Marqise Lee’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown was one of the highlights of college football’s opening weekend, when the USC Trojans beat Hawaii, 49-10 – but the Syracuse special teams unit probably wasn’t thrilled to see it on SportsCenter.
After all, the Orange had given up an 82-yard punt return for a touchdown earlier that day, not to mention a 53-yard return that set up a Northwestern touchdown, in their 42-41 loss to the Wildcats.
Facing another dynamic returner like Lee is the last thing Syracuse needs as it attempts to end a six-game losing streak dating to last season, when the Orange started 5-2 before dropping its last five games and finishing last in the Big East.
Quarterback Matt Barkley set USC (and Syracuse) records in that game, with five touchdown passes to five different receivers in the 38-17 win.
Last week, it was Syracuse’s experienced quarterback, Ryan Nassib, who was setting records. His 44 completions obliterated the previous single-game completions record (29) and his 470 passing yards was also a Syracuse single-game record.
Nassib threw all four of his touchdowns in the second half as the Orange mounted an unsuccessful comeback, and he did it without leading receiver Alec Lemon, who sat out with a leg injury.
Lemon set a Syracuse record last season with 68 catches, despite battling a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery, but is questionable for this weekend.
In last year’s game, Lemon accounted for both of the Orange’s touchdowns; he had a catch late in the game and also threw a 28-yard touchdown pass.
Without Lemon, Nassib’s primary targets are senior Marcus Sales and sophomore Jeremiah Kobena. Sales was suspended for the 2011 season but was the team’s leading receiver in his return, with 11 catches for 117 yards and a score against the Wildcats.
Although Sales was often way ahead of the ball and had to wait for Nassib’s passes to reach him, Kobena usurped Sales’ role as the team’s top deep threat last week. The Orange’s return specialist as a true freshman last season, Kobena scored twice and averaged nearly 20 yards per catch against Northwestern thanks to a 50-yard reception.
Nassib will test the Trojans’ secondary much more than Hawaii did last week. USC safety Josh Shaw, a Florida transfer, had an interception but Kiffin wasn’t thrilled with the underwhelming performances of cornerbacks Anthony Brown and Brian Bauchum.
Cornerback Torin Harris, who missed most of last year with a shoulder injury and most of fall with a hamstring injury, says he’s finally healthy again, but he might not be much of an upgrade this week because he’s been off the field for an extended period of time.
Syracuse free safety Jeremi Wilkes had an interception against Northwestern, but the secondary gave up several big plays. If the Wildcats burned them for big gains, the Trojans can do even more damage if given the chance.
USC’s Lee, who leads the nation with 282 yards, had a 75-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the opener, but he and junior Robert Woods each missed a few throws that would’ve been big gains. After the game, Barkley said he felt they could’ve put up 100 points.
The bigger concern for the Trojans was the run game: USC’s premier tailbacks – senior Curtis McNeal and Penn State transfer Silas Redd – combined for just 16 carries and 66 yards. Redd had nearly half those on his 31-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
It’ll be up to those two to put the spark in the rushing attack. Sophomore D.J. Morgan, who had 25 yards at the end of the game against Hawaii, will be out of the equation for 3-4 weeks after announcing on Wednesday that he’ll have minor knee surgery.
The Orange’s run game wasn’t explosive in week one, either. Senior Jerome Smith started but had 10 carries for just 34 yards, while sophomore Prince-Tyson Gulley, who missed the majority of last fall with a broken collarbone, had 7 carries for 50 yards and a touchdown.
Both sets of rushers will try to improve those stats this week as they go up against young defensive lines that are still building chemistry and consistency as they head into week two.
The game, which will be nationally televised on ABC, kicks off at 3:30 ET on Saturday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.