Last year's 49-23 beat down of West Virginia didn't feel like any Syracuse football game that I had been a part of before it. It was a completely transcendent experience. Even as the dust settled, and we all had visions of Orange Bowls dancing in our heads, it was hard to believe that a team who had just coughed up a game to a mediocre Rutgers team and struggled with a bad Tulane squad was that good.
This year's 40-10 shellacking of UConn didn't feel transcendent. It didn't feel, to me, out of place. Granted, 2012 UConn is a far inferior team to 2011 West Virginia, but nothing that occurred on Friday night in the Carrier Dome seemed like a fluke. UConn came in as a very weak opponent, and Syracuse did what a good team at home should do, it won going away. In fact, if not for some patented Orange futility in the red zone early on, SU's score could have been in the 50s. It didn't feel like something magical was taking place, it just felt like the team was finally playing up to its potential. Admittedly, that potential was far too much for a very poor UConn squad this season.
At SU, Paul Pasqualoni used to aim for 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing. He must have been thrilled at the balance that the Orange displayed on the field on Friday, as they racked up exactly 251 yards in each category. While the 400 yard passing games early in the year were fun, I think that this offense runs better with this type of balanced attack. Credit Nate Hackett for coming up with an ingenious gameplan to help open opportunities against what is normally a formidable Husky defense. Syracuse spent a lot of time in four receiver sets that spread the field, and forced the Huskies to replace their front seven playmakers with defensive backs, and then pounded Jerome Smith up the middle. Smith finished 137 yards on 19 carries, for a gaudy seven yards per carry. When the Huskies adjusted to stop Smith by playing a base defensive front, Ryan Nassib and Alec Lemon absolutely abused the match-up problems that this created down the field.
I tweeted about it a number of times during the game because it fascinates me, but through four years and two different Husky coaching staffs, Lemon just owned UConn during his career. In 2009, a freshman Lemon caught nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in a 56-31 shootout loss in East Hartford. Lemon was banged up for much of the 2010 season, and only caught one ball for 12 yards in limited action against UConn at the Dome, but returned to form in last year's match-up at Rentschler Field with nine more receptions for 157 yards and another touchdown. On Friday, Lemon capped a career of victimizing UConn with eight catches for 166 yards and a touchdown in his first win over the Huskies. 27 catches, 475 yards, three touchdowns in what basically amounted to three games.
Nassib has put up prettier stat-lines in previous games, but probably none as efficient as this game. He finished the game completing 14-of-20 passes for 251 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions or grievous mistakes.
Our offensive line may have played the best all-around game that I can remember. There have been games where Nassib's protection has probably been slightly better, though he wasn't sacked once against UConn, but the holes that Jerome Smith and company were running through were massive. Macky MacPherson deserves a ton of credit for two of the most heads-up plays of the game that could have really swung the momentum had UConn taken advantage. He made a great effort to bat down a deflected Ryan Nassib pass that was ripe for an interception, and a few plays later grabbed a live ball and gained five yards. Nassib hit Lemon for 41 yards on the next play, which set up the touchdown pass to Beckett Wales which really broke the game open at 20-10.
Ashton Broyld's fourth quarter was also nice to see. Time will tell if he's helping his case for more playing time in meaningful game situations, but he definitely didn't hurt it.
I'm not sure what more to say about the defense that hasn't been said already this weekend, or over the last two weeks. The unit that Scott Shafer ran out in 2010 was awesome...but this defense might be even better. UConn was lucky that Chandler Whitmer only got sacked twice, and a lot of that was a credit to him getting the ball away, because Shafer had the Tom Savage special going from the start. The front seven spent all day in the UConn backfield, tallying eight tackles for loss. Lyle McCombs was the second leading rusher in the Big East last year, and the leading rusher in conference games, and he was held to fewer yards than Macky MacPherson accumulated on a fumble recovery. In past losses, the turnover margin had been a killer. Today, the Orange protected the football and were opportunistic on the other side, forcing a number of Husky turnovers.
Hey, we have passable special teams. Or, at least we did on Friday. The most important development was the re-emergence of Ross Krautman, who was 4-4 on field goals including two from 40+ yards. While some could have argued for going for it in a few of those situations, I was glad that we allowed Ross to kick, as the longer field goals should improve his confidence. Ross had been struggling mightily this year; if he continues to return to his All-American form from 2010, we're in good shape.
Ryan Norton has been an unsung hero for SU all season so far. Earlier in the year, I was fine with the "kick the ball to the goal line" strategy, and our kickoff coverage has been decent this season, but I'm also perfectly content with Norton booting the ball through the back of the endzone and giving other teams the ball at the 25 every time.
Obviously not every game will turn out like this one, as UConn might be the worst team on our schedule, but this performance proved that Syracuse can put it all together. The Orange need to finish up 3-2, with the logical path being wins at South Florida (this weekend) and Temple, and stealing one from Louisville, Cincinnati, and Missouri. We'll be an underdog in each of those three, but none of them particularly scare me, especially with Cincinnati finally showing a chink in the armor this year. A bowl is still the goal, and I'm still very optimistic that Doug Marrone and company can pull it out.