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Syracuse Football: Breaking Down Late-Game Defensive Collapses

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Don't call it bad luck. Syracuse is losing close games because its defense is failing in the biggest moments. In six key drives this season, Chuck Bullough's unit has been unable to make a stop five times. Let's discuss why that's happening.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

We're seeing a trend here. The Syracuse Orange defense, once the rock of the program you rely on, has become the least dependable side of the football for Scott Shafer's team.

It's not just that the defense is giving up 27 points per game or 5.7 yards per play - those are not great numbers, indeed - but that when the team has needed a big stop to win or stay in a game, the unit has failed on nearly every occasion this year.

This is more than bad luck. This is a problem.

Every game, with the exception of Rhode Island, has been close this year. The Central Michigan and Virginia games went to overtime. Pittsburgh won on a last-second field goal. The LSU and South Florida games were one-score contests in the fourth quarter. The Orange handled Wake Forest in the end, but trailed at the half before a strong second half put the Demon Deacons away.

In those six games, the defense faced a potential game-changing drive in each. Only once - against Wake Forest - did they get the stop they needed. Even against Central Michigan - a game the Orange won in overtime - the defense flopped to allow the Chippewas to tie the score and send the game to an extra period.

As we do around these parts, let's take a look at each, and see what went right, and what went wrong.

Wake Forest - 3rd Quarter, SU leads 20-17

Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
2:01 1st and 10 Wake 25 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LCB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Sack 3 yard loss Arciniega Sack, Winfield and Simmons hurry
1:22 2nd and 13 Wake 22 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Zone Blitz (rush 4) RDE in coverage WR Screen Pass Right Incomplete Simmons, Bennett, Raymon all hurry
1:19 3rd and 13 Wake 22 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB ROLB and MLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Left 16 yard gain Thompson Hurry,  Scissum missed deflection, Winfield missed tackle
0:52 1st and 10 Wake 38 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Left Incomplete Dropped pass, Hodge, Winfield in coverage
0:44 2nd and 10 Wake 38 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A WR Screen Pass Right Incomplete Roughing the passser on SU
0:36 1st and 10 SU 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and MLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Middle Incomplete Whigham Pass Breakup, dropped INT
0:30 2nd and 10 SU 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Left Incomplete Winfield Pass Breakup
0:26 3rd and 10 SU 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB Blitz (Rush 4) Pass Sack 9 yard loss Arciniega Sack, Thompson also in on pressure

Plays: 8

Yards: 18

Result: Punt

Big Play: Arciniega sack on 3rd and 10 to force a punt.

Actually a pretty great stand by the defense against Wake Forest. If not for the roughing the passer penalty, the Deacons wouldn't have moved the ball much at all against the Orange. They covered well in the secondary and got after the quarterback for two big sacks. This was the high-water mark for the season in big moments, and is one of the reasons SU pulled away from here to win by 13.

Central Michigan - 4th Quarter, SU leads 24-17

Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
2:17 1st and 10 CMU 10 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Middle 5 yard gain SU gave up underneath route, Dowels, Hodge Tackle
1:50 2nd and 5 CMU 15 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB Blitz (rush 4) Pass Middle 6 yard gain RB leaked out late over middle, Bennett Tackle
1:37 1st and 10 CMU 21 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB, MLB, ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Right 8 yard gain Dowels gave 10 yard cushion, Made Tackle
1:31 2nd and 2 CMU 29 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB Blitz (rush 4) Pass RIght 19 yard gain Dropped into hole in zone, Scissum Tackle
1:25 1st and 10 CMU 48 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB Safety, MLB, LOLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Middle 20 yard gain QB under pressure, Williams went for big hit over knocking down, Makes Tackle
1:10 1st and 10 SU 32 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 4) Pass Middle 8 yard gain Simmons Hurry, RB leaked out, Williams Tackle
1:00 2nd and 2 SU 24 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LCB and MLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Left Incomplete Simmons Hurry
0:55 3rd and 2 SU 24 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB N/A Run Middle 2 yard loss Simmons, Slayton Tackle
0:51 4th and 4 SU 26 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB LOLB and MLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Left 6 yard gain Cordy Tackle, was in man coverage, beat on out route
0:45 1st and 10 SU 20 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB ROLB and RCB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Middle Incomplete Pass underthrown
0:41 2nd and 10 SU 20 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB Safety delayed blitz (rush 5) Pass Sack 7 yard loss Arciniega Sack
0:15 3rd and 17 SU 27 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Right 27 yard TD Raymon Hurry, Whigham, Williams closest in coverage

Plays: 12

Yards: 90

Result: TD

Big Play: Scott Shafer needing to call timeout because the defense wasn't set on the final play. This gave Central Michigan the chance to call a play in the huddle rather than scrambling to the line, which they turned into a 27-yard touchdown.

