I promised that I wouldn't say anything about moral victories, and I'll stick by that. There is only one 'W' column, and it isn't preceded by an 'M'. That being said, you have to be impressed by how hard Syracuse played this entire game, even when it looked like things could get out of hand, and all cliches aside, legitimately played this game out to the final buzzer.
In TNIAAM's official predictions, Sean and I had the rosiest outlooks for the game, both taking the Trojans with 38-24 victories. The 42-29 final was even closer than that. I doubt anyone who wasn't all in on the upset would have guessed SU would have outgained USC on offense, or been within a touchdown of the No. 2 team in the nation into the fourth quarter. There are a lot of things to be optimistic about.
However, one can't avoid thinking about what could have been. If only Marrone had gone for the 4th & 2, or had taken a chance early on when his offense was knocking on the door at USC's 32 yard line. I don't think either decision cost Syracuse the game by any stretch, but there is no reason to be conservative when losing to a team that holds as much of an athletic advantage as the Trojans. The first quarter punt was baffling because of the field position, but at least the defense held USC afterwards. The 4th & 2 play bothers me much more. Syracuse's offense has done a good job of limiting negative yardage plays thus far this season, and was moving the ball with relative ease against USC the entire second half. There are any number of plays that would've had a very high chance to gain two yards. Handing USC, a team that shrinks the field with its offensive fire power, an extra drive with the ball is never a good idea if you can avoid it.
We're also dreadful on punt coverage, so the last thing that we should be doing is willingly playing punt coverage. As a Mets fan, it baffles me whenever we pull R.A. Dickey from a start where he still has juice left in the tank to put in the team's dreadful bullpen. This was pretty much the same thing.
The two punt calls were the only ones that I remember taking particular umbrage with during the game. I was fine with the early two point conversion attempt to try and cut the lead to three, for the same reasons that 4th and 2 was an obvious time to go for it. In my time watching the football, the aggressive underdog is the underdog with a puncher's chance. Ask ULM fans.
More after the jump...
-Last week, I stated that I was a bit nervous that the offense would regress into the conservative approach we saw in 2011, when tasked with defeating USC. I couldn't be happier that Marrone and Hackett stayed the course here, even through Ryan Nassib's first half struggles. Nassib ended up getting into a rhythm in the second half, and did a great job dissecting USC's defense. One thing I forgot to bring up after Northwestern is how much Ryan's pocket presence has improved. Two years ago he was a mess whenever the pocket collapsed around him; this season Nassib does a great job of finding his check downs or, at least, tucking and gaining some yards.
The touch throws are still a bit of a challenge for Nassib, which is made even worse when he is going head to head against Barkley who makes some beautiful touch passes.
-I like how the running game is progressing. While Prince-Tyson Gulley has been by far the most effective runner, it is important to keep feeding Smith as well to give the defense different looks. I like that Broyld ran with the offense for most of the final touchdown drive, and I really hope that SU can jump all over Stony Brook so that the coaches can explore his potential even more. I wasn't a huge fan of running him in the Wildcat/Stallion/Express/whatever formation in our own territory, but it was nice to see that poke it's head out of the playbook.
-So many drops... Part of the offense's struggles early on were because our receivers not named Marcus Sales just couldn't hold onto the ball. West had a rough start to the game in this category, but to his credit he turned things around and ended up with a really nice performance. He's not very fast, but he showed a few nice moves and was able to make USC's DBs miss on a number of tackles. Sales was great all day. People continue to say that he looks like Pinstripe Bowl Marcus Sales, but I don't think that's accurate. In the bowl, almost all of Sales' production was on a few bombs down the field. Today, he's a complete receiver, and once Alec Lemon is 100%, I think that Sales will be free to go deep a bit more once again. Sales is a bit of an enigma because he doesn't have one superlative skill that blows you away, but he runs great routes and just has a knack for finding himself open.
-Another very solid job by the offensive line, even without Justin Pugh. There isn't much to add here, but this is definitely the best line play Syracuse has gotten since I've been following the team.
-I thought that the defense did about as good of a job as one can expect, considering that the USC offense lines up half a dozen future NFL players at any moment, if not more. The tackling got worse as the game wore on, partially due to the fact that USC stayed on the field for a while, but the Orange were able to shut the Trojans out in the first quarter, and did a solid job through the rest of the game when USC wasn't given a short field.
Syracuse was determined to not get beat deep by Barkley, Woods, and Lee, and USC seemed happy enough to oblige, relying on the ground game and quick screens to compile most of their yardage. When Barkley did attempt to air it out, he wasn't very successful. One of his only real deep throws around the middle of the field I can remember was intercepted by Shamarko Thomas, which really helped throw momentum in Syracuse's direction. Because Syracuse was concerned with not allowing Barkley to torch them deep, they did give up the big reverse plays and a few long runs by Silas Redd, and once Barkley, Woods, and Lee are down near the endzone it is incredibly tough to stop them. All three may end up being Top 10 picks, and you can make a case that Syracuse won't see a pair of receivers like Lee and Woods on one team in years, if not decades.
Honestly, I wasn't nearly as impressed with Barkley as I was watching last year's game on TV. I guess there is the argument that he let the game come to him and was efficient, which is fair, but he didn't make any throws that absolutely 'wowed' me during the game. Having Woods and Lee flanking your offense makes things a whole lot easier.
-The two defensive players that stood out to me most, for polar opposite reasons, were Brandon Reddish and Ri'Shard Anderson. Both had the tall tasks of covering Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and both had their share of struggles, but while Reddish really held his own most of the game, Anderson was constantly picked on. When your cornerback leads the team in tackles with nine, it is a bad sign. Both players gave up touchdowns, but Anderson was completely out of position on more than one. Lee and Woods are going to get their's, but you need to give yourself a chance to make a play. Reddish did, and Anderson struggled mightily. I thought Lyn looked okay, I hope he starts to see more time opposite Reddish.
-Not to disparage Syracuse's effort against a great team, but I don't think that USC will be in the national championship in January based on this game. It is a small sample size, but that defense is incredibly vulnerable, and the PAC-12 looks really strong this season. If they do run the table, I don't look forward to the presumptive match-up with Alabama. The Tide look like an absolute buzz saw this season. In other news, the sky is blue.
-I hate to say it, but I think USC's crowd was a tad bigger than SU's contingent on Saturday. It was very close, and admittedly I couldn't see the area of the second level above where I was sitting (section 128), but my best guess would be 55-45 Trojan fans. The 39k+ attendance wasn't great, but I think the weather probably kept a few thousand away who would've otherwise bought tickets on gameday. As Syracuse continues to improve, and we play teams with bigger local fanbases like Penn State and Notre Dame, I think that attendance will grow for this game. I wouldn't give up on this game yet.
One thing I would love to see is for SU to give season ticket holders an option for a cheap, solid seat to the Metlife Stadium games. Right now, I think there is a legitimate argument that the local fan is being a bit screwed, so why not pander to them? Set up travel/hotel deals, cut them a great rate on tickets, and with an improved team I think that many more will make the trip down.
-The weather was bizarre all day. My group tailgated from about 11 until just after three, and every 15 minutes it was rotating between beautiful, slight drizzle, no rain but gale-force winds, and then all out death-storm. It was a great time, but having to 'man the battle stations' every so often to make sure nothing blows away puts a bit of a damper on things. The halftime delay was very annoying.
-I wouldn't be thrilled to be Stony Brook right now. I know that they just won by 70 against Pace (Pace has football?) and ran for over 500 yards, but Syracuse is going to be very hungry for a win. I would love to finally thrash an FCS team. No better time than the present.