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Syracuse Football: Breaking Down Offensive Play-Calling vs. Pittsburgh

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I actually did this. It was just as bad as you'd assume. #PrayForJohn

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Full disclosure: this was bad. Honestly, SO bad. It was rough the first time, and the second was an absolute disaster. So few takeaways other than a) this team has no idea how to use its personnel, b) this team has no idea how to execute on a style of play, and c) this team has no style of play. With all that in mind, you'll probably find the same takeaways while parsing through this. I painfully find even more at the bottom of the page, where all the game's terrible tendencies are laid bare.

First Quarter

DRIVE 1
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
10:57 1st and 10 SYR 16 Run Long Option L 3 Yard Gain
10:19 2nd and 7 SYR 19 Run Gulley Dive L 7 Yard Loss
9:48 3rd and 14 SYR 12 Pass Long Short L Incomplete
DRIVE 2
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
7:03 1st and 10 SYR 24 Run Gulley End R 6 Yard Gain; Fumble
DRIVE 3
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
5:04 1st and 10 SYR 15 Run McFarlane Off-Tackle R 3 Yard Gain
4:38 2nd and 7 SYR 18 Run Phillips Option L 8 Yard Gain
4:18 1st and 10 SYR 26 Run Long Dive L 4 Yard Gain
3:45 2nd and 6 SYR 30 Pass McFarlane Deep L 28 Yard Gain
3:14 1st and 10 PITT 42 Run Long Off-Tackle R 6 Yard Gain
2:43 2nd and 4 PITT 36 Run Phillips Off-Tackle R 1 Yard Gain
2:13 3rd and 3 PITT 35 Pass Lewis Mid-Range M 14 Yard Gain
1:44 1st and 10 PITT 21 Pass Long Screen R Incomplete
1:40 2nd and 10 PITT 21 Run Phillips End L 6 Yard Loss
1:04 3rd and 16 PITT 21 Pass Long Deep R Interception

Play-Call Breakdown: 9 runs, 5 passes

"How could it go much worse?" asked the ESPNU announcing crew after a lackluster first drive. We found out on the first play of drive two -- a fumble by Prince-Tyson Gulley. By drive three, things had begun to turn around a bit, as A.J. Long was able to connect on two decent gains (the 28-yarder to Devante McFarlane and the 14-yard pass to Ben Lewis), but beyond that, nothing all that notable happening on offense. That end zone pick was a bummer as well, eliminating a potential field goal try.

***

Second Quarter

DRIVE 4
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
11:20 1st and 10 SYR 26 Run Gulley Off-Tackle L 0 Yard Gain
10:53 2nd and 10 SYR 26 Pass Kimble Mid-Range R Incomplete
10:47 3rd and 10 SYR 26 Play-Action Pass Kimble Deep L Incomplete
DRIVE 5
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
5:10 1st and 10 SYR 25 Run Kimble Dive R 3 Yard Gain
4:41 2nd and 7 SYR 28 Run Phillips Option R 10 Yard Gain
4:08 1st and 10 SYR 38 Run Phillips Dive L 5 Yard Gain
3:34 2nd and 5 SYR 43 Run Gulley End L 7 Yard Gain
3:07 1st and 10 PITT 50 Run Morris End L 33 Yard Gain
2:29 1st and 10 PITT 17 Run Kimble End L 0 Yard Gain
1:53 2nd and 10 PITT 17 Pass Kimble Mid-Range M Incomplete
1:49 3rd and 10 PITT 17 Pass Kimble Deep L Incomplete
DRIVE 6
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
0:47 1st and 10 SYR 25 Pass Kimble Short R Incomplete
0:42 2nd and 10 SYR 25 Pass Kimble Short L Interception
DRIVE 7
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
0:11 1st and 10 SYR 20 Run Gulley Dive R 7 Yard Gain

Play-Call Breakdown: 8 runs, 6 passes

For some inexplicable reason, A.J. Long is pulled for Mitch Kimble to start the second quarter, and the results are... not good. In fact, take a look down the list of plays above. Of the plays that directly involved Kimble (QB runs and passes), just one was a positive gain (three yards), and the rest were either incomplete or intercepted. That's not effective QB play, and they probably would've been better off continuing to hand it to either George Morris II or Ervin Phillips, both of whom were running the ball fairly well on the evening (and especially at this juncture).

***

Third Quarter

DRIVE 8
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
15:00 1st and 10 SYR 25 Run McFarlane Dive R 1 Yard Gain
14:35 2nd and 9 SYR 26 Pass Long Short L Incomplete
14:29 3rd and 9 SYR 26 Pass Ishmael Mid-Range R 11 Yard Gain
14:03 1st and 10 SYR 37 Play-Action Pass Ishmael Deep M 46 Yard Gain
13:37 1st and 10 PITT 17 Run Long End L 3 Yard Gain
13:03 2nd and 7 PITT 14 Run Long Dive L 1 Yard Gain
12:28 3rd and 6 PITT 13 Run Long Counter R 11 Yard Gain
11:55 1st and Goal PITT 2 Run Gulley Off-Tackle R 1 Yard Gain
11:15 2nd and Goal PITT 1 Pass Long Short L Incomplete
11:10 3rd and Goal PITT 1 Run Thompson Dive R 1 Yard Gain; TD
DRIVE 9
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
4:27 1st and 10 SYR 20 Run Long Dive L 2 Yard Gain
3:49 2nd and 8 SYR 22 Pocket Breakdown; Run Long End R 0 Yard Gain
3:22 3rd and 8 SYR 22 Play-Action Pass Ishmael Mid-Range M 12 Yard Gain
2:56 1st and 10 SYR 34 Run Morris Option R 2 Yard Gain
2:20 2nd and 8 SYR 36 Run; Fumble Morris Option R 1 Yard Gain
1:53 3rd and 7 SYR 37 Pass Long Short M Incomplete

Play-Call Breakdown: 9 runs, 7 passes

Long's return pays immediate dividends on the first drive of the half: a touchdown that almost isn't one due to Syracuse's typical goal line ineptitude. Ron Thompson manages to punch it in, but the star of the drive is Steve Ishmael, whose two big receptions (11 yards and 46 yards, respectively) gain most of the team's yardage. While it's understandable why Syracuse would call a lot of read-options and designed QB runs given the players on the roster (all but Austin Wilson are pretty mobile), it's a strategy worth doubting considering the returns at times. For every big gain is a lesser one. And those hits on your QB aren't always the best for him (as we've seen all season).

