The last five years of Syracuse football has had no shortage of heart-wrenching losses, but never has a game made me feel so upset about how its transpired, yet so optimistic about the future of the team.
Obviously there is a ton to dig into from Saturday's game, so I'll start with the bad, and then work my way back to the positives.
Last season, Philip Thomas' dropped interception against Rutgers, which would have assuredly been a touchdown and put Syracuse up 20-7, was the play that most of us look back to as a primary reason for missing a bowl game. If Syracuse finishes 5-7 again this year, there are about a dozen plays in this Northwestern game that can be pointed to.
-The Orange offense failed to punch it into the endzone on two prime opportunities early in the game, and instead, settled for field goals.
-The Jerome Smith fumble play.
-Jarrod West dropping the two point conversion.
-The bizarre interception that Marcus Sales deflected into the air, which soon resulted in a Northwestern touchdown.
-Ross Krautman's missed 44-yard field goal, which would've been shorter if it had not been preceded by a penalty.
-Either one of the big punt returns.
-Cam Lynch's dropped interception on the final Northwestern touchdown drive.
-The Keon Lyn penalty.
...and there are probably a few that I've missed. If all, or most, of these things swing Syracuse's way, the Orange rout the Wildcats by about 20 points - and after watching that game, I have no doubt that Syracuse is two or three touchdowns better than Northwestern, and Northwestern's a decent team - but SU found a way to shoot itself in the foot in a disturbing number of ways. Aside from all of the issues listed above, the repeated penalties and lack of discipline. I'm still solidly in the pro-Marrone camp, and I think he'll end up winning many fans back by the end of the year, but questioning why a program that prides itself on discipline has so little on the field is very fair.
Some of the penalties were false starts and offsides calls, which as a former lineman, I can let slip once in a while, especially with the pace that both teams were playing with. It is the illegal substitution penalties, the 12-men on the field penalties, and the illegal formation penalties that are inexcusable.
And the special teams. Oh boy. In a previous post, where someone asked what I thought the team needed to do to return to a bowl, I said "be less atrocious on special teams." I figured that with Marrone taking the reins of this unit, they would at least improve to mediocrity, but apparently not. It is probably a bit more fair to specifically call the coverage teams, as the kicking game was solid outside of Krautman's one miss. I understand that Venric Mark is extremely dangerous, but when Jonathan Fisher hits booming punts, there's no excuse, those plays have to be made.
Anyway, let's lighten things up after the jump...So Syracuse handed the game to Northwestern, and that's awful, but Saturday's game has left me incredibly optimistic about how the rest of the season should turn out, especially if we can figure out special teams one day.
Northwestern is projected to be a solid Big Ten team, and should have no problem doing the Northwestern thing where they win 6-8 games and lose in a bowl. I feel like this is their M.O. every season. As I said above, I feel that SU was at least two touchdowns better than Northwestern. SU outgained NU 596-337 on offense, and Syracuse's defense only gave up 28 of the 42 points that Northwestern scored, and two of Northwestern's scoring drives, the two that extended their lead to 21-13, were on 21 and 28 yard drives. When put in a decent situation, Syracuse's defense gave up two normal-length drives.
Against a team that has a dynamic playmaker at quarterback in Kain Colter and one of the deepest receiving corps in the Big Ten, I'll take that defensive performance any day. My one complaint is on the last drive, Shafer went into soft coverage prevent mode, which never seems to work out for Syracuse. I would have loved to see Syracuse continue to put on as much pressure as possible and play tight on the receivers.
On individual performances:
-As much as I got on the coaches for the special teams and penalty issues above, Marrone and Hackett deserve a ton of praise for what we saw from the offense. You're a sneaky one, Mr. Hackett. You say that the offense isn't changing much, and then you run a simplified spread option for an entire game. Very sneaky.
This is one of the advantages of having a young offensive coordinator, he's not going to be set in his ways. Obviously last year's offense didn't work, so Hackett went back to the drawing board, and went from Brian Schottenheimer to Rich Rodriguez over the course of one offseason...at least for this game. Hackett called an excellent game, and I hope this is offense stays the same all season, even if USC's defense stalls SU and the Orange lose by 50. The Big East isn't very strong (hi Pitt!), there's no reason that Syracuse can't win four or five games in conference with an offense doing what it did on Saturday. A pro style is just not going to get the same production without Alabama's athletes.
-I don't have much to add about Ryan Nassib's performance. 470 yards throwing is absolutely phenomenal. Two years ago, the offense was Delone Carter's, and Syracuse shaped the gameplan around controlling the ball and letting Delone do his thing. Last season, the staff tried to make it Antwon Bailey's, but forced him into the same role as Delone, and he wasn't meant for that type of power running, and it didn't work very well. This year, it's Ryan Nassib's offense, and after the first game, that is indisputable. Now, I don't expect Ryan to throw the ball 60+ times every week, Northwestern's putrid secondary was probably a major reason for that. However, we're going to be throwing the ball around the Dome all season. Put on your seat belts, kids.
