We need to stop meeting like this, Syracuse football.
It's fairly inexplicable to me why SU struggles to put away FCS opponents, especially since I've been here. I'm elated that we've never lost to one, but just once I would like to see us go out and dominate a half, rest the starters, and see what our second and third stringers can do. However, that didn't work out, and I'll take the win however we can get it. I guess we wanted to keep it close to make sure our fans hung around this week.
I think that it's fair to say that we've closed the Syracuse fan-favorite debate of "who's been our best quarterback since Donovan McNabb?" Ryan Nassib has completed 49-of-65 passes (75.4%) for 496 yards and 6 TDs, with only one interceptions so far this season. If you throw in his Pinstripe Bowl performance, that's 65-of-86 for 735 yards and 9 TDs and 1 interception. That's still a small sample size, and it's skewed by the fact that there was a nine month layoff between the games vs. Kansas State and Wake Forest, but those are still impressive numbers, and two of the three games have been against BCS competition. Now, Rhode Island is an FCS team, and Ryan was able to feast on them a bit, but he still put up big numbers despite facing a heavy pass rush all game, and the fact that we had no running game to speak of. The offense was all Ryan, and he was very impressive. He made a few overthrows, missing David Stevens for what could have been a TD, or at least a long gain, and the bad throw for the pick, but he was nearly perfect otherwise.
Some will downplay his performance because he was able to dump the ball off to Alec Lemon on the bubble screen at will, but it's not his fault that Rhody refused to defend against that play. We found something that worked, and used it effectively.
In my opinion we have one of the three best quarterbacks in the conference, along with Cincinnati's Zach Collaros and West Virginia's Geno Smith, and at this point I'm not sure if I'd trade Ryan for either of them. He could end up having an All-Big East caliber season, and I've seen nothing to suggest that he won't keep up this caliber of play as long as the offensive line can keep him upright (more on this later...unfortunately).
Antwon Bailey had a rough game, but again, a lot of his issues can be boiled down to the offensive line. One of the new trendy things I've seen across the Syracuse message boards and comment sections since the game is that Bailey doesn't have what it takes to be a featured back. No one in the world has what it takes to be a featured back if their line isn't going to open up the requisite holes to run through. Maybe Delone Carter would've been able to push the pile and get an extra yard or so a carry, but that still wouldn't have added up to a strong running attack. Antwon is fine, he's just the type of back that really needs his offensive line to give him a little bit of room that he can exploit, and on Saturday they failed pretty miserably.
I also think that Antwon would do better if we found more ways to get the ball into his hands. Last season, we saw him utilized as a receiver much more often, but it seems like we've gone away from that so far this season. Maybe we're just not showing our hand this early on, but I'd like to see us get Antwon the ball in space a bit more, especially if running between the tackles continues to be an issue.
He didn't get many touches on Saturday, but I thought that Prince-Tyson Gulley opened up things a little bit. He can be an effective foil for Bailey, and I'd love to see him get more touches.
The wide receivers were the obvious bright spots on Saturday. Van Chew continued his assault on opposing secondaries with 134 yards on 8 receptions, and a touchdown. Alec Lemon, as I noted earlier, was open all day as well, and caught 10 passes for 94 yards, and a touchdown of his own. It's a wonder what being healthy can do, isn't it? I like what I saw from Dorian Graham as well, especially on that key 21 yard first-down catch where he got to show off his speed a bit. I expect to see more of him.
The biggest of all of these bright spots, however, has to be Michael Acchione. Far too often do we think of walk-ons as practice team players who boost the team GPA, and contribute on special teams, or might get into the game otherwise in a blowout. Earlier this summer, Acchione and Thomas Trendowski, two local kids who've been on the team for awhile now, got scholarships. While this was a nice gesture for a lot of reasons, Saturday's game proved to me that it was also indicative of what Marrone thought of their on-the-field performance. Trendowski's seen time on occasion for the last few years, but Acchione never really did. Even on this site, we jokingly wrote that his size probably limits his effectiveness, and that "Marrone might not even know who he is" because of the lack of quotes from Marrone on Michael at that time. I think that after Saturday, we all know who Michael Acchione is.
In a 14-14 game, Marrone sent Acchione out there at wide receiver, and Ryan Nassib trusted him enough to throw him a pretty tough, low pass in the endzone. If Mike doesn't make that catch, Marrone takes most of the heat. All we would hear about is Marrone sending in some walk-on at a key moment in a tie ballgame. However, Marrone had full faith in him, Nassib had full faith in him, and Acchione made the catch that ended up winning us the ball game. There's a reason he's on scholarship now, and it's because he's a damn good player, no matter what size he is, or how often people talk about him.
Nick Provo's been under-performing so far this season. He was pretty productive after his tough drop in the Wake Forest game, but against Rhode Island he was almost silent. He dropped another pass, and only made one catch for four yards. On the other hand, David Stevens continues to be a nice surprise. He put together a solid 3 reception, 31 yard game against the Rams, and could have had an even bigger impact if he was able to make a play on the deep pass along the sideline early on.
