Despite our two straight losses, there were reasons to be optimistic about Friday night's game against USF. We were reeling, but USF still hadn't won in the Big East. We had been inconsistent, but BJ Daniels was the model of inconsistency in the conference. While we were relatively healthy, USF had injury concerns.
And yet, none of this seemed to matter. USF came into the Dome and rolled our beloved Orange.
As we continue to slip into mediocrity, there are less and less specifics I want to address with every game. There are some recurring issues that we've seen over and over during this three game debacle, and they are very disconcerting to me.
We need to do something about the first quarter play calling. I haven't been as hard on Nate Hackett as many have because I think he's done some good things. Unfortunately, we don't seem to be doing so until we're already down by a score or two. For three straight games, we've come out and tried to pound Antwon Bailey up the middle over and over again. For three straight games, we've wasted early possessions and have faced early deficits.
I have no issue with establishing the run game, but we don't need to do it by being as predictable as humanly possible. I'd love to see us come out against Cincinnati and let Ryan Nassib control the game. Open up with the Alec Lemon slants and Nick Provo routes to the sideline that have netted us so many of our yards. Show the defense that they can't just stack the box against us. Right now, everyone in the country knows we're going to feed Bailey up the middle ad nauseum until the score says we need to start throwing, and that just isn't an effective strategy. Let's go no huddle early, and take our chances through the air. If we fail? We were failing with by running up the gut anyway.
I like Bailey as a back, but he's just not going to be effective against stacked boxes. Nassib just had a very good game after a pretty good second half against UConn. We've been most successful on offense when he's the focal point. Hackett had done a decent job calling plays, but it has been after we've fallen behind. I just want us to move that strategy to the first drive, and the first quarter, and see what happens.
The other thing that has been highly disturbing is our lack of discipline. We all know it is something that Marrone-coached teams are supposed to pride themselves on, but the last three games have just been rife with personal fouls, penalties, blown assignments, and overall sloppy play. The personal foul issue it the most inexcusable. It killed us in the Louisville game, and these issues have continued against UConn and USF.
Last year, and earlier this season when we were pulling out games late every week, our team buckled down and kept its cool, and made the plays necessary to win games. Over the last three games, we've been out of control. Too many penalties, too many missed tackles, too many receivers running rampant on our secondary.
Special teams continues to be awful. I don't blame Ross Krautman- he has been injured and probably shouldn't be playing. We can't have Jonathan Fisher shanking punts every game. Everyone is going to have the occasional 11-yard punt, but Fisher has had a shank or two in just about every game. Word is that the newest Orangeman, futballer-turned-footballer Dan Summers, has a really strong leg. Hopefully we can coach him up quick enough for him to do kickoffs for us in the last few games, because kicking out of bounds or to the 20 yard line isn't cutting it.
The last one has to be the dropped passes. Three drops in the endzone? It is really unacceptable. Dorian Graham, who's hands looked to be completely reformed earlier in the year, had a bad drop against UConn and about four against USF. David Stevens dropped a wide open touchdown. Alec Lemon had a great game, but he also had a drop in the endzone. These drops have derailed drives, taken points off the board, and forces the defense to rush back onto the field.
If not for dropped passes, we may have pulled out a win against USF.
Lest I make this post completely depressing, we have seen some decent things over the last few games. As I said earlier, I thought Nassib played a very good game on Friday after shaky games against Louisville and UConn (for the first half). This can be attributed to the emergence of Nick Provo, who is one of eight finalists for the John Mackey Award, and Alec Lemon who has put up ridiculous numbers over the last few games. Lemon has just been shredding teams in the slot, and is now the first SU player in history to have back-to-back 150 yard receiving games. Teams are now going to have to choose whether or not to focus on him or Provo. If we can get Van Chew back in a rhythm, this offense can be dangerous once again.
As a final note, how bad were the refs down the stretch? I wasn't sure about the call on the play where Lemon dove for a catch and they determined that the ball hit the ground, so I didn't complain much about that. But on other plays Beckett Wales was completely arm-barred on a play where Nassib threw him the ball. On another play, Lemon was undercut in the corner of the endzone on a great pass by Nassib, way before the ball reached him. We didn't lose the game due to bad officiating, but man...it didn't help.
As we know, Doug Marrone just doesn't lose after bye weeks. Also, Zach Collaros is out for the rest of the regular season, so Syracuse is going to have a case of the Munchies. Hopefully we can take advantage, and the Orange can gobble up a bowl berth. Otherwise, it is going to be a really interesting trip to Heinz Field in December.