Going into the 2015 season, those outside the program seemed to be worried about how the Syracuse Orange would effectively replace its defense without experiencing a drop-off. We, trying to be optimistic, saw Chuck Bullough's system and last year's host of injuries as reasons why the SU defense would be just fine.
Yesterday's shellacking at the hands of the South Florida Bulls may seem like the first game where the defense was clearly outplayed. But that narrative -- despite what FBS rankings, etc. said -- is incorrect. Syracuse's defense has been lit up repeatedly this year. Every week after Rhode Island, actually. It's just that this was the first time the box score showed a result resoundingly in the opponents' favor.
Results from individual players are not the only indicators of success for a team. But a string of individual's results can establish a trend. Take a look at the season stat lines from four players the Orange have gone up against in their last four games:
Quinton Flowers, QB, USF
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Cooper Rush, QB, Central Michigan
John Wolford, QB, Wake Forest
The thing you'll notice right away is that each player's best game (in terms of yardage) of the season was against Syracuse. For some, like Fournette, the margin's small. For others, like Flowers, it was overwhelmingly the best. Not even captured above: these yardage totals (whether rushing for Fournette, or passing for the others) were career-highs for all of them except Cooper Rush. Rush threw for 491 yards in a wild bowl game vs. Western Kentucky last year too.
"But look at the touchdown numbers!" you're probably exclaiming right now. and for some, you're correct. And ultimately, yes, touchdowns score points, not yards. But that's the problem with the way this defense has been playing this season. The "bend but don't break" model has bent more than normal and yesterday, it finally broke.
Syracuse has now allowed nine players of 40 or more yards on the season, which is tied for 18th-most in the country. Teams are averaging 8.3 yards per pass attempt against them (tied for 14th-highest in the country). Yards per rush are at a respectable 3.81, but that figure's gone up each and every week. The total yards per play against the Orange defense is now at an insane 5.87, "good" for the 30th-highest value in the country.
To put it in more succinct terms: THIS IS NOT WORKING.
No one should be fired for this, mind you (though you know my opinions on the secondary already). You can't be penalized for youth, though better recruiting can mitigate youth-related issues, as we've seen with the offense's success. But with the Orange scheme bending too much, and failing to force as many sacks and turnovers, the defense is being exposed to have some stunning flaws. And if those flaws are being exploited in the early part of the schedule, I just shudder to think what happens down the line. With a front-seven getting manhandled, linebackers biting on every fake and the secondary... just sort of standing on the field, it's hard to see an immediate fix. Hopefully I'm wrong, otherwise we're begging Eric Dungey and the offense to put up 40 per game from here on out.