Welcome to the Syracuse football roundtable! Things feel different around here, though this week will tell us whether or not that's truly good or bad. New coordinators, new quarterbacks, new injuries (ughhh) abound as the Orange enter the second half of the 2014 season at a disappointing (for now) 2-4. Which is where Wake Forest comes in...
As is and will be the norm all season, we've opened the floor to the TNIAAM football wing to discuss this week's burning questions about Syracuse on- and off-the-field, the ACC and more. Join us below:
Have things ever seemed this positive around Syracuse football following an 18-point loss?
Michael Burke: Probably not. But it makes perfect sense, right? The Orange were supposed to lose by far more than 18 points to Florida State. I don’t believe in moral victories, but I was very encouraged by what I saw on Saturday. And we just might have found our quarterback of the future in AJ Long. So there’s plenty of reason for good vibes right now.
Ben Norowski: Definitely not. This was a true moral victory if I've ever seen one. The offense was much better than expected (which is really a huge indictment against McDonald) and AJ Long proved a lot of people wrong. The defense played as well as can be expected against a Heisman winner and much more gifted athletes and if they just made a few more plays it would have been an even closer game.
The Invisible Swordsman: It's such a bizzaro world that we SU football fans live in, isn't it? We steal an OT win and I'm beyond despondent. A month later, and many of us are satisfied with an 18-point loss. I think our satisfaction isn't so much that we lost, but rather that we showed that we do have an effective offense when we choose to move the ball north/south rather than east/west. I also think we appreciated the fact that HCSS and Co. just went for it, and at times throughout the game stayed with the defending National Champions. A moral victory may not have been what Shafer wants, but the fans will take it!
Matt McClusky: It's weird, right? Even the most cynical of Syracuse fans seems to be taking that loss in stride. Which is funny, because statistically the game was pretty ugly. And at no point did I think Florida State was in any real danger. But with so much change thrown at this group in just a few days, the effort and the coaching was admirable. If A.J. Long progresses, if Steve Ishmael becomes a weapon with Ashton Broyld, and the defense continues to hammer opponent's running backs, and...well, there could still be six wins in 2014.
Dan Lyons: The last time I can remember a fairly decisive loss feeling "okay" like this was maybe USC at MetLife? That game was a bit closer than this one, but it was another game against a top ranked opponent where Syracuse looked like it belonged on the same field as the powerhouse (or, what we thought was a powerhouse at the time). Eventually that SU team wound up fulfilling its potential by the end of the year. This one has a much rockier road ahead of it, but hopefully a decent performance against the Seminoles leads to a similar mid-season turnaround.
Sean Keeley: I can't say I remember too many moral victory losses that I felt this good about. During the GERG years, we only felt good when we actually won. There were no good losses. I think going into this game not expecting to win was good for us, though. We got to see that the team has the tools to be competitive and still make it to 6-6, even if that road is extremely tough.
John Cassillo: I was going to say no, and then Dan reminded me of the USC game from a few years back. But that game didn't have the same undercurrent of change that the loss to Florida State had, which is (mostly) why we are so positive about it. The main issues fans had with the McDonald/Hunt offense going in was that it didn't run the ball enough, relied almost entirely on big plays for yardage, had a terrible passing game and the play-calling was deplorable. In one way or another, all of those issues were at least improved upon vs. FSU, hence the positive outlook.
Who are you going with as Syracuse's starting quarterback against Wake Forest? (Ed Note: Question asked before Long was named starter)
MB: AJ Long. No question. He looked better in one game than Terrel Hunt had looked all season. Syracuse has to find out if Long can be THE guy, something that, from what we’ve seen so far, Austin Wilson clearly isn’t. Plus, I flat out think Long gives the Orange the better chance to win.
BN: Has to be AJ Long. With the injury to Austin Wilson there really isn't another choice here, but even if Wilson didn't get injured, you can't go away from the hot hand. AJ's throwing ability on the run is excellent. He also wasn't content with that performance and said he has a lot to learn so it will be very interesting to see what he does against a much weaker opponent in Wake Forest.
TIS: AJ Long. He gave us the best performance by a QB all season, and to me earned a chance to start against a Wake Forest team that should struggle against his dual-threat capabilities.
MM: I think Austin Wilson's dealing with a possible concussion likely settles this question. But if if Wilson is healthy on Saturday, there's still no reason to start him over Long. I'm not opposed to continuing the two-quarterback system, but why not let Long start and have some more time earlier? He proved himself worthy of the time last weekend.
DL: Well, we now know it is A.J. Long, and that makes perfect sense to me. When we learned that Long would play against FSU, I believed that it meant the coaches thought he would wind up winning the job. While I didn't think that would be decided so quickly, unfortunately via injury, I feel pretty good about Long going forward based on what is admittedly a small sample size. I think a big week in Winston-Salem will go a ways towards galvanizing the fanbase for this final stretch run.
