As I left the Dome on Saturday, and stepped out from the Gate E overhang into the elements, a single snowflake fell onto my hand and melted. I thought I was seeing things, that my mind was still spinning from the mess of "football" that I had watched transpire during the previous four and a half hours...until someone across the stairs mentioned snow as well. Maybe I was naive for thinking that this Syracuse team could open 5-1, and could contend for a Big East championship and a BCS berth, but like the October 1st snowflakes, I was not the only one who saw that potential. The Orange had the Rutgers game in the palm of its hand for nearly four entire quarters, despite how awful the team had played for most of the game. We were a dropped interception, or an overtime fumble, or a missed field goals, or even, ironically, a botched extra point attempt from winning the game. However, it was not to be on Saturday.
I credit Rutgers for one thing. Both teams played absolutely dreadful football the entire day, at least offensively. Neither went out and proved it was the better team, or that it deserved to win. However, at the end of the day, Rutgers found a distinct advantage on special teams, specifically field goal blocking, and exploited the hell out of it. Rutgers made the plays necessary to come out on top, no matter how ugly it looked, and they escaped with a win.
The field goal issue is very disconcerting, because we have problems on a lot of levels. Our snaps are dreadfully inconsistent; the blocked extra point and the shanked field goals were both largely due to high snaps. When the snap was okay, on the blocked field goal that led to Rutgers' game tying touchdown, our blocking on the edge just failed miserably. Our special teams struggles were not limited to that unit though. The Jeremi Wilkes roughing the kicker penalty, whiled aided by some fine San San Te-esque acting by the Rutgers' punter, was a huge blow, and is something that is easily avoided. We had Shane Raupers back out there, and he punted the ball 25 yards, which is unacceptable. Our kick return unit can't block, which is wasting a lot of Jeremiah Kobena's talent, and I can't remember if Steve Rene has had a chance to return one punt this year.
I know that we want to make sure we can hang on to all of our assistants, and for good reason...I think they're all really good coaches from what I've seen at the practices I've covered over the last two spring camps. However, we need to go out and find a good, if not great, special teams coordinator. We've put the Bob Casullo era behind us, and that's fine, but this offseason I really hope Coach Marrone goes out and gets the best guy available. There is no reason that, with the game that our defense played, that we should have lost that game on Saturday, but it came down to special teams, and Rutgers dominated us in every one of those situations.
On the subject of coaching issues, Nate Hackett's playcalling is a hot topic right now, and for good reason. Many are calling for his head, and I think that is a bit unfair. He's a very young coordinator, and I think we've seen that he is capable of putting together solid gameplans. It just seems to me that he doesn't have a great feel for calling plays in every situation yet. I respect the pound the ball mentality, but the confusing thing to me on Saturday was, if we want to be a power running team, why did we try to get so fancy in the most obvious power situations? The interception in the endzone was the biggest example. I just don't get the call to throw a slant to a true freshman who has no career receptions against tight coverage. Obviously, Foster should make a catch there, but the fact that he was put in that situation is tough for a young, unproven player like that. We ran the ball pretty all day, Bailey had over 100 yards again and is on pace to break 1000 for the season, and our offensive line has been very good in run-blocking since the Rhode Island game. If you are going to throw there, why not look for Provo or Lemon, who have been solid possession guys?
I think Hackett will get better with time, but I am really hoping it is sooner rather than later.
One last coaching point...I wish we had gone for it on fourth & inches in the first overtime. I realize that we converted on the field goal, and we ended up making it to the second overtime, but going into that play, I was really worried, mostly because of how bad our field goal unit had been all game. I had a lot more faith in us getting six-inches on a run, especially since Antwon was running very well in overtime, than us successfully blocking the Rutgers rush, and getting a good snap. They proved me wrong, but I still think it would've been the right move.
More impressions after the jump...
Ryan Nassib had a bad game, but I think he's built up enough slack to where we can retain our faith in him. As mediocre as Rutgers is, most of that is because their offense is dreadful. Their defense is actually pretty decent, and schemed well for us. It seemed like they were afraid of letting Nassib hurt them on roll-outs, where he has been very effective throwing the ball, so they tried to contain him within the pocket, and it worked. Nassib didn't look comfortable at all.
The fumbles not withstanding, Antwon ran really well on Saturday. If we're going to insist on giving Jerome Smith carries, I hope we start to increase that load. Running backs need to get into a rhythm, and that's impossible if they're only getting three carries. Instead of pounding Antwon up the middle to start every drive, let's let Smith get in there and give the defense some different looks. I also look forward to seeing more of Steve Rene, who has been very dynamic in the practices I've seen. I don't think he'll ever get too many carries, but he can definitely be dangerous catching the ball out of the back field on screens, and lining up in the slot.
As for Adonis Ameen-Moore, at this point I just hope we redshirt him. I want four full seasons out of the big guy.
I credit the offensive line, they've really gelled over the last three weeks. We still struggle to get a push in the middle, especially in short yardage situations, but our pass blocking and general run blocking have been a lot better than they were in weeks one and two. Hopefully they continue to progress.
The defense was just awesome all day. We got more pressure on the quarterback than we have all year, especially from the defensive ends. Mikhail had by far his best game of the season, he'd been pretty quiet up to this point. Our linebackers are going to be a special unit for a while. We already know that Dyshawn Davis is a bad, bad man from that hit he laid in the first quarter, but Marquis Spruill, Cam Lynch, and Dan Vaughan have all been very solid all season. Even Dom Anene has done a great job out there when he's been thrust in to action. The unit that impressed me the most on Saturday, however, was the secondary. Holding Sanu to seven catches and 65 yards, and only the one touchdown which was on a blown assignment (he was being covered by Deon Goggins...that isn't good) is a success. Keon Lyn and Ri'Shard Anderson, who have been really banged up all season, were tremendous all day long, and Phil Thomas had another good game, despite the dropped pick, which is probably the only knock you can make against the defense from last week.
It was an ugly loss, but I think the fact that we have Tulane this week is a godsend. Tulane is really, really bad. I hope that this will be a take-two for the Rhode Island game, where we can jump ahead big and get some back-ups some playing time. However, you never know with this team.