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In Defense of Nate Hackett

After looking explosive through the first few games, play calling issues in the red zone have brought Syracuse offensive coordinator Nate Hackett under a lot of heat from the fan base.

Mark Konezny-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Season Points Per Game Yards Per Game Plays Per Game
2009 21.2 330.4 64.58
2010 22.2 322.8 62.46
2011 24.2 348.2 67.83
2012 27 487.5 81.5

It's no secret that Syracuse's offense has been far more prolific than at any other point in the Doug Marrone era, but just how stark those improvements have been in just one year's time is even more pronounced with the numbers laid out there. And these numbers include the Minnesota game, which looked more like a 2009-2011 game than a 2012 game on the stat-sheet (10 points, 350 yards, 64 plays).

Syracuse is gaining 40% more yards this year than last on 20% more plays.

Northwestern is ranked 67th in total defense, surrendering 367.5 yards and 18.5 points per game. Syracuse had 596 yards and 41 points, over 55% of the total points that Northwestern has given up this season through four games.

USC is ranked 47th in total defense, allowing 346.5 yards and 17.3 points per game. Syracuse had 455 and 29, respectively.

You can't rule out the Minnesota game, which was a much poorer performance, but based on the "plays per game" statistic, I have reason to believe that this game was the anomaly, and not the three previous games where the Orange averaged 533 yards and 87.3 plays a game. As I mentioned in the roundtable earlier this week, the Minnesota game was a much different environment than Syracuse has played in since switching to this new up tempo offensive system. It was a legitimate road crowd, with a lot of noise and a super-aggressive Gopher defensive line. This is not an excuse for the performance, as the Orange need to be able to succeed in that scenario as any good football team does, but it can provide context for why an offense that had been rolling through three weeks, penalties and mental errors aside, could look so pedestrian.

The Minnesota game, and to a slightly lesser extent the red zone situations in the Stony Brook game, have brought back a ton of criticism on not only Doug Marrone, but also offensive coordinator Nate Hackett, who's performance in 2011 was much maligned.

Nate Hackett deserves all the criticism he's received for the team's issues in the red zone, including the asinine toss play to Jerome Smith that we've all talked about way more than we probably would have liked to. However, it's not fair to do that and then ignore the fact that this offense is substantially better than it has been in the past, and a lot of that is Hackett's doing. After the Northwestern game, I wrote that one of the benefits of having a young coordinator like Hackett is that he's not going to be as stuck in his ways as someone with more experience. The shift in style and pace between 2011 and 2012 shows that Hackett is willing to not only adjust, but radically change how he runs an offense.

All that matters today is the 2012 Syracuse offense. 2011 already happened. Nothing that occurred in 2011 has any bearing on the job Hackett is doing today, because of how different the Orange offense is run this season. Some say that the offense is still built around the same principles and plays, and they're not wrong, but when a team increases the pace to the point where they're running 20% more plays, the whole dynamic and philosophy of the offense is changed.

This season, Nate Hackett should be judged on the 2012 offense. 2011 happened, it wasn't good, and that offense was summarily scrapped.

That being said, Hackett has had major issues in the red zone in the last two weeks. This is undeniable. He has made some very questionable-at-best and at least one absolutely mind-blowing call, and deserves all of the nasty things said about him on the internet for those calls. However, to say he should lose his job while his offense is currently 25th in the nation in yards per game and 4th in passing yards is absurd.

The red zone play calling issue is a legitimate concern, but the nice thing about it is that it's largely separate from any talent issues. I have no doubt that our team was good enough to score points in almost all of those situations. A coaching issue like this can be resolved from week to week, and luckily, the staff has had two full weeks to reevaluate and work on it. I would bet that this has been a major point of focus for the staff since Minnesota.

Through the first two weeks of the season, the team was 11/11 in red zone scoring, with eight of those scores being touchdowns. If they can score touchdowns against Northwestern and USC, I have faith that they will figure it out down the road.

This season is far from over. We're a quarter of the way through, and while we should have another win and could have had two, it's far too early to abandon the 2012 season. Just two weeks ago, at 0-2, people were getting ready for a Big East title run. While I wouldn't bank on SU winning five of the next eight, it could certainly happen. The only team in the Big East that has been absolutely more impressive than we expected coming into the year is Rutgers, and they still struggle to score points. Louisville looks to be about as good as we expected, but they still play some sloppy football. The Big East never makes any sense, and there's a chance we could capture a share of the title as a six win team. Or we could lose out, who knows? One loss at Minnesota doesn't put anything in stone, much like the one win against West Virginia didn't send us to the Orange Bowl last year.

College football can be a fantastically nonsensical game. One of these years, that fact is going to work out in Syracuse's favor. Let's let this thing play out and see where we stand in November before we light the torches and demand coaches get fired, especially ones who have made such great overall strides like Nate Hackett.