Syracuse on Saturday, The Daily spoke with the assistant sports editor for The Daily Orange, Chris Iseman, via email. In return for Iseman’s answers, Gameday editor Josh Walfish gave some insight into the Cats for The Daily Orange.

The Daily Northwestern: What is it going to take for Syracuse to win the Big East in its final year in the conference?

Chris Iseman: Syracuse’s offense needs to become more explosive and less predictable than it has been in recent seasons in order for the Orange to win the Big East. The offense depended on mostly short, deliberate passes from quarterback Ryan Nassib, and the conservative offense never fooled any defenses. Syracuse is going to try to revamp its system, using more zone-read option and quickening the pace on the field. This is Nassib’s third year as a starter, so he should have the experience to be able to pull off a new-look offense. It’s also going to be imperative that Syracuse’s secondary improves after a down year. The unit struggled all of last season, and now has to replace the team’s leading tackler in 2011, safety Philip Thomas. If the secondary can’t bounce back from a rough season, then it’s going to have a very difficult season ahead of it.

The Daily: How big of an impact is the loss of (offensive tackle) Justin Pugh in this game?

Iseman: The loss of Justin Pugh is huge. Syracuse already has to replace the right side of the line after last season’s starters graduated. Pugh’s replacement, Sean Hickey, has never played in a single game while at Syracuse after injuries kept him off the field. While Doug Marrone raves about Hickey’s progress, the task of protecting Ryan Nassib’s blind side now falls to someone making his collegiate debut. Pugh was a 2011 All-Big East First Team left tackle, and Marrone considers him the best in the northeast at his position. Syracuse’s offensive line would be a question mark even with Pugh. Without him, the line takes a huge hit that could be very difficult to make up for.

The Daily: Which Syracuse player will make the biggest impact on Saturday’s game?

Iseman: Alec Lemon returns as Syracuse’s leading receiver and Syracuse’s most dangerous offensive threat. He has a good chemistry with Ryan Nassib that should translate to some solid connections on the field. While he had shoulder surgery in the offseason and had minor nagging injuries in training camp, he’s completely healthy now and the Orange’s performance Saturday will probably depend a lot on how Lemon plays.

The Daily: How has Syracuse improved its ability to stop dual-threat quarterbacks like Kain Colter?

Iseman: Probably the most significant thing Syracuse did was shuffle its linebackers to have Marquis Spruill move to the outside, and Siriki Diabate start in the middle. Dyshawn Davis — who had four sacks last season —returns on the outside. Moving Spruill allowed Syracuse to have its best three linebackers on the field. Also, the Orange brought in a junior college transfer in defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster, who impressed the coaches during training camp and is explosive off the line.

The Daily: What is your prediction for Saturday?

Iseman: I think Syracuse is going to have to struggle to contain Kain Colter, and the offensive line is too much of an enigma for me to say Syracuse has a good chance to win Saturday. I think it’ll be close, but Northwestern takes it. I’ll say Northwestern 24, Syracuse 21.