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Syracuse Football: Breaking Down Offensive Play-Calling for the 2014 Season


Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Sean begged me not to do this. You probably did too, honestly. I mean, after what can only be described as a miserable, disappointing football season, why would anyone want to recap it anymore than they have to?

The answer, as we've established, is that I'm a masochist -- as one would certainly assume of any person that actively watches both the Syracuse football team AND the New York Knickerbockers year-in and year-out. The other answer is that this, friends, is the final part of the 2014 season's funeral. Consider the Pitt and BC games the wake with an open casket. Yesterday's post was the final eulogy. And this... THIS is the burial at sea. Now let's set this thing on fire so we can all move on for good.


Called run plays: 368

Called pass plays: 441

If you ignore the rest of this article (I hope not), just look above for your full summary of this season's inept play-calling and use of personnel. Despite starting the season with a quarterback (Terrel Hunt) who was not the best passer, and then progressing to another player (A.J. Long) whose biggest value lied in his ability to move the ball with his legs, the team still called nearly 75 more pass plays than run plays. And this all with a stable of FIVE capable running backs, none of which were used properly by either George McDonald or Tim Lester. Note that the overall rushing numbers on the official stat sheet will seem much more even, but these figures above count called passes (pocket breakdowns that result in scrambles) as passes.

First Downs: 202 (92 rushing, 93 passing, 17 penalty)

That number ranks Syracuse 115th in the country. You're not shocked, I know.

Play-calling on first down: 198 runs, 143 passes

While I do wish we'd run the ball more overall, the one time we should have probably mixed it up is first down (and yet, see above). In first-and-10 situations, defenses are much more likely to expect run -- especially from a team like Syracuse, whose strength should have been running the football -- so passes were much more likely to be successful. First down and 10 is really the only situation that doesn't have a predetermined "most likely" call, and yet, we had a "most likely" call nearly every game. iv

Gains of five or more yards on first down: 125

This will help inform the rest of the play-calling below, as you'd probably guess. Syracuse only gained five or more yards on first down 125 times (out of 341 plays) -- a nearly 37-percent clip. That sounds decent, but then you remember a few other things: a) I'm not calculating that number for every college team, so who really knows how it compares; b) that doesn't even take into account the negative plays on first and 10, which I didn't track all season, but a rough estimate says they were miserably high; and c) rarely was any big gain on first followed up by a momentum-building call thereafter.

Play-calling on second down: 147 passes, 122 runs

See above. Again, without a comparison point around the country, it's hard to really tell how "good" their percentage really was, but based on what we see on second down, I'd bet it wasn't all that amazing. Faced with continuous long-yardage situations on second down (either due to lesser/negative gains or penalties), the team was forced to pass more, rather than just scamper for a quick few yards to grab the first.

Play-calling on third down: 136 passes, 42 runs

Third-down conversions: 61-for-179, 34.1 percent

Without looking at every other team's third-down play-calling breakdown, it's tough to say how "bad" this really is, but I bet it's bad. That ratio's over 3:1 in favor of passes, showing that the team was also rarely in third-and-short situations in which running the football would actually be advantageous. That traces back to Syracuse's ineptitude on first and second down, which we've already captured above. That lack of conversion rate (ranked 111th in the country) also shows that Syracuse was either faced with an insurmountable number of yards on third or simply couldn't complete passes. I'd bet a little of both, but it also informs you that they may have wanted to run more given that the employed strategy wasn't really working too well...

Plays in opposing territory: 320 (39.5 percent)

See, if you're going to run that many plays in opposing territory, you really need to score more often. This number was also helped a ton by the early parts of the season, when win or lose, the Orange actually came close to or exceeded 50 percent of their plays behind enemy lines. The latter part of the season, however, saw figures under 30 percent (hi, Tim Lester!). But don't go praising McDonald yet either. Turnovers assisted SU a ton in getting those possessions in opposing territory. And again, Syracuse failed to score (which you already know).

Big plays (gains of 10 or more yards): 139 (109th in FBS)

Big play percentage vs. overall offense: 139/809 (17 percent)

Overall yards per play: 4.9 (112th in FBS)

Yards per play, minus big plays: 673 plays for 1,297 yards (1.9 yards per play)

As I hammered home all season, big plays for this offense glossed over its ineffectiveness (especially early on, when they were still gaining yards). The last figure above should tell you all you need to know about just how bad this group was outside of its home-run ability. Those 673 plays make up 83 percent of its plays from scrimmage. So that means that 83 percent of Syracuse's plays amounted to just 1.9 yards per. That's horrendous, obviously. And when you take into account how bad that number was from the Clemson game on, it's even more startling. In six different games (most of them under Lester), the Orange gained less than two yards per snap on non-big play results. In two games, they averaged less than a yard per...

Red zone scoring percentage: 28-for-35 (80 percent)

Red zone touchdown percentage: 14-for-35 (40 percent)

This one... yeah. The scoring percentage doesn't look awful. But then when compared to the touchdown percentage (one of the worst in the country), it shows just how much this group settled and couldn't really execute once in the red zone. I don't need to go into this further. You already know how bad it is.


And that's it. We've officially sent this season out to sea. May it never see our shores again.