Syracuse vs. West Virginia Post-mortem

Two things Syracuse should never do again...invite Jim Brown to watch a game and honor Ernie Davis.

Brown has been on hand for two games in the past two seasons...the Penn State shellacking last year and this past weekend's 34-13 pasting at the hands of West Virginia.  Jim's already surly enough, we don't need him to witness any further carnage.

Same for honoring Ernie Davis.  We did so on Saturday and by doing that we ensured that we would get our butts handed to us.  In 2005 when SU unveiled the original Ernie Davis statue, they lost 27-0 to South Florida.  2008 was the aforementioned Penn State de-pantsing on the weekend The Express premiered.  Last week we unveiled Ernie Davis Hall the same day South Florida beat us 34-20.  And now this.

At this point I'm all for thanking Jim Brown and Ernie Davis for everything they've done and never speaking of them again.  Deal?  Deal.

But, that doesn't mean we don't have to deal with the aftermath of this weekend. As the game before it, the pace of this one was defined by an extremely early Greg Paulus interception, the first of many questionable plays on offense for the Orange.  There was just something about this interception, however, that didn't feel right.  Or, worse than usual.  Paulus hooked to his right, possibly trying to look the coverage deep and then turned to his left and floated a ball directly into a miasma of bodies, most of which were wearing white West Virginia jerseys.  It was as if Greg didn't even look.  Or perhaps he felt rushed.  Whatever the reason he just floated it up there, and the operative word is absolutely floated, and with it when the Orange's momentum.

West Virginia got rolling and they got rolling quickly, scoring on this and another early drive to make it 14-0 at the end of the first.  Paulus and the SU offense continued to struggle in the first half, unable to make heads or tales of anything while the Mountaineers tacked on two more touchdowns to make it 27-0 at the half. 

It was deja-vu all over again.

At the half, Greg Paulus 5-of-9 for 30 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.  And those stats probably sound better than reality.  Paulus looked downright scared out there.  Sure, he wasn't getting much protection and the abscence of center Jm McKenzie didn't help matters, but at one point in the 2nd quarter I thought to myself that he looked like a ten-year-old playing with a group of teenagers.  Completely in over his head.  What happened to the guy on pace to break Syracuse single season passing records?

In the second half Doug Marrone decided to go in a different direction and Ryan Nassib came in at quarterback.  Now, the Orange didn't win and Nassib wasn't perfect by any means, but man did he look better than Paulus.

I know, lots of variables at play.  West Virginia took their foot off the gas in the second half, halftime adjustments factored in, etc.  But you can't deny that while Greg Paulus was out-of-control and throwing desperation lobs, Ryan Nassib looked much more comfortable in the pocket.  And his throws!  My God, the difference in arm strength between Nassib and Paulus was undeniable.  Nassib's passes were thrown so hard for the Syracuse receivers that they seemed uncomfortable trying to catch them, as if they weren't used to such precise balls.

Nassib's stats on the day...7-of-16 for 120 yards and two touchdowns.  I know, the completion percentage looks bad but anyone who watched the game will tell you that the Syracuse receivers dropped at least five balls they had no business dropping.  Maybe more.  One player who made sure to keep his eye on the ball was Mike Williams who came up with a beautiful 50-yard touchdown pass from Nassib in the third en route to finishing with 89 yards on four catches. Marcus Sales caught the other Nassib TD pass in the fourth quarter.

Nassib also almost led the team in rushing on the day with 22 yards.  Delone Carter was held to a mere 33 yards and the SU running game, which was basically non-existent in the first half, went away in the second half due to the score.

So before we get to what this means for the Orange as a team, what does this mean for our quarterback situation?  Doug Marrone nipped it in the bud immediately following the game and declared Paulus the starter against Akron in two weeks.  One has to wonder if Doug is making this decision with his head or his heart, especially after explaining how Paulus just didn't seem to be all there in the first half:

"I just didn't feel comfortable with the way that Greg was responding to questions that I was asking him, we were asking him, on the sidelines," Marrone said. "I don't know what the right word is. But I told Greg, he's our quarterback. He will start versus Akron. We will get him settled down in this bye week, which will be good for us."