SK: Well all signs point to A.J. Long, not just because he looked better against FSU but also because Austin Wilson was probably concussed (excuse me, Upper Body Injured) and isn't 100% this week. No reason to trot him out there until he's healthy. Let's see what Long can do with the full reigns. If he can rack up a solid win, we might have a very interesting situation on our hands come November.
JC: It's Long, as we know, but even without Wilson's injury, it should've still been Long. Wilson has a great arm and can throw very accurately. But so can Long, while also being able to take off with the ball as well. Given that it was Long's first time on the field, I thought he played admirably enough to earn the majority of the snaps in a two-QB system, and the start (now don't let me down, A.J!).
Thoughts on Tim Lester's play-calling against Florida State?
MB: At least relative to George McDonald, I thought he did a good job. Facing the top-ranked team in the country with two backup quarterbacks, Lester didn’t have a whole lot of room to be too creative. For the most part, the calls were sensible. And I wasn’t constantly asking myself, "What the hell was that call?". So that has to be good, right?
BN: I said numerous times to those I was watching the game with, but that was a seething indictment of George McDonald's playcalling abilities. Lester didn't change up the offense that much, he just actually ran plays to set up other ones. Not too much of a novel concept but effective. It also appeared we figured out how to get WRs open with the routes they run rather then just expecting they get open. Our vertical passing game is also pretty decent so I'm happy to see it better utilized. I'm excited to see how we look against weaker defenses.
TIS: Solid B+! Lester had nothing to lose in his first game as OC, and his play calling showed that. Stretched the field against FSU's defense and opened up the run, where we FINALLY took the ball between the tackles and did what Syracuse football does best. I'd give him an A- had he not tried to get a little too cute inside the red zone with that Triple-I nonsense.
MM: It's interesting that George McDonald is being credited for calling Syracuse's second touchdown of the game. And even more fittingly, it was a Long-to-Ishmael beauty that has fans thinking salivating about what the future may hold for this offense. Of course, McDonald (likely) won't be here and Lester (likely) will have those young weapons for a few more years. What does that mean? Well, after just one game, a nothing-to-lose-because-no-one-thinks-we-can-win contest, I'm not ready to render a verdict. Truthfully, after a year and a half, I wasn't ready to throw the book at McDonald.
DL: It wasn't that the offense itself looked so much different than what we saw George McDonald calling, because it is largely the same set of plays, but everything just seemed to have a better pace and flow, and the team seemed less unsure and confused between plays. When you see other teams that run hurry-up no-huddle offenses, they move the ball and get back to the line very easily and assuredly, and Syracuse didn't look the same way before this past game. The fact that this isn't even Lester's preferred offense, and the team looks far more confident with him at the helm, is impressive. We may have a very good coach here, I'm excited to see what he does the rest of this season. As for the plays themselves, he definitely has a good sense of how to design a series to make plays open up other things. We ran screens with a numbers advantage for the first time, there was more play action and the running game was the most effective its been since Maryland. The offense isn't that much different than it has been the rest of the season, it is just being used more efficiently with Lester.
SK: Better but not without faults. The red zone playcalling was just abysmal and I don't know what the deal is there. Both Lester's and McDonald's butts pucker up as soon as they cross the 20-yard line and all of the energy and momentum that they take into it evaporates, replaced by a lot of over-thinking. Overall, I was excited to see bubble screens with actual blockers and a trimmed down playbook that let everyone focus on being really good at a few things rather than trying to get by at a lot of things.
JC: Red zone aside, there was a flow and purpose to the play-calls that seemed to fully acknowledge the score, down and field position, as well as the personnel on the field. So when your starting point is an ignorance of those factors, things can only go up, right? Lester wasn't perfect, but he displayed a command of this team's capabilities, despite its various injuries.He also got more out of Steve Ishmael in one game than McDonald did in five. So... clearly the right choice was made.
Seems Wake Forest's defensive backs are their biggest strength; will that help decide between Long and Austin Wilson at QB?
MB: Sure, I definitely think it can help. If either quarterback fares especially well through the air against the Deacons, who just a few weeks ago held Louisville’s Reggie Bonnafon to a very modest stat-line, that could bode well for said QB starting next week against Clemson.
BN: Nope, obviously the Wilson injury plays a big role here, but you shouldn't change your quarterback based on a team's strength. I'm a firm proponent of riding the hot hand and AJ not only has that but he has the game changing ability we need. He should start every game until Hunt returns.
TIS: I think both QBs get time under (or five yards behind) center. As I said earlier, Long should get the start and more reps, and honestly, he showed that he can throw the mid- and long-range ball pretty well.
MM: A great question that I just don't think we can truly answer at the moment. Have we really seen enough of either quarterback to know? I'll go back with my previous answer on Long: He looked the part on Saturday so, defenses be damned, he probably should get more reps. His running abilities can only help, too. But if Wilson comes in and commands a few scoring drives, well, I reserve my right to change my mind on this one, too.
DL: Again, because we now know that Long is starting, this question is less interesting, although I do think having A.J. in there helps take advantage of the weaker part of Wake Forest's defense—its front. While I wouldn't necessarily say that the Deacons have a better secondary than Florida State, it is not the part of that defense you want to challenge if you can help it. I expect to see Lester dial up more of a steady rushing attack on Saturday, and we'll probably see more zone read looks from Long as a result.
