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Syracuse's loss to Rutgers over the weekend was just the latest in a long line of devastating, self-inflicted losses by the Orange.
I feel like I owe you all an apology.
I made the trip to the Carrier Dome for the Northwestern and Pittsburgh games, and was present at the Meadowlands for "New York's College Moral Victory" against USC. I watched the Stony Brook game live on TV.
During the Minnesota game, I was at a concert and had no way to watch a replay of the game, as I do not get Big Ten Network.
During the Rutgers game, one I was originally supposed to attend on behalf of this fine blog, my new job got in the way and I had to work during the game. While I was somehow able to avoid almost all updates, and saw it a few hours later on DVR, it was clearly not the same.
This game is on me; I have to do a better job. I have to put myself in a position to succeed in watching future Syracuse football games live. I promise that from this point forward, I will do better. Because this has an impact, you guys.
I'm almost completely convinced that Syracuse football is stuck in the twilight zone. As a team, the Orange are outgaining their opponents by an average of 110 yards per game. The only team to out-gain SU is Pittsburgh, who, as you remember, we beat. Obviously, yards don't mean much when they don't lead to points, but when you drive more than an entire-field length more than your opponent, and lose four-out-of-six times, there's something strange going on.
Some want to blame the coaches, others say the players need to execute. In reality, both are right. On a play-by-play level, at no point does Doug Marrone or Nate Hackett tell Ryan Nassib to throw into triple coverage or Steven Rene to fumble a punt. Players are responsible for the physical and mental mistakes made on the field. However, this has become such a disturbing trend not just this year, but throughout Marrone's tenure, that something needs to be done. The scary part is, you really can't just point at one thing. If the only issue was Nassib's interceptions or fumbles or penalties, that could probably be fixed. Even the special teams had seemed to be improved coming into this game, where things fell apart again. This team has such a deep, randomly occurring set of issues, that I really don't have an answer as to what the staff can do to fix them all and put together a flawless gameplan. That's their job, and as much as I hate to admit it, if they don't figure it out fast, the seats will start to warm.
If you're an NFL scout and want to see the entire spectrum of Ryan Nassib's play at quarterback, this was the game for you. He made some really nice throws that required his patented zip. Other throws were unnecessarily hard and summarily dropped. He read the pocket well and ran for a big first down on one play, and got nervous and watched plays collapse on him on another. He fumbled. He threw two really bad interceptions, and could have easily had three. He compiled a ton of yards, but not a ton of points. Overall, you can't say Ryan had a good game, because he didn't, but much like the rest of the team, he shows enough to keep you hopeful into the fourth quarter and then just rips your heart out, Temple of Doom-style.
The wide receivers didn't really help his case. We've talked about it ad nauseum, it is hard to catch the dialed up four seam fastball every throw, but all of our top receivers dropped passes in big spots. Marcus Sales failed to make one catch where he could've had a race to the endzone, and on the über-confusing pass-pass-tank-pass-fail drive inside the Rutgers five yardline, Alec Lemon could've probably made a play on two separate passes in the endzone, although to their credit, Rutgers had very good coverage. That series of plays was really poor play calling, and Marrone admitted as much after the game. If you're going to run tank, you have to do it early in a set of downs. On third down, everyone knows what's coming, so it's that much easier to sell out and stop it. Also, I really hope we build in some kind pass-wrinkle in this package. Just a simple play-action roll-out with a dump off to the tight end would create enough of a threat that teams would have to be prepared to clear out at least one of the defenders that currently stacks the line. On the bright side, it was nice to see David Stevens make an impact. He caught everything thrown to him, and finished with five receptions for 60 yards. We heard a lot about Stevens' breakout during the summer, and we haven't had a big threat at tight end to this point in the season. It will be good to have Stevens as a safety net for Nassib going forward.
Sean touched on this in his post-game post, but our utilization of the top two backs is strange. In the first two weeks, Prince-Tyson Gulley ran the ball way better than Jerome Smith, yet we kept running Smith. Since then, Smith has supplanted Gulley as the top back, but we go entire sets of downs with Gulley in the game, and then try to run him between the tackles. Gulley really should be reserved for off-tackle runs, sweeps, and passes in order to optimize his effectiveness. Meanwhile, Smith is no Delone Carter, but he's a bruising back in his own right, and those runners get better as the game goes along. When he's picking up six or so yards a carry, as he was in the Pitt game and part of the Rutgers game, he should be getting 20 touches. We may be a pass-oriented team, but if we can pound the ball at will it will open up plays over the top for Sales, Chris Clark, and others, and it really galvanizes the offensive line.
As disappointing as this outcome was, you have to give the defense a round of applause for their play in the last two weeks. Rutgers had one drive of longer than 45-yards - the 93 yard scoring drive early in the game. After that, Rutgers put together a 45-yard field goal drive off of Nassib's lost fumble, a short 14-yard touchdown drive from the Rene fumble, and the blocked kick for a touchdown which is not on the defense. Rutgers has some talent on offense, especially in the form of Brandon Coleman who you may remember came down to Rutgers, Maryland, and Syracuse in his recruitment, but the defense is the sole reason that Syracuse could even entertain the possibility of being in the game in the fourth quarter.
The defensive line wasn't as dominant as it was against Pitt, failing to record a sack against Rutgers, but they spent plenty of time in the backfield. SU had nine tackles for loss in the game. Deon Goggins and Jay Bromley combined for twenty tackles, two for losses, Markus-Pierce Brewster had six tackles and one for a loss, and Brandon Sharpe had another productive game with four tackles, one in the backfield.
Shamarko Thomas put together one of the most gutsy performances I can remember, with last week's brutal hit fresh in my mind. He was awarded six tackles, and it seems like he was in on even more. I also want to give a lot of credit to Ri'Shard Anderson, who's been a bit of a whipping boy to this point. I said in an earlier game recap that it was disconcerting to see a corner make nine tackles because that means he was likely picked on through the air. Well, Anderson is nowhere to be found in the box score, and that's a good thing. He was placed against the very talented Mark Harrison for almost all of the game, and Harrison had a grand total of one catch for 17 yards. Good on you, Ri'Shard.
That's where the bright spots end in this one, really. Can we just skip special teams all together? Saturday was a combination of bad execution but also really bad game-planning by the coaching staff here. Ross Krautman had no business taking that first kick. His career long is 48 yards, and I'd be much more comfortable with him testing that number in a controlled environment like the Dome. On the second field goal, Krautman is a bit accountable because the kick was really low, but the block is more on the coaching staff. Jamal Merrell is the same player who blocked the kick against Syracuse last year, and after the game, said he knew he could get to Krautman because they were using the same blocking schemes that they had previously. In his presser, Marrone said that the team schemed to defend against a different Rutgers player on the blocked kick. Rutgers already makes a ton of plays on special teams, why compound things by not accounting for the player who you know can make a play against your protection? This is after the third downs before each kick were virtually conceded by the staff.
At the end of the day, talent isn't the issue, we had very similar talent to Rutgers, and our defense showed up the vaunted unit that they roll out there, in my opinion. Offensive scheme isn't the issue in my opinion, at least between the 20s. We move the ball about as well as any team in the country, and I still have faith that it will translate into points. The players need to execute, and the coaches need to find out what the root of the constant, mind-boggling mistakes we make is. There is no reason that, on paper, the Orange can't win four of the last six games on the schedule, it is just a matter of the team overcoming itself to do so.