Really rough drive for the defense here, as they didn't even force a third down until Central Michigan reached the Syracuse 24. Luke Arciniega made another huge sack on 2nd and 10 with 41 seconds left, but the Chippewas scored on the next play to send the game to overtime. There were two decent-sized plays of 19 and 20 yards, but Central Michigan scored on this drive because they picked apart soft coverage by the secondary, averaging 7.5 yards per play and making it look easy.

The Orange would go on to win in overtime, but this was a harbinger of things to come.

LSU - 4th Quarter, SU trails 24-17

Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
12:00 1st and 10 LSU 27 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 3 yard gain Raymon Tackle
11:22 2nd and 7 LSU 30 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 7 yard gain Cordy Tackle
11:02 1st and 10 LSU 37 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LCB Blitz (rush 5) Run Left 6 yard loss Perfect CB Blitz stuffs run, Cordy Tackle
10:19 2nd and 17 LSU 31 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 7 yard gain Cordy Tackle
9:41 3rd and 9 LSU 38 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Pass Middle 51 yard gain Whigham in coverage beat deep easily, ball underthrown, Pass Interference, Declined
9:18 1st and 10 SU 11 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB MLB Blitz (rush 6) Pass Right 11 yard TD Whigham burned on fade in 1 on 1 coverage

Plays: 6

Yards: 73

Result: TD

Big Play: 51-yard completion on 3rd and 9 from the LSU 38. Julian Whigham burned in coverage by deep ball on key third down.

Remember how great we felt when it looked like we might actually get the ball back in a one-score game against LSU? That moment, with just less than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, was very short lived. Staring down 3rd and 9, and needing to go to the air, Brandon Harris went deep to Malachi Dupree. Whigham trailed in coverage by several yards and slammed into the receiver as he caught the ball, drawing a pass interference penalty, but not preventing the catch. One play later, it was Dupree burning Whigham again for an 11-yard touchdown on a fade. While Central Michigan mostly chipped away underneath, LSU went deep over the top, but the result was the same.

South Florida - 4th Quarter, SU trails 31-24

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

Plays: 14

Yards: 82

Result: TD

Big Play: 18-yard gain on 3rd and 14. Parris Bennett missed tackle at line of scrimmage and broken for 18-yard completion on play-action screen pass (Honorable mention: Whitner's personal foul on 3rd and 10).

The Orange had just scored to cut the score to 31-24. The offense was clicking like no other time, having just scored its third touchdown of the half. All it needed was a stop from the defense to get a chance to save the game. All South Florida did was drive down the field for 14 plays, burning more than five minutes off the clock and essentially ending the game with a touchdown. Syracuse had a chance to get off the field when they forced a 3rd and 14 right off the bat, but a missed tackle led to an 18-yard gain. They had one more chance on a 3rd down stop, but Kielan Whitner committed a questionable personal foul penalty to move the chains. As they did throughout the game, the Bulls relied on runs, screens and play action to methodically work up and down the field for the score.

Virginia - 4th Quarter, SU leads 24-21

Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
6:52 1st and 10 UVA 4 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 1 yard gain Simmons, Raymon Tackle
6:15 2nd and 9 UVA 5 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB Zone Blitz (rush 4) RDE in coverage Pass Left 9 yard gain Slant against zone in gap
1st and 10 UVA 14 Delay of game
5:20 1st and 15 UVA 9 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Left Incomplete Morgan pass breakup
5:12 2nd and 15 UVA 9 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Middle Incomplete Overthrew all receivers, in good coverage
5:07 3rd and 15 UVA 9 1 RB, 4 WR 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Middle 6 yard gain Stopped 9 yards short and easily tackled by multiple players, Facemask penalty on Franklin
4:36 1st and 10 UVA 30 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 3 yard gain End around sniffed out, Bennett, Scissum Tackle
3:58 2nd and 7 UVA 33 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Left Incomplete Scissum in coverage, overthrown
3:52 3rd and 7 UVA 33 2 RB, 2 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Middle 7 yard gain Taylor made hit 2 yards short, receiver fell forward for first down
3:24 1st and 10 UVA 40 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Designed pass, QB run Left 6 yard gain Good coverage, no one open, had to run
2:46 2nd and 4 UVA 46 2 RB, 3 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A WR Screen Pass Left 1 yard gain Winfield Tackle
2:08 3rd and 3 UVA 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Left Incomplete Underthrown in dirt, Thompson pressure
2:04 4th and 3 UVA 47 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB MLB Blitz (rush 4) RB Screen Pass Left 11 yard gain Thompson blitz from MLB, Screen pass exposed rush, good blocking downfield, Taylor Tackle
1:58 1st and 10 SU 42 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 2 LB, 5 DB N/A Pass Left 12 yard gain TE crossing open underneath coverage, LBs sagging back 10 yards Bennett Tackle
1:31 1st and 10 SU 30 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Left 6 yard gain LBs playing back 10 yards again, easy pass underneath
1:26 2nd and 4 SU 24 2 RB, 3 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A RB Screen Pass Left 12 yard gain Faked bubble screen right, dumped left with blockers, Winfield, Scissum Tackle
0:53 1st and 10 SU 12 2 RB, 3 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass Middle Incomplete Pass sailed high
0:49 2nd and 10 SU 12 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Sack 1 yard loss Good coverage, Samuels chased QB OB for sack
0:42 3rd and 11 SU 13 4 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 4) Pass Middle 5 yard gain Dowels Tackle on slant over middle