Marrone said he asked questions of Paulus during the first half such as, "Why would you do this? Why would you do that?" Marrone lit into Paulus on the sidelines after his quarterback was intercepted on Syracuse’s first possession. Paulus tried to feed a slip-screen pass and threw it right to West Virginia backup nose guard Josh Taylor. "It's just not characteristic of what my experience with Greg has been in the past," Marrone said. "Therefore, I felt uncomfortable about the situation and made the switch, knowing that Greg is still our starting quarterback. We'll move on from here."

Infer what you like from that but if I had to guess, I'd say Greg Paulus has to show drastic improvement in the Akron game, or at least return to the caliber of which he was playing before the South Florida game.  He's going to be on a short leash and you just know Ryan Nassib's confidence is through the Dome roof right now.  He's dying to get back in there and I don't blame him.  Fortunately for Paulus, he has a bye week to try and work through his issues.  Unfortunately for Paulus, that's another week of doubting himself and/or listening to others doubt him.

Brent Axe watched Doug Marrone in the post-game presser and came away with the thought that Marrone has a lot invested in Paulus so it's going to take a lot for Greg to ride the pine.

Watch the video of Marrone's press conference. This is a man who sounds like he is fiercely committed to Paulus right now. He expressed confidence that the bye week will cure the ills in Greg's game right now.

Paulus said after the game that he and Marrone have an honest relationship and that he thinks they can fix whatever problem was out there in this game.

At the end of the day, maybe there isn't a quarterback controversy to Doug Marrone.  But there is in the minds of Syracuse fans.  For whatever that's worth.

Last year Syracuse hung tough with the Jarrett Brown-led Mountaineers, almost well-enough to beat them.  This time it was Brown putting on the show and putting SU to bed early with a solid offensive performance.

Brown found eight different receivers with his accurate arm in the first half alone, convincingly countering the Orange’s defensive strategy of containing breakaway threats Noel Devine and Jock Sanders. Devine, the conference’s leader rusher and coming off a 220-yard rushing performance against Colorado, ran for 91 yards on 22 carries. Sanders caught nine passes for 67 yards. Neither had a play cover more than 17 yards.

Brown finished 22-of-30 for 244 yards and a touchdown.

If I told you before the season started that Syracuse would be 2-4 at the midway point, you probably would have said "Yeah, that sounds about right."  So why does it feel disappointing?  Expectations can change things so much and the great expectations that SU fans felt after the Orange started out 2-2 (with the realistic chance to have been 3-1) have made the fall back to reality that much harsher.

Though Marrone may have temporarily contained the notion of a quarterback controversy, the underlying fact remains that Syracuse's offense has suddenly hit a wall. The Greg Paulus experiment, which began with so much promise, appears to be losing its luster.

And with its second straight setback, the team is faced with this unfortunate reality: Syracuse has lost its first two Big East contests and hits the midway point of the season - and its lone bye week - at a disappointing 2-4.

It's easy to forget that we're still extremely rough around the edges, playing for a new coaching staff and new schemes and playing against teams with superior talent.  Not that thinking about those things makes it easier or more acceptable lose like this.  It's just something worth keeping in the back of your mind the next time you start to wonder if this isn't just more of the old.  It's still Year One for The Marrone Era.  Kinks continue to get worked out.

Remember, it's a rejuvenation, not a rebuilding.  And DC Scott Shafer is among those confident the Orange can learn from this game and improve:

"We’ve just got to get back and teach, teach, teach," said Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Schafer. "Keep fighting to become stronger as a team, rely on each other, trust each other and keep fighting to put a good product on the field so the people of Syracuse that come and watch us play, they can say, hey, they’re continuing to get better, they’re continuing to fight hard. At the end of the day, as long we can continue to do that weekly, we’ll make progress."

That said, a loss like this is certainly the kind that cues the crying child.  We haven't seen him cry often this year, but his bitter tears of losing sting just the same.

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