-If the Syracuse offense is really going to be as spread out as we saw Saturday, it will be interesting to see what Smith's role in it is, because Prince-Tyson Gulley is a far more appropriate back for that style. Also, him not jumping on that ball, even if it wasn't live, is inexcusable. Treating an incomplete pass in the backfield as a fumble is football 101. I'm sure he's been hearing about it all weekend.
-I love the way Gulley ran the ball. It looks like he's retained a lot of the explosion that he flashed in previous years, before falling to injuries.
-Welcome home, Mr. Sales! Marcus had a very solid 11 reception, 117 yard, one touchdown performance, and he could've even bolstered those numbers if he hung on to some other passes.
-I'm really excited to see what Alec Lemon can do in this spread. The short, quick paced offense seems like it was designed for him as a receiver. He and Sales should be an incredible combination this year.
-One of the major complaints about Marrone's tenure is that we hadn't gotten much out of his skill position recruits on offense. This year seems to be changing that. Gulley, Smith, Jarrod West, Jeremiah Kobena, Chris Clark, Ashton Broyld and Beckett Wales all played fairly significant roles today, and are all Marrone-era recruits. The emergence of Kobena is especially exciting because of his game breaking speed. Chris Clark had a bit of a mixed game, but made an excellent play on his touchdown catch...quite impressive for someone who is new to the sport. I'd love to see some more plays ran to get him into space.
-It was awesome to see Carl Cutler out there playing well. He's gone through a ton during his SU career, so to see him make back to back first down catches on an incredibly important drive for Syracuse was pretty special.
-Despite the absence of Justin Pugh, and a brief stint where Macky MacPherson was off the field due to the heat-issues that befell half of the Dome (it was HOT, you guys), this was one of the better offensive line performances in recent years. Sean Hickey played an excellent game, Macky had probably the best game of his career, and even the back-up guys like Rob Trudo and Andy Phillips who were worked in looked competent. The only person who struggled fairly often was Lou Alexander, who had a few false starts early on, and struggled when Northwestern brought the overload blitz on his side towards the end.
-I thought the defensive line played very well, although their effectiveness in the pass rush dipped a bit when SU moved to the three-man front to counteract Northwestern's spread. Markus Pierce-Brewster looks like a total keeper, it was great to see him play so well in his first division one game. Deon Goggins made some big plays as well, I always love seeing the train whistle sack dance.
-The linebackers all played very well against the run. Spruill was all over the field, recording eight tackles (two for a loss) and a sack. Cam Lynch and Siriki Diabate also both looked very active. However, their must have been some miscommunications within the defense because two of Northwestern's touchdowns, including the last one, came with wide receivers matched up on Dan Vaughan and Dyshawn Davis respectively.
-Brandon Reddish was one of the best players on the field yesterday. The play where his helmet popped off came at the worst time possible, as it was during the last drive. The mind-boggling thing is that he never returned. He missed the requisite play following his helmet coming off, but the fact that no one subbed him back in doesn't make any sense, and is worse when you consider that Dyshawn Davis ended up covering the receiver who hauled in the game winning touchdown.
-Durell Eskridge is going to be a big time player. He had a #SHAMARKOian game, with nine total tackles from the safety spot. He was caught out of position a few times, and wiffed on a few tackles trying to make big hits, but once he has it all together he is an All-Conference type of talent.
-Speaking of Shamarko, he was a bit quiet, although he did have a huge hit that forced a fumble.
-On the Keon Lyn play: Yes, the call was iffy at best. However, Keon has to keep himself out of that situation. You just cannot make a play in that position where the ref can make a call like that, especially on a quarterback who appears to be giving himself up. This isn't the first time Keon's made detrimental a personal foul; hopefully he bucks that trend.
-It was very refreshing to see Syracuse kick the ball with some power. Jonathan Fisher crushed the ball all day, and Ryan Norton's proving that he is absolutely worth the scholarship on kickoffs.
The way Syracuse lost this game was brutal, but the game was nothing if not entertaining (although I could have done with the many heat-cramp-related stoppages, and the heat in general), and I had a great time at the tailgate with my fellow TNIAAMers. Thanks to everyone who came out, even Pinker, despite his best attempt to burn my leg off via scalding bacon grease. He more than made up for it with his grill-wizardry all day long.
If anyone is coming down to Metlife Stadium next weekend, and I hope you all do, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter and stop by for some pregame festivities.