***

Fourth Quarter

DRIVE 10
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
14:52 1st and 10 SYR 25 Pass Ishmael Mid-Range R 15 Yard Gain
14:42 1st and 10 SYR 40 PENALTY (Personal Foul) Ishmael N/A 15 Yard Loss
14:33 1st and 10 SYR 25 Run Morris End L 2 Yard Gain
14:06 2nd and 12 SYR 23 Pass Long Short M Incomplete
14:00 3rd and 12 SYR 23 Pass Long Short R Incomplete
DRIVE 11
Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
9:39 1st and 10 SYR 22 Pass Ishmael Short R 8 Yard Gain
9:12 2nd and 2 SYR 30 Pass Long Short L Incomplete
9:07 3rd and 2 SYR 30 Pass Avant Short L 8 Yard Gain
8:42 1st and 10 SYR 38 Pass Phillips Short R 2 Yard Gain
8:13 2nd and 8 SYR 40 Pass Ishmael Screen R 5 Yard Gain
7:49 3rd and 3 SYR 45 Run McFarlane End L 2 Yard Gain

Play-Call Breakdown: 8 passes, 2 runs

That 15-yard penalty on Ishmael pretty much sealed things, but it's a cop-out to blame the loss/lack of a comeback on that, obviously. It's mostly just the "moment you knew it was over" and nothing more. The most disappointing part of this game isn't even captured above, however: the moment when this team punted on 4th and inches, down 23 points at their own 47. More than any other, it showed this team and/or coaching staff didn't care enough to even bother going for it when there was literally no downside to doing so. That's disappointment you felt right about then.

***

  • Overall play-calling breakdown: 28 called runs vs. 26 called passes (first time in seven games that the team called more run plays than passing plays; though 54 total is very, very bad)
  • First half play-calling: 17 runs vs. 11 passes (11:15 in second half)
  • First downs: 12 total (7 passing, 5 rushing; just three after the 11-minute mark in the third)
  • First down play selection: 16 called runs, 7 called passes (14:12 last week)
  • First down play selection on subsequent sets of downs: 9 called runs, 3 called passes (10:2 last week)
  • First down plays for five or more yards: 8
  • Second down play selection: 10 called passes, 8 called runs (14:11 last week)
  • Third down play selection: 10 called passes, 3 called runs (10:6 last week)
  • Third down conversion: 6-for-13 (4 passes, 2 runs)
  • 16 of Syracuse's 54 play calls (30 percent) took place in Pitt territory (just six in the second half); last week, that number was 17 percent.
  • No bubble screens, really, but the option returned for a bit. Don't know how I feel about it, since it only sort-of worked at times, and I don't know if we have the personnel for it or the ability to sell it (yet)
  • We saw play-action three times, resulting in two receptions for 58 yards. It works. Let's use this.
  • Syracuse had nine big plays (ones that gained 10 or more yards) -- totaling 180 of Syracuse's pretty awful 255 yards of offense. The other 45 plays gained 1.67 yards per, which is a decent drop from last week's 2.25 (both terrible, by the way). Overall yards per play were 4.72 (vs. 3.25 last week), which is an improvement, but doesn't seem like one because of the miniscule number of offensive plays.

My biggest issues with the rushing attack is that it can't spread the wealth intelligently -- nor can it figure out a smart way to ride a hot back to a successful drive either. In this one, Morris had one meaningful carry (that 33-yard gain) and that's it. Gulley was largely ineffective, while Erv could have done more damage with more carries and McFarlane was largely used in the passing game. Adonis Ameen-Moore didn't see a handoff, which is unforgivable at this point, but not unexpected after he got just three carries last week. The quarterbacks still get the bulk of the carries (10 between Long and Kimble) -- something that belies at least parts of the offense's issues.

In the passing game, let's face facts: Kimble is not a passer at this time, and Long still needs time to grow. I'm fine with the second point, but the first created a bothersome situation vs. Pitt where Kimble being out there did Syracuse nothing good whatsoever. If he can't run either (he couldn't against the Panthers), there's no reason for Kimble to get out there when Long's healthy. Also on passing: you've probably noticed the shrinking list of receivers each week. It's great to see Ishmael reassert himself, but where did Jarrod West vanish to? And Adrian Flemming? So many weapons, yet they're all used in a manner that doesn't allow more than one receiver to shine in a given game.

Re-watching this one, I felt the same way I did the first time: Where is the rhythm, or identity, or focus of this team? Who are its playmakers? Who is its quarterback? These are too many questions for any offense to overcome, and when given so few opportunities as it was on Saturday, it's no wonder that a team with those issues was completely debilitated. I've said it repeatedly, but it's worthwhile to ask again about Tim Lester. What has he shown us as an offensive coordinator so far? I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but do you really want to sign up for this or some semblance thereof for another year?

One more game, people. One more...