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Syracuse Football: Breaking Down Defensive Play-Calling vs. South Florida

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We can sit here and talk about effort, and "showing up," and "hard-nosed" play, or any other cliche or coach-speak all we want. But the truth is, the South Florida game was a coaching massacre on the defensive end for the Orange.

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

One team studied film, found and exploited weaknesses, and designed a masterful gameplan on Saturday, and unfortunately, it was not the team coming off a bye with two full weeks to prepare.

If you've been reading these breakdowns, you know about the weakness this team has defending the play action all year. Turns out, USF took things a step farther, realizing the play action struggles were merely a symptom of the Orange's inability to handle misdirection of all sorts.

The Bulls burned the SU defense time and time again with creative misdirection. The play action was effective for 7-for-10 passing for 177 yards and one touchdown, but they also mixed in an effective zone read that was responsible for almost all of the 281 rushing yards. They also went to wide receiver screens, fake wide receiver screens, double reverse passes, basically anything to get the defense moving one way and then going the other way. And it all worked, to the tune of 7.8 yards per play, the worst performance of the season this year.

Three big things jump out that should terrify you if you're an SU fan:

1. South Florida showed an entire playbook on how to beat this defense

Again, we all knew about the play action passes, but you can't run that over and over again. But you can run those alongside an assortment of misdirection runs, screens, pump fakes, etc. all day, every day against this team. That's exactly what the Bulls did, and that's exactly what every team left on the schedule is going to do as well.

2. USF didn't have to outwork the Orange

They made it look easy. It wasn't just missed tackles or tremendous individual efforts by the home team. South Florida was in open space all day, with the Syracuse defense almost always a step or two behind. They put players in better position to succeed, and they basically just had to catch and run into the end zone.

3. Preparation is becoming a major concern for Syracuse

For the second-consecutive game, Syracuse came onto the field, following a big touchdown from its offense, with just 10 players on the field.

LSU 10 men

USF 10 men

Both times, the Orange scored to make the score 24-17. Both times they came out for a crucial stop with the game probably hanging in the balance. Both times they couldn't even get 11 guys on the field.

In the LSU game, it cost them a timeout. In the South Florida game, it cost them a 9-yard run that may not have been as long if all four defensive linemen were on the field.

When you combine these mental errors with the defense's inability to get lined up against Central Michigan (resulting in a timeout that let the Chippewas map out the game-tying play), we're starting to see a troubling trend.

Let's break down the rest of the game below.

First Quarter

DRIVE 1
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
12:15 1st and 10 USF 20 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Delayed Blitz (rush 5) PA Pass Deep Middle Incomplete Deep ball overthrown, 1 on 1 coverage
12:09 2nd and 10 USF 20 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and MLB Blitz (rush 6) Designed pass, run Right 6 yard gain WR screen turned into QB run, Cordy Tackle
11:41 3rd and 4 USF 26 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and MLB Blitz (rush 6) WR Screen Pass Left 10 yard gain 3 WRs left with 2 covering made it easy to block screen, Cordy Tackle
11:17 1st and 10 USF 36 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 17 yard gain Zone read left, Williams Tackle
10:54 1st and 10 SU 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle No gain Thompson Tackle
10:23 2nd and 10 SU 47 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 2 yard gain Bennett Tackle
9:46 3rd and 8 SU 45 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Left 1 yard gain Morgan, Cordy Tackle
DRIVE 2
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
7:05 1st and 10 USF 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) PA WR Screen Pass Right 21 yard gain PA fake left, pass short right, wide open, Arciniega Tackle
6:42 1st and 10 SU 32 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 2 yard gain QB keep on zone read up middle, Bennett Tackle
6:14 2nd and 8 SU 30 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 1 yard loss Zone read option, pushed wide, Hudson Tackle
3rd and 9 SU 31 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB, MLB, ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Right Incomplete Taylor hurried QB out of pocket, rushed throw off target
DRIVE 3
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
4:00 1st and 10 USF 21 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 6 yard gain Simmons Tackle
3:39 2nd and 4 USF 27 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 2 yard gain Franlin Tackle
3:00 3rd and 2 USF 29 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Designed pass, run Middle 4 yard gain Thompson blew up blocker, QB took off under pressure, Hodge Tackle
2:32 1st and 10 USF 33 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 8 yard gain Taylor Tackle
1:58 2nd and 2 USF 41 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A WR Screen Pass Right 6 yard gain Holding USF, 10 yards from spot, was wide open from the start though
1:34 2nd and 6 USF 37 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 5 yard gain Thomas Tackle
0:53 3rd and 1 USF 42 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 5 yard gain Zone read, QB keep up middle, Whigham Tackle
0:28 1st and 10 USF 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Right Incomplete WR wide open, but caught out of bounds
2nd and 10 USF 47 False start, 5 yard penalty
0:21 2nd and 15 USF 42 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA WR Screen Pass Right 56 yard gain PA Fake left sucked all 3 LBs, and held safeties, no one touched WR until Cordy Tackle

USF Play Calls: 10 runs, 10 passes

Defensive personnel: 18 base defense, 2 subpackages

Blitzes: 11/20(55%)

We should have been very worried after this quarter, even though it ended 0-0. Misdirection was killing the Orange defense, with three big plays (17, 21, and 56 yards) all coming off either zone read, or zone read play action passes. The defense was biting every which way, and it finally burned them on the last play of the quarter, which would set up an early score in the next period for the Bulls. South Florida was 2-for-3 on play action passes for 77 yards in the first. Ouch.

