Discussing George McDonald's Predictable Play-Calling Against Clemson

Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Was Syracuse's play-calling a bit too predictable against Clemson? We take a look at the numbers to try and spot some trends.

Through five games, no one's all that sold on offensive coordinator George McDonald's play-calling. If you've watched a game this season, you've likely muttered about it. If you were in the game thread on Saturday, you likely saw plenty of folks (myself included) yelling about it. You might also feel like you've been here before.

Obviously, previous OC Nate Hackett turned things around (hi, 17th-best total offense in the nation in 2012!), but despite that, starting from scratch is a tough pill to swallow for fans. Yes, this is McDonald's first time calling plays, but many of us thought he'd have to improve at some point. Is that some point coming? Or is it more of a hope that he'll improve, rather than some assured outcome?

So far, it seems like he's got some tough habits to break. At least when it came to the Clemson game...

Looking just at the plays called (run or pass), here's a look at how the game's 18 drives broke down, separated out by quarter:

First Quarter

Drive 1 (14:22)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pocket Breakdown; Run
Drive 2 (10:39)
1st Down Pass
2nd Down Run
3rd Down Run
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pass
Drive 3 (4:22)
1st Down Pass
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pass
Drive 4 (0:15)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Run

Play-Call Breakdown: 6 called runs, 8 called passes

Second Quarter

Drive 5 (13:10)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pass
1st Down Pocket Breakdown; Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pass
Drive 6 (9:49)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pass (sack)
Drive 7 (7:37)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
Drive 8 (5:48)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pass
Drive 9 (3:44)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Run
3rd Down Run
Drive 10 (0:10)
1st Down Run

Play-Call Breakdown: 8 called runs, 10 called passes

Third Quarter

Drive 11 (15:00)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Run
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass (sack)
3rd Down Run
Drive 12 (11:14)
1st Down Pass
2nd Down Run
3rd Down Run
4th Down Run
1st Down Pass
2nd Down Pass (sack)
3rd Down Pass
Drive 13 (8:45)
1st Down Pocket Breakdown; Run
1st Down Run
1st Down Run
2nd Down Run
3rd Down Pass (sack)
Drive 14 (4:22)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pass
4th Down Fake FG; Run
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Run
Drive 15 (0:40)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Run
3rd Down Pass (Pass Interference)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Pocket Breakdown; Run

Play-Call Breakdown: 18 called runs, 14 called passes

Fourth Quarter

Drive 16 (11:48)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Run
3rd Down Pass
Drive 17 (9:31)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Run
Drive 18 (3:56)
1st Down Run
2nd Down Pass
3rd Down Run
1st Down Run
2nd Down Run
3rd Down Pass
4th Down Pass

Play-Call Breakdown: 8 called runs, 5 called passes

***

Don't feel like digesting all of that (I don't blame you)? Here's a breakdown of some of the trends we can spot from McDonald's play-calling:

  • First play of drive selection: 14 called runs v. 4 called passes
  • First down play selection: 22 called runs v. 6 called passes
  • First down play selection on subsequent sets of downs: 8 called runs v. 2 called passes
  • Second down play selection: 15 called passes v. 9 called runs
  • Third down play selection: 13 called passes v. 8 called runs
  • Second half drives: 6 called runs to start drives v. 2 called passes
  • Overall play-calling: 40 runs v. 37 passes

Now, a couple things jump out to me here, and maybe they jump out to you too. We called a run play on 22(!!!) first downs out of 28. We also started over two-thirds of our drives with a run. And if you weren't apoplectic about what could've been in the third quarter versus the Tigers, take a gander at the run v. pass selection there. Based on the very balanced breakdown overall (40 runs to 37 passes), you'd also think we were locked into a pretty even battle with Clemson. The "vanilla" approach -- outside of that fake field goal, of course -- is at least a little bit concerned, no?

This isn't to come after McDonald with torches and pitchforks, however. He's a stellar recruiter by all accounts, and he's still new to this play-calling business. But he has to turn this around soon, before the season's lost. You can't be this predictable or conservative against an opponent like Clemson and expect to pull off an upset. You also can't be this predictable or conservative and expect to win many games in a league like the ACC. On the top of my list, I'd like to see more varied play-calling next week and more passes to wide receivers as well. But I'm sure there's plenty more we can add to the list.

Spot some other maddening trends? Anything else jump out at you as means for further concern (or a cause to back away from the ledge)? Share your thoughts below.

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