Six games in the books and six to go, and Syracuse stands at 4-2, already comfortable 2/3 of the way to bowl eligibility. With the 38-17 loss to USC being the only game decided by more than a touchdown and already three games going to overtime, it hasn't been easy for the Orange, but they've shown the ability to win the close ones (the Rutgers debacle aside). The encouraging ability to win tight games, though, is dampened somewhat by the fact that some of these wins shouldn't have been close at all.
URI is an underrated FCS squad and came with a good game plan, but still shouldn't have been able to play within two TDs of the Orange. Toldeo gave (admittedly disappointing) Ohio St. a run for its money, and will be strong in the MAC, so I'm not at all disappointed with a 3 point OT win there. Tulane, though, is just a bad team and should have been run out of the Super Dome in the first half. Yet Syracuse, as is their M.O. allowed the Green Wave to hang around and were forced to get the W on a late field goal. I'm not complaining. I'll take W's any which way they come.
I'd just like to see the Orange develop the killer instinct of a elite program and move to put inferior opponents away in demoralizing fashion.
That being said, again, the Orange are 4-2 and have a good chance to go to a bowl game that has neither .com nor the word "beef" in the name. After the jump is my assessment of offense, defense and special teams; how they've looked so far and what they need to improve.
Offense- The first half MVP is unquestionably Ryan Nassib, not just for the offense, but the whole squad. With the D starting the season banged up and inexperienced, Nassib has carried the team. The loss to Rutgers may very well have been the worst game of his career, but that game aside, quarterback has been the bright spot on this team so far. And the numbers back it up: 1108 yds on 66% passing (105/158), 9 TDs and only 4 INT. That's good for third in the Big East in yards and pass TDs and first in completion percentage. At this point, I doubt Nassib will get much Big East first-team consideration due to the presence of one Geno Smith in Morgantown, but there is no understating the role Nassib has played in Syracuse's good start.
Nassib's accomplishments are more impressive when you take into account the fact that his receiving corps hasn't exactly helped him out much. They're a solid group as a whole and have made some great plays here and there, but they're overall too prone to dropping what should be routine balls. Nassib's superb decision-making and accuracy have been able to compensate for this somewhat. The primary shortcoming I see is the lack of a stud reciever, someone who other teams need to game plan specifically for, leaving openings for others. Nick Provo has served as an excellent security blanket for Nassib, but I can't help to wonder what Marcus Sales might have added to this offense. He may have been lazy and undisciplined, but he was a gamer and his raw talent alone may have been enough to give Syracuse a more comfortable margin of victory over lesser teams and maybe tip the scales altogether against conference opponents. I doubt we'll ever find out, though. I think that the passing game would benefit greatly by better use of Dorian Graham. He's been touted as the fastest player on the team, so I'd like to see him used as a deep threat. His longest catch so far has only been 30 yards. Even if he's only a decoy to stretch the field, I think that the Orange could make better use of his speed.
A bit ironically, Nassib's success as a passer is most positively affected by Syracuse's rushing attack. So far, rushes have outnumbered pass attempts 149 to 106, with Antwon Bailey leading the way. Bailey has 442 yards on 100 carries, good for 4th in the Big East and only 60 yards behind second place. Bailey has really been the only runner to speak of, getting 100 of the 149 total carries and has averaged a solid 4.4 yrd/attempt and scored 4 TD. He's had trouble holding on to the ball, though, most notably against Rutgers where he lost a fumble on Syracuse's first offensive play and ended the game on a fumble. Aside from that, though, the run game has been solid. The line is opening up holes for Bailey and FB Adam Harris is clearing the way for him. Ball security needs to be improved and I think that a consistent second back has to emerge if Bailey is going to make it through the season intact, but overall, I have little to complain about there.
Defense- To put it simply, the defense was a shambles to start the season. Last season's leaders were gone and pre-season injuries took down many of the best returning players. Chandler Jones was expected to anchor the D-line, but has yet to play. Shamarko Thomas was being counted on to lead the secondary, but has also missed time. This is the primary reason why Syracuse has been in so many close games; they simply couldn't stop anybody, especially in the intermediate passing game. The Orange have been particularly vulnerable on long 3rd downs, playing soft coverages and giving ground past the opponent's first down marker. Part of this, I think, it the defensive calls as coaches try to take some pressure off of the more inexperienced players. At some point, though, the coaching staff needs to trust its players to make the proper reads on the field and execute the play.
A perfect example is #SHAMARKO. Despite missing several games, he defensed a mid-range pass attempt by Tulane on the Green Wave's first play. Not long after, he sniffed out and disrupted a screen, a play which has really hurt the Orange so far. It's plays like these that will make the Syracuse defense an asset on par with the offense. Others have played well also. Mustachiovich has anchored the line in Chandler Jones' absence, Phillip Thomas and Keon Lyn have make some big plays in an otherwise shaky defensive backfield. I'm most impressed, though, but the linebackers, especially since they were affected most by losses from last season. Marquis Spruill reminds me a lot of former SU great Keith Bulluck and frosh Dyshawn Davis has proven to be a big hitter and to have a nose for the ball with the moster hit and forced fumble against Rutgers and a fumble recovery against Tulane. The most exciting part is that they're both young. As long as they stay healthy, Spruill and Davis could end up being the premier LB pair in the league in a couple years, regardless of if it's in the Big East or ACC.
Special Teams- Special teams has been a sort of feast or famine. On the one hand, Syracuse has a strong tradition of great kickers and punters, which is carried on by Ross Krautman. He's 5th in the NCAA in career FG percentage, which is good. On the other, he's missed a lot of FGs and PATs this season, which is bad. The Rutgers game was an abomination all around, and I'll willing to chalk up the misses and blocks there to the Scarlet Knights seeing something on film and exploiting it. Kicking is 95% mental and I trust a veteran like Krautman to get his head right and be fine the rest of the season. It's up to the guys up front, though, to give him time and space to do his job.
The punting situation has been in flux all season. Raupters is averaging less the 40 yds/punt and has been wholly underwhelming. Jonathan Fisher has been slightly better statistically and has seen a lot more action lately. If he remains consistent, I wouldn't be surprised if it were a permanent change.
Looking at the remaining schedule, I'm on the fence about how I feel Syracuse will perform. 5-1 or 4-2 is very doable. On the other hand, I could see 2-4 also. If the Orange play well, every game is winnable, with WVU, Pitt and USF being the biggest challenges. They'll struggle against Cincy as well if the turnover issues aren't resolved. The remaining two games against mediocre UConn and Louisville squads should be as automatic a W as there can be in FBS. With a bye weak to heal up and prepare, I expect to see the Orange give WVU a tough game in the Dome, though a win might be hoping for a bit too much. Assuming that the abysmal performance against Rutgers is an aberration, the offense has proven that it can put up points. So, if the defense can jell and start to get stops in the first 55 minutes of games, Syracuse will be set up nicely for a good second half run. I'm going to go optimistic with my second half prediction, and say that the Orange go 4-2, with wins over L'Ville, UConn, Cincy and USF while dropping the games against WVU and Pitt. 8-4 should be good for better than the Pinstripe Bowl, but I wouldn't put it past the Doc to lobby for another bid there.