Second Quarter

DRIVE 3 (cont.)
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
15:00 1st and Goal SU 2 2 WR, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 1 yard gain Zone read, QB keep, Clark Tackle
14:21 2nd and Goal SU 1 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 1 yard TD Zone read, handoff broke outside for TD
DRIVE 4
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
3:45 1st and 10 USF 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Right 7 yard gain Scissum, Simmons Tackle
3:15 2nd and 3 USF 32 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Shovel Pass Jet Sweep Left 1 yard gain Cordy Tackle, great open field hit
2:58 3rd and 2 USF 33 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 3 yard gain Zone read, QB keep up middle Taylor Tackle
2:30 1st and 10 USF 36 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Designed PA Pass, QB Run Left 3 yard gain Almost immediately pulled down and ran left OB
2:03 2nd and 7 USF 39 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Delayed Blitz (rush 5) Pass Middle Incomplete Winfield pass breakup, almost INT in double coverage
1:56 3rd and 7 USF 39 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Sack 10 yard loss Thompson demolished LT for sack
DRIVE 5
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
1:32 1st and 10 SU 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) PA Pass Left Seam Incomplete Hodge hit QB in face as he threw over WR
1:27 2nd and 10 SU 25 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 6 yard gain Designed QB draw, Simmons Tackle
1:19 3rd and 4 SU 19 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 7 yard gain Designed QB sweep, Cordy Tackle
0:45 1st and 10 SU 12 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 1 yard gain Raymon Tackle
0:14 2nd and 9 SU 11 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) PA Pass Right 8 yard gain Scissum Tackle in bounds kept USF from running another play before FG

USF Play Calls: 7 runs, 6 passes

Defensive personnel: 13 base defense, 0 subpackages

Blitzes: 8/13 (61.5%)

The defense settled down after the immediate touchdown to start the quarter. The passing game was mostly invisible in the 2nd, as Flowers mostly opted to run, either on designed keepers and zone reads, or under duress from the SU pressure. If not for a botched special teams play giving USF easy points at the end of the quarter, this would have been a nice rebound after an ugly end to the first.

Third Quarter

DRIVE 6
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
15:00 1st and 10 USF 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Left 5 yard gain Hodge Tackle
14:34 2nd and 5 USF 30 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 6 yard gain Scissum Tackle
14:10 1st and 10 USF 36 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Zone Blitz (rush 5), RDE in coverage Pass Right 13 yard gain Franklin, Cordy in on pressure, QB srambles right, finds hole in zone, Bennett Tackle
13:55 1st and 10 USF 49 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 15 yard gain Zone read, QB keep, Winfield Tackle
13:27 1st and 10 SU 36 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Right 11 yard gain Handoff, QB faked WR screen left to freeze safeties, Scissum Tackle
13:13 1st and 10 SU 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Blitz Run Middle 25 yard TD Untouched into end zone, juked out Scissum, LBs looked hesitant waiting for QB to keep
DRIVE 7
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
10:23 1st and 10 USF 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run 5 yard gain Hodge Tackle
10:23 2nd and 5 USF 30 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Left Seam 33 yard gain QB faked WR screen left, froze safeties, Cordy Tackle
10:03 1st and 10 SU 42 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Zone Blitz (rush 5), RDE in coverage PA Pass, double reverse flea flicker Deep Left 42 yard TD Double reverse flea flicker, all defensive backs came up, WR was open in end zone
DRIVE 8
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
7:27 1st and 10 USF 19 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 3 yard gain Scissum Tackle, big hit
7:02 2nd and 7 USF 22 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Sack 6 yard loss, fumble Slayton sack, forced fumble, Hodge recovery
DRIVE 9
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
5:41 1st and 10 USF 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 9 yard gain Defense played with 10 men (only 3 DL), Cordy Tackle
5:22 2nd and 1 USF 34 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) PA Pass Right 21 yard gain QB scrambled out of pocket, found WR uncovered
5:03 1st and 10 SU 45 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 45 yard TD Zone read handoff, Winfield, Whitner missed tackles

USF Play Calls: 9 runs, 5 passes

Defensive personnel: 14 base defense, 0 subpackages

Blitzes: 7/14 (50%)

If not for the fumble, this may have been one of the single-worst quarters of defense under Scott Shafer. You know what, even with the fumble it may have been that bad. South Florida gained 222 yards on 14 plays for an average of 15.9 yards per play. More than half of the plays (8) went for 10+ yards, and more than a third (5) went for 20+. Once again, it was all misdirection, with zone reads, play action, pump fakes from screens to deep passes, and one amazing double-reverse flea flicker. If the Orange D can't hold off on biting on a standard run fake, how could they possibly hold off on a double reverse. South Florida knew what they were doing in this quarter, and exposed nearly every weakness Syracuse has this year. What a beatdown.

