Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: the Syracuse Orange (2-4) (0-2) had a chance to upset the no. 1-ranked Florida State Seminoles (6-0) (4-0) today. That chance didn't last past the first half, but it was there for some fleeting moments until Syracuse's lack of red zone execution simply got in the way. And while Florida State appeared to have the game comfortably in hand for much of the rest of the afternoon, the Orange failed to give up and stayed within a few touchdowns -- a stark improvement over last year's 59-3 bloodbath down in Tallahassee, Fla. last season.
With a brand-new offense directed by Tim Lester, we saw at least glimmers of what Syracuse could've been doing all season and what we'll likely see each Saturday going forward. Lester's play-calling (much more on that come Tuesday) was balanced, aggressive and fun to watch no matter who was under center. Redshirt freshman Austin Wilson started the game off with a high level of energy and execution, trading blows to the FSU defense with Prince-Tyson Gulley and if not for an ill-advised interception in the red zone, could've scored 'Cuse an early lead. True freshman A.J. Long also threw the ball well himself early on -- probably better than most expected, to be honest -- though he also stalled out in the red zone. Note to Syracuse: DO NOT ENTER THE RED ZONE. Only bad things happen there, and if you want to know how the Orange fell out of contention in this one, it's very easy (and fair) to point to a lack of touchdowns on those two early drives. Six points at the half doesn't net you an upset over the nation's top team.
But the red zone offense wasn't the only issue, either. As intimated in this post's title, Florida State's offense pretty much had its way with the Orange defense all game, with 482 total yards and 29 first downs. Jameis Winston was averaging nearly nine yards per pass (went 30-of-36 on the day), while the run game also grabbed real estate in bunches (4.6 yards per rush). FSU did turn the ball over twice (one, a Mario Pender fumble and the other, a special teams gaffe) and two Winston picks were dropped, but the offense was a force to be reckoned with virtually all afternoon.
So we'll jump into some negative things, so we can wrap up on positive thoughts. Because this was a very positive game for Syracuse overall, I think.
The Orange can't tackle on the edge to save their lives, and that was readily apparent throughout the game against FSU's speedy backs and receivers. I don't know how taught these kids how to wrap up, but the entire team may need to go back to the drawing board. The team sorely missed Eric Crume in the middle, as evidenced by the gaping holes in the line and weakened pass rush. Also plenty of foolish penalties on Syracuse, because that's sort of our thing. I wish it wasn't, and I'm sure you do too. While I wouldn't recommend completely ditching SU's blitz-heavy scheme, it becomes clear that it has limited effectiveness against fast teams, as we can't get to QBs as much and our linebackers can't drop back into coverage at all. Just something to evaluate going forward...
But positively: SO many good things to take from this new offense. Minimal bubble screens, and it actually looked like there was blocking downfield when they were thrown. Prince-Tyson Gulley and Ervin Phillips were both used very well in the run game, and the re-commitment to the rushing attack was very welcome to see as it helped balance out this offense a ton. Jarrod West and Adrian Flemming both had their respective moments making some gorgeous catches downfield, but the stars of the offense were A.J. Long and Steve Ishmael, who connected on two exciting, beautiful touchdown passes that should have Orange fans VERY excited for the future with those two. In this offense, Ishamel's best quality -- speed -- seems to be featured heavily, and effectively. Like I said: this was a blast to watch, even with some of the struggles we saw at points. And yes, the new strategy for this offense needs to be stop at the 21, because that worked out pretty well overall.
So Syracuse didn't win on the field, but if there was ever a game to find a moral victory, this may have been the one. A banged-up Orange team with a new OC and two different quarterbacks managed to execute well on offense against the nation's top team. Austin Wilson's late injury doesn't remove him from the quarterback race entirely, but I think it's also safe to say we've found our guy (if not now, then eventually) in Long. And to (somehow) echo ESPN's Matt Millen, you have to commend the SU offensive line for its ability to protect Orange passers today... even if its inability to so also ended up causing that final turnover.
The next week is not about excuses for what could've been, but learning from what happened and applying it to the rest of our schedule. We're 0-4 against the season's toughest stretch, with at least one likely loss (Clemson) remaining on the schedule. So can we go 4-1 against the rest to make a bowl? Maybe not, but this team stands a much better chance of doing so now than it did at this point last week.
On to the next! Play nice in the comment thread, please.