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Syracuse Football: Breaking Down Offensive Play-Calling Through Half of 2015

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We're six games in. How are things doing compared to last season?

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

This isn't where we thought we'd be after six games, or how we thought we'd get there. But here we are! At 3-3, the Syracuse Orange have already equaled last year's win total, but when you remember that they started 3-0, suddenly the narrative shifts toward negative. Should it? In some cases. But in others, not nearly as much.

We'll try to take a look at both sides of things below while looking at offensive outputs compared to the entirety of 2014. No, this is not as in-the-weeds as the weekly play-calling posts. Rather, just a top-line summary of where we are, versus where we've been.

Called Runs vs. Called Passes

URI WF CMU LSU at USF at UVA Total Pct.
Called Runs 50 30 27 29 24 33 193 52%
Called Passes 26 20 19 40 43 32 180 48%

Last year: 368-441 (45%-55%)

First numbers that should jump out here are total plays. Just 373 so far in 2015, versus 801 on the year in 2014 (so about 27 behind the pace, or nearly one half-game of total offense). This still shows an over-reliance on pass plays compared to personnel, but also doesn't capture the amount of time Dungey takes off and runs. So while we see this figure, the run vs. pass ratio is actually much higher (and thus won't inspire much change). Also, while the total number of plays may be down, yardage gained is up, so the team's actually more efficient than it was last season. Again: good things.

Also, because I thought you'd all want to know, here's this:

Option Calls 0 4 3 6 7 5 25
Percent. Of Runs 0% 13% 11% 21% 29% 15% 13%

Numbers might be off for game one because I wasn't really used to charting those out yet. But the rest should be 100-percent accurate. Like we mentioned, WAY too much option vs. LSU and USF, but the Virginia game seemed to bring things down a peg. The Wake/CMU games are the sweet spot for it. Let's hope it heads back in that direction.

First Downs

Total: 113 (total in 2014: 208)

URI WF CMU LSU at USF at UVA Total Pct.
First Downs 23 15 11 21 22 21 113
Run 17 11 5 9 8 11 61 54%
Pass 5 3 5 8 11 8 40 35%
Penalty 1 1 1 4 3 2 12 11%

SU's ahead of the pace, despite two pretty low efforts against Wake Forest and Central Michigan. That's a plus.

URI WF CMU LSU at USF at UVA Total Pct.
First Down Plays 36 23 22 33 28 28 170
Run 30 16 15 16 10 17 104 61%
Pass 6 7 7 17 18 11 66 39%

Last year, I said that 58 percent runs on first down might have been a little high. Now that number's higher, but makes more sense and is actually better, due to the next figure...

First down plays for five yards or more: 12 per game

Last year, the team had 125 on the season, or an average of 10.4. This year, it's 12 on the dot. That might not seem like a lot, but the extra 1.6 plays of five yards or more could equal an extra first down -- or an extra chance to score. Last year, 37 percent of first down plays went for five yards or more. In 2015, that's jumped up to 42 percent -- made better by a diminishing number of negative plays (especially in the earlier games).

Second and Third Downs

URI WF CMU LSU at USF at UVA Total Pct.
Second Down Plays 24 18 15 20 22 22 121
Run 13 11 9 8 7 11 59 49%
Pass 11 7 6 12 15 11 62 51%

Pretty even split on the season. Sounds about right, and is a vast improvement over last season's pass-centric second down strategy. In 2014, SU called passes 54 percent of the time on second down, much of that due to long yardage situations set up by minimal effectiveness on first down.

URI WF CMU LSU at USF at UVA Total Pct.
Third Down Conversions 11 1 1 5 7 6 31 40%
Third Down Attempts 19 9 8 12 15 14 77

Syracuse's success rate is largely improved from last season (34 percent last year, vs. 40 percent this year), but there are some signs of issues too. A lot of that is weighted by a very nice game against an overmatched Rhode Island team, and the team also had putrid third down efforts in two games this season. The recent uptick on third is a cause for some optimism (44 percent over last three games). Some of that is influenced by garbage time (especially vs. USF), however.

URI WF CMU LSU at USF at UVA Total Pct.
Third Down Plays 19 9 7 16 16 14 81
Run 10 4 3 4 6 4 31 38%
Pass 9 5 4 12 10 10 50 62%

Does 62-percent pass calls seem high to you? What if I told you that last year's team called passes on 76 percent of third down plays? Recent trends have certainly shown a largely skew toward pass (something you'd expect when losing, as well as when your offensive coordinator is a former QB). But in any case, this is a much more comfortable balance that's about in line with the rest of the country.

Plays in Opposing Territory

URI WF CMU LSU at USF at UVA Total Pct.
No. in Opposing Territory 39 24 20 35 30 41 189 50%
Total Plays 76 50 46 69 73 65 379

Back in 2014, just 39.5 percent of Syracuse's offensive plays took place in opposing territory. This season, that number's at about 50 percent. Again, part of that's weighed by the nice figure vs. URI, but the team still hovered near or surpassed that number in four of the other five games too.


URI WF CMU LSU at USF at UVA Total Pct.
Big Plays (10+) 16 8 10 11 12 15 72 19%
Bigger Plays (15+) 7 5 5 3 3 8 31 8%
Total Plays 76 50 46 69 73 65 379

We've liked what's been happening with these numbers this season, but Syracuse has actually seen diminishing returns in this department -- especially as indicated by the Orange's 67th-best rating in explosiveness nationwide. And to be honest, we're really not very far away from last year's numbers. In 2014, 17 percent of plays went for 10 or more yards. This year, it's 19 percent. In terms of long offensive plays, SU is 118th in plays of 20 or more yards. They're 100th in plays of 30 yards or more. These figures -- which we were excited about early on -- actually aren't all that great, even compared to last year's putrid numbers. So let's press for better results here.

Yards per play: 5.40 (85th in the country)

Oof. Here too...

Red Zone

Red zone trips: 21 (83rd in FBS)

Red zone scoring percentage: 19-for-21 (90.48 percent, 20th in FBS)

Red zone touchdowns: 12 (87th in FBS)

Red zone touchdown percentage: 12-for-321 (57.4 percent, 87th in FBS)

Numbers all around are better than they were last season, but still pretty low, outside of that percentage figure. Syracuse is still stalling out in the red zone and settling for field goals too much. They're just not turning it over as much inside the 20. SU's also scoring more overall and from outside the red zone. But this is another trouble area that traces back to play-calling AND execution.


And that's it. So maybe it was a little more "in the weeds" than I promised, but still good to take a look at all of this data, especially when compared to last season. Syracuse is better all around, and should certainly be recognized for it. But let's not go canonizing Tim Lester just yet. The offense still has plenty more room to grow and excel, and they'll need to in the second half of the season if they have any shot of making it to a bowl game.