Not only did the Orange (3-5, 1-3 ACC) spoil another opportunity to collect an upset victory on a prime-time stage, it was also another spotlight example of how far the Syracuse football program needs to grow to become a legit contender in the ACC Atlantic Division.
Overall, the Orange competed hard and they were in the game until an early fourth-quarter touchdown gave Clemson a seemingly insurmountable 10-point lead. The margin felt too big to overcome because of a few things: A) The Tigers defense was playing just as good as Syracuse's defense (which was amazing); and B) The Orange offense, including its true freshman quarterback A.J. Long, was struggling, badly.
So, after the loss Saturday, here's what we know about the Syracuse football program currently and over the last five seasons:
1) The Orange are going to have a pretty solid defense, which, for a majority of games, will keep them in contests. This is a credit to Scott Shafer and, now, Chuck Bullough.
2) Syracuse isn't perfect--Marrone had his issues with off-field issues, penalties and turnovers. Shafer's squads have also been penalty and turnover prone.
3) SU has been most successful, and collected it biggest victories, when the quarterback is arguably the team's best player.
Ryan Nassib's senior season was like this, and so was last year's run at a Texas Bowl title with Terrel Hunt.
And that, folks, is the reason why Syracuse has yet to win big games this season. It is that simple.
In his time under center this season, Hunt was pretty crappy.
We all can, maybe, attribute his crappy play to crappy game planning and play calling (I'll say most of the time I thought George McDonald wasn't playing towards SU's offensive strength, thus, it hurt everyone production overall), but the fact his Hunt struggled.
On Saturday, true freshman quarterback AJ Long was terrible. Coming off a positive showing in a victory over the Wake Forest Demon Deacons there was hope Long could be that spark to do something (just anything!) to help beat Clemson, if the ACC showdwon in Death Valley became a defensive dogfight.
All the Syracuse defense got was two offensive drives that marched into Clemson territory, the last started at the Syracuse 49-yard line after the Tigers were forced to punt deep inside their own territory late in the fourth quarter.
The SU offense squandered numerous opportunities, provided by the defense, to put points on the board, but the Orange's freshmen quarterback just couldn't find any confidence in himself, or the offensive overall, to make a play. This was evident by him fumbling three times, tossing two very bad interceptions and producing very little in the second half.
(Quick question: How do you think Saturday night's game would have gone if the Tigers had Deshaun Watson at quarterback instead of Cole Stoudt? Let's agree it wouldn't have been 6-3 at halftime, right? Why is that? Because Watson is clearly a better quarterback than whatever Stoudt was last night.)
Now, sure, Long was asked to accomplish a tall task. It's almost crazy to think a true freshman could perform well and actually win in an environment like that, against a Tiger defense like that.
But, with a program filled with a history of "wouldas," "couldas" and "shouldas", and folks calling for no more excuses, then we need to hold our players, especially quarterbacks, to a higher standard.
Or, if patience and finger pointing at the coaching staff is the way you'd like to go about it, then we have to be accepting of moral victories in Death Valley. I say this because if our strategy is to go into an environment like Saturday's with a true freshman quarterback, well, that's a pretty shitty strategy. And, that's not a pretty shitty strategy for Syracuse, it is a pretty shitty strategy for nearly every program not named Florida State.
This isn't a piece calling for the benching of Long or asking "what would have happened if Hunt was the quarterback Saturday instead of Long?" This is just serving as a reminder that, in college football--crap, at any level of football--if you don't have superior overall talent to the opposing team, the difference in the winning and losing comes down to quarterback play.
Currently, Syracuse doesn't have the talent at the position to win games against Notre Dame, Florida State or Clemson. Until one of the guys on the roster develops into the next senior-year version of Ryan Nassib, don't expect any different results then the disappointing one you saw last night.