Now about that offensive line...that wasn't pretty. Many have been pinning all of the problems on Macky, and while he did struggle, he wasn't the only one. Zach Chibane had a dreadful game, probably his worst one as a starter for SU, and Andrew Tiller wasn't all that great either. The two tackles didn't struggle quite as much as the middle of the line, but no one performed well. Line play is supposed to be one of the things that takes a huge leap from FCS to FBS level football, yet we got absolutely dominated on the inside on offense. It was the main reason that we had no production from the running game, and the pass blocking, while not as bad, was still below par.
I'm holding out on being totally worried about the unit for the season, because we saw them come out in the second half against Wake Forest, who just beat NC State 34-27 on Saturday and I assume has a better defensive line than Rhode Island, and perform well. I'm not sure what the difference was during that half of football compared to the other three pretty miserable halves we've seen, but I hope Marrone and Adkins can figure it out soon, preferably before we go out to Los Angeles.
On the defensive side of things, I think our interior linemen continue to play well. Jay Bromley and Deon Goggins each had solid games, and Eric Crume and Cory Boatman provide solid depth. On the other hand, even taking Chandler Jones' injury into account, I've been underwhelmed by our defensive end play. Torrey Ball has been very solid in relief of Chandler, but Brandon Sharpe and Mikhail Marinovich didn't make very much noise. We really struggle to put any pressure on the quarterback without blitzing, and that may be a problem against better passing attacks, especially the one that USC is going to throw at us this weekend.
I thought the linebackers played very well. Marquis Spruill was solid all game, and then at the end when Scott Shafer really unleashed him, he was a bit reminiscent of Doug Hogue against Rutgers back in 2009. Those two sacks he recorded at the end of the game were awesome. It's been said many times, but he's going to be a special player.
I like what I saw out of the two freshmen, Dyshawn Davis and Cameron Lynch. It's funny, because while they were two of our more highly-touted recruits, they're both very green, and they play the same position, their approaches are quite different. Davis plays very fast, even a bit wild at time. He did a very nice job of getting to the quarterback and disrupting plays in the backfield (he almost had a sack before the URI QB handed the ball off on one play), but he also tends to over-pursue a bit. Lynch, on the other hand, is very composed and plays within himself, and is a very sure tackler. Dan Vaughan's been very good, and should definitely stay in the starting lineup, but I look forward to seeing the two young guys playing at the same time this year.
Along the same lines of what I said about Michael Acchione earlier, let's also recognize walk-on Dom Anene who was forced into action by Davis' injury on Saturday. He played pretty well, and even made a nice hit on the sack he shared with Spruill in the fourth quarter.
The secondary was pretty bad once again. Shamarko continues to be one of our best players, but he's just about the only one who can make a tackle in the defensive backfield. Our corners are playing very soft coverage, despite their size, and we seem to be giving teams a lot of room to run their routes. This, combined with our struggling four-man pass rush, is not a good combination.
I love Phillip Thomas as much as anyone, but he's had a really rough start to the season. He's definitely a little banged up, but he's just been poor in coverage, and rather than making sure tackles, he's still just launching himself at people. Big hits are fun and all, but I much prefer to see them Shamarko style, where he wraps up and makes sure he's going to make the play, than anything that may result in a missed tackle. The two interceptions were nice, but he probably should've just batted the last one down for field position purposes (a moot point because the game was effectively over), and he dropped the other opportunity. I'm not too worried about Phil, he's among our most talented players, but I'd love to see him reel it in a bit.
Shane Raupers punts were pretty ugly on Saturday, but they were effective for the most part. I hope he can get a bit more hangtime under his kicks, or we may see some big returns against us in the future. I like that we took some risks and went for a few fourth downs. Marrone definitely wanted to put the game away early, and while that didn't happen, it's nice to see that the intention was there.
This was a very ugly game, but I'm never going to complain about a win. This is only my fourth season as a Syracuse fan; my first year on the hill was the abomination that was Greg Robinson's swan song season. Through my first two seasons, I only saw seven wins. Last year was great, but I'm not jaded enough to think that all of the damage of the Greg Robinson era has been reversed—we're still a rebuilding program, so we cannot take any game for granted. The novelty of winning football hasn't worn off for me yet, so I'm going to take these ugly performances in stride, and hopefully in a year or two, we can laugh off the notion of only beating an FCS team by seven. That's not where we're at yet, though, so let's accept it and keep moving forward. I still think we're a 6-8 win team, and we're quite young...this team should only get better as the season goes on. Let's stick with them, let's pack the Dome, and let's continue to do what we can as fans to help this program grow.
Next weekend can be a watershed moment for this team. We need to have a little faith. Go Orange.