Fourth Quarter

DRIVE 10
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
14:48 1st and 10 USF 18 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 6 yard gain Whigham Tackle
14:34 2nd and 4 USF 24 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle No gain QB keep on zone read, Franklin Tackle
3rd and 4 USF 24 Holding, 10 yard penalty wipes out play
13:43 3rd and 14 USF 14 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB and LCB Blitz (rush 5) PA WR Screen Pass Left 18 yard gain Bennett missed tackle at line, broken for big play
13:19 1st and 10 USF 32 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 5 yard gain Slayton Tackle
12:56 2nd and 5 USF 37 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 6 yard gain Bennett Tackle
12:26 1st and 10 USF 43 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 1 yard gain Franklin Tackle
11:53 2nd and 9 USF 44 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) WR Screen Pass Left 9 yard gain 3 WR left to catch and block 2 defenders, Arciniega Tackle
11:16 1st and 10 SU 47 3 RB, 2 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 13 yard gain Zone read handoff with lead blockers, Simmons Tackle
11:01 1st and 10 SU 34 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Right Incomplete Pressure by Simmons and Thompson, good coverage, rushed throw
10:54 2nd and 10 SU 34 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Blitz (rush 6) Run Right 8 yard gain Ran away from the blitz to the open side of field
10:34 3rd and 2 SU 26 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 2 yard gain Zone read handoff, Holding penalty, 10 yards from spot
10:08 3rd and 10 SU 34 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Right Incomplete Personal Foul on Whitner, 15 yard penalty
10:02 1st and 10 SU 19 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 17 yard gain QB keep on zone read, Scissum Tackle
9:44 1st and Goal SU 2 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 2 yard TD QB keep on zone read, untouched
DRIVE 11
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
7:36 1st and Goal SU 9 False start, 5 yard penalty
7:36 1st and Goal SU 14 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LCB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Shovel Pass Left 14 yard TD Just a bunch of ball watching and no tackling on this play
DRIVE 12
Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
4:55 1st and 10 USF 35 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 12 yard gain Whitner Tackle
4:19 1st and 10 USF 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA WR Screen Pass Right 11 yard gain 2 WRs right for 1 defender, play action held rest of defense, Whitner Tackle
3:44 1st and 10 SU 42 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 4 yard gain Franklin, Bennett Tackle
3:00 2nd and 6 SU 38 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 2 yard gain Raymon Tackle
3rd and 4 SU 36 Delay of game, 5 yard penalty
2:11 3rd and 9 SU 41 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB ROLB and MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 11 yard gain Hit 4 yards short, broke tackles for first, Thompson Tackle
1:21 1st and 10 SU 30 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and MLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 1 yard gain Bennett Tackle
0:36 2nd and 9 SU 29 Victory Formation 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Kneel Down 2 yard loss Kneel Down

USF Play Calls: 16 runs, 6 passes

Defensive personnel: 20 base defense, 2 subpackages

Blitzes: 10/22 (45.5%)

OK, let's just get this out of the way first. The personal foul penalty on the first USF drive of the quarter was atrocious. That being said, the Orange completely gave up after it, and it showed. They had already allowed 13 plays on that drive, and barely tried to touch the Bulls rushers on the next three plays, which resulted in 33 yards and two touchdowns over the next two drives, and put the game away. You could see they were beaten down, and just opened up pathways for South Florida to run. The coup de gras came on the final drive, where the running back was stuffed four yards shy of the first down, but just outworked multiple Orange defenders to will himself to the first down. It didn't matter at that point, but it was symbolic of the game as a whole.

  • Overall USF Play Calls: 42 runs, 27 passes
  • Total Yards (per play): 540 (7.8) - season high yards per play
  • Total Rushing Yards (per carry): 281 (6.0) - season high rushing yards total
  • Total Passing Yards (per attempt): 15 for 22 for 259 yards (11.8) - season high yards per attempt
  • Play Action Calls Against - 11 (45 on season)
  • Play Action Results - 7-for-10, 177 yards and 1 TD, 1 QB scramble for 3 yards, 0 sacks
  • Play Action Results (Season) - 25-of-37 (67.6%), 419 yards, 3 TDs, 2 Pass Interference, 4 sacks
  • Plays in base defense (4-3): 65 of 69 (94.2%)
  • Plays in subpackages: 4 of 69 (5.8%)
  • Blitzes: 36 of 69 (52.2%)
  • Blitzes from base defense: 33 of 65 (50.8%)
  • Blitzes from subpackages: 3 of 4 (75%)
  • ... Let us never speak of this game again.