In conversations while leaving the Dome, and mingling with the SyracuseFan.com folks down at the Fine Lot tailgate (always a good time), and discussing the game at Chuck's well into the night, I kept coming back to one theme:
"That game felt like pretty much every win in 2010."
Our offense was shaky at best, but had a signature drive. Our defense was absolutely lights out. We did just enough to win the game. We beat an opponent that had our number for a long time.
More than anything else, I felt relieved that we had finally gotten the Pittsburgh monkey off our collective back, especially as we head into a new conference with them next year. I've only seen 22 Syracuse football victories since enrolling at SU in 2008. They're still a valuable commodity, at least to me, so I struggle to ever get 'upset' over a victory, whether it's against an FCS team or a one point win over a Big East foe. However, looking back on the game and forward to the rest of the Big East slate, there are causes for concern, especially on the offensive end.
In keeping with the 2010 theme, Ryan Nassib looked more like the sophomore version than the prolific senior of a couple weeks ago. After an excellent first drive, Ryan just looked uncomfortable behind center all night. His throws were errant, he had no real sense of the pass rush, and he wasn't making the best decisions. The one interception he threw was quite poor, and questionable as a play call as the fade has never really been in Ryan's arsenal, but he had two or three other passes that could have easily resulted in turnovers.
Pittsburgh's defensive line is solid, and they got some pressure on Ryan, but I thought the offensive line did a very good job of keeping Ryan's jersey clean. Despite this, Nassib was bailing on plays early and looking for check downs far too quickly. His pocket presence has been much better this year as a whole, but he was all over the place on Friday.
The passing game also suffered due to Pitt's tight man coverage. The Panthers corners deserve a lot of credit - they did an excellent job. I really like our receiving corps, but without Jeremiah Kobena, we lack a speed threat who can beat man coverage. Alec Lemon, Marcus Sales, and Jarrod West have different abilities and strengths, but at the end of the day they all thrive against zone coverage. Chris Clark is a legit speed threat, but he's too small to be very effective against tight man. Pitt always seems to have good cornerback play, so hopefully this ends up being more about their strength at that position than our weakness, but I expect to see a lot more man and less zone going forward.
Jerome Smith looked really good running the ball, and the numbers back that up (61 yards on ten carries), so I'm confused as to why he only got ten total touches. The offensive line was getting a great push, and Smith had some inspired runs. Our passing attack wasn't really doing much against Pitt's secondary. This is a game where Smith should have gotten at least 15-20 touches, especially when we were looking to control the clock as Pitt couldn't overcome our defense.
I love the 'Tank' package, and it's great to see Adonis Ameen-Moore find a niche in this offense. His touchdown and first down conversion on the final drive were two of the biggest one-yard runs that I can remember. An assist needs to go out to guard Rob Trudo, who, on one of the runs on the final drive, pushed an Ameen-Moore-centered pile about six yards forward.
I'm not sure if the coaches think there's a three running back per game limit or something, but I have no idea what happened to Ashton Broyld. I don't like to speculate about things like this, but I have to imagine he had a bad week of practice or was being disciplined, because otherwise there is no good explanation.
Things on the defensive side were far brighter this week. The run defense was stunning, and we got more pressure on the quarterback without a ton of blitzing than any game I can remember since Art Jones' huge game against Notre Dame. The defensive line deserves a ton of credit. Brandon Sharpe's performance has been talked about a lot, and deservedly so. After a disappointing 2011, Sharpe was having a quietly strong 2012 coming into Friday's game, and absolutely exploded against Pitt. He wasn't the only one though. Jay Bromley doesn't have the gaudy four sacks that Sharpe's stat line shows, but he was in the backfield all night. Deon Goggins had a nice game. Markus Pierce Brewster, Zian Jones and Eric Crume all made plays. Sharpe gets the headlines, and his performance was incredible, but the whole defensive line deserves credit for shutting down the best running back in the Big East, Ray Graham, to 57 yards on 24 carries and keeping a ton of pressure on Tino Sunseri.
Dyshawn Davis' fumble return touchdown was obviously a huge moment in this game, and it was great to finally take advantage of another team's turnovers and mistakes, instead of it happening to us. The defense has been pretty solid all year, but we hadn't had a big play from the side of the ball in a while. Friday was full of huge defensive plays.
The defensive backs were a bit of a mixed bag. Keon Lyn did a great job against Mike Shanahan, who had 46 of his 83 yards on the one long pass play where he was wide open due to an all-out blitz by the SU defense. On the other side, Ri'Shard Anderson really struggled with Devin Street, who caught ten passes for 130 yards. Brandon Reddish barely played, but when he did...well, we all saw what happened. That last defensive stand, which knocked Pitt from the 17 yard line where they would've had a fairly easy field goal back to midfield after forcing Sunseri into an intentional grounding penalty (which probably should have been his third), and Reddish's sack on a cornerback blitz. Where in the Northwestern game Shafer became less aggressive in the final drive, he reversed course and really laid the pressure on heavily at the end of the game.
Shamarko Thomas had a very good game as well, and even after leaving early after that bone-jarring hit in the fourth, he led the team with nine total tackles, one of which was for a loss. I was sitting in the 300s directly across the field from where the collision was, and as soon as it happened, the atmosphere in the Dome absolutely dropped. Seeing the reactions of the players on the field from both teams, I was extremely concerned for his health, so seeing him walk off was a great sign. I would be pretty surprised to see him playing this week, but I'm fine with it, as head injuries are nothing to be trifled with.
It was far from a perfect performance, and the fact that the offense hasn't looked good in the last two games is concerning, but this is the first game in many months where our team showed that it knew how to win. We didn't have 500 yards, but we also didn't make any real game-breaking mental mistakes, and at the end of the day, we have another mark in the win column.