SK: We went into the FSU game thinking Wilson was the thrower and Long was the runner. Turned out to be kinda opposite. Or at least, incomplete. Long's got a great arm so I don't think it's a deciding factor.
JC: When I wrote this question I was thinking through it too hard. Long's arm is just as good as Wilson's, and both would/will also be challenged by Wake Forest's defensive backs. They're seasoned vets, know how to get in front of the football and are the one truly redeeming element of this Deacons team. Syracuse is likely going to have to rely more on the running game as a result.
What do the Orange need to do against Wake in order to score a welcome road win on Saturday?
MB: Win the turnover battle. Convert on third downs. Score red zone touchdowns. If the Orange can do two of those three things, I really like their chances on Saturday.
BN: Simple - come out like we did against Florida State. If the offensive line gets the push it did against them we should be gashing them on the ground, which will set up AJ to stretch the field and make easy completions. On defense, keep forcing turnovers and improve on 3rd down, as we are one of the worst teams in the country at getting off the field there.
TIS: More of the same from last weekend. Do not be afraid to take shots downfield with the passing game, and leverage the freeze option to keep Wake's defense from playing too aggressive. Defensively, we are due for a shut down performance, and the workout against an elite offense should have us more than prepared against the Demon Deacons.
MM: The secondary is still a major problem, but, once again, the front seven has proven itself against running backs. Bottle up the Decs runners and...wait a second. Wake Forest is averaging 31 yards rushing a game? Great Googly Moogly! So, Syracuse should load up the box and make one of the Decs two "quarterbacks" beat you. Wake's highest point total this season is 24 (twice), so, yeah, the Orange defense should have its advantages on Saturday.
DL: Offensively, establish the run, and please, if you care about any of us Syracuse football, score in the red zone. Even if the offense sputters again, the defense should more than hold its own and lead SU to victory. Wake Forest cannot run the ball at all—they average 31 yards per game on the ground, and have been pushed into negative yards rushing in three separate games this season. SU's defense since Shafer arrived in 2009 has always been good at stopping the run, so I expect more of the same on Saturday. Their freshman quarterback John Wolford has shown some flashes at times, but he has been very turnover prone as well. Take advantage of those opportunities, because Wake will likely be forced into throwing more than they'd like, and Syracuse should pull this out.
SK: Really, just try to emulate a lot of the things you were doing against Florida State, minus the red zone gaffes. The offense, at times, looked about as good as its looked since the Central Michigan game. Do that against a far inferior squad and you should be able to grind out a win since out defense is extremely capable of shutting down Wake's offense.
JC: Avoid mistakes, most importantly. Then, run the ball well and put pressure on Wake Forest QB John Wolford. Wolford's a freshman who likes throwing the ball quite a bit -- plus, the Deacs can't run it at all. So if teh Syracuse blitz can get to Wolford and disrupt his game, it's hard to see Wake Forest getting on the board much.
The Deacons kill off SU fans' collective faith in this team by ______, en route to beating the Orange.
MB: The Deacons do that by making AJ Long, whom I presume will get the majority of the snaps at quarterback, look like the true freshman that he is. If Long gets rattled, Wake Forest has a shot.
BN: The Demon Deacons will kill SU fans' faith if they are able to control the line of scrimmage. If they're able to put 8 in the box and control our running game we could have serious issues unless AJ makes some great plays passing and on the ground. They also need to take care of the ball as that's been one of their huge problems this year, and against an aggressive defense it could be a big problem for them.
TIS: Winning the turnover battle, and allowing Syracuse to implode inside the red zone.
MM: SU played well against Florida State, but that was playing against a much better team. Let's just say, this time around the pressure will actually be greater because the youthful, and still undermanned, Orange men are now the favorites. If Long and or Wilson implode this one could be another ugly, mud-stomper, perfect for Wake. Especially if the Demon Deacons are able to eat up Syracuse's second line of defense, specifically targeting receivers or backs in the slot. A decent effort one weekend at home against No. 1 does not a season make.
DL: While SU should have the ability to grab a few turnovers, if Wolford plays a clean game and can pick on Syracuse's weaker defensive backs, this one could get interesting. Both teams are starting freshmen quarterbacks, so if Wake can get into A.J. Long's head a bit and force Syracuse into becoming one dimensional, perhaps they can keep this close and try to sneak one out in the end. I don't expect Syracuse loses this one, but would anyone be truly surprised if it winds up being closer than we'd like?
SK: Somehow, looking like a competitive offense against us and scoring points that we can't keep up with. Do that and you will have crushed our spirits and souls in one fell swoop.
JC: Forcing turnovers and beating the Syracuse blitz from the get-go. I'm not sure how well this Orange team can play from behind, and I don't want to find out against Wake. Some quick scores could take the air out of SU, its fans and the confidence everyone might have had in a turnaround. A loss will be back-breaking.