Plays: 18

Yards: 83

Result: FG

Big Play: Facemask penalty on Zaire Franklin on 3rd and 15 gave Virginia new life on drive.

The trademark for this defense in the past has always been the big play. On this drive, there were no big plays to be found, as Syracuse forced just one play for negative yardage out of 18, failed on one fourth down stop, and gave up a very unnecessary facemask penalty on 3rd and 15 when the ball carrier was stopped well short of the first down by several SU defenders. Again, Virginia didn't do anything special except get just as many yards as they needed to to force overtime. The Cavaliers averaged just 4.6 yards per play, but kept converting and Syracuse could not get off the field until the tying field goal was through.

Pittsburgh - 4th Quarter, Tied 20-20

Time Down Ball O Personnel D Personnel Blitz Run/Pass Direction Result Note
9:17 1st and 10 Pitt 5 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Right 5 yard gain Zone read handoff, Cordy Tackle
8:39 2nd and 5 Pitt 10 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and LOLB Blitz (rush 6) WR Screen Pass Left No gain Scissum Tackle
8:04 3rd and 5 Pitt 10 1 RB, 4 WR 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Pass Right 17 yard gain Again hit spot in zone between CB and Safety on sideline
7:37 1st and 10 Pitt 27 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB Blitz (rush 5) Run Middle 1 yard gain Franklin Tackle
6:58 2nd and 9 Pitt 28 1 RB, 1 WR, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A PA Pass RIght 17 yard gain Hodge was inches away from making play, play fake held him just enough
1st and 10 Pitt 45 False Start 5 yard penalty
6:06 1st and 15 Pitt 40 1 RB, 2 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Left 6 yard gain Hudson made nice play to take on blocker and force out of bounds, could have been huge gain
5:32 2nd and 9 Pitt 46 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and Safety Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 2 yard gain Arciniega, Samuels Tackle
4:56 3rd and 7 Pitt 48 1 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE 3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB ROLB Blitz (rush 4) Pass Middle Incomplete Cordy Diving Pass Breakup
4:51 4th and 7 Pitt 48 Punt Formation, 2 gunners spread left Punt Return N/A Pass Right 12 yard gain SU covered deep receiver, and underneath guy had to choose between punter or receiver, Anthony Tackle
4:21 1st and 10 SU 40 3 RB, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and RCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 5 yard gain Bennett Tackle
3:46 2nd and 5 SU 35 2 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB N/A Run Middle 4 yard gain Hudson Tackle
3:11 3rd and 1 SU 31 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB LOLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 4 yard gain 8-men line for Pitt, Scissum Tackle
2:36 1st and 10 SU 27 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB MLB and ROLB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 5 yard gain 8-men line, Arciniega Tackle
1:56 2nd and 5 SU 22 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB and LCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Middle 4 yard gain 8-men line, Slayton Tackle
1:50 3rd and 1 SU 18 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Middle 1 yard gain 8-men line, Franklin Tackle
1:39 1st and 10 SU 17 2 RB, 3 TE 5 DL, 3 LB, 3 DB N/A Run Middle 4 yard gain Simmons Tackle
0:56 2nd and 6 SU 13 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB ROLB and RCB Blitz (rush 6) Run Right No gain 8-men line, Simmons Tackle
0:13 3rd and 6 SU 13 2 RB, 3 TE 4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB LOLB, LCB and ROLB Blitz (rush 7) Run Middle 7 yard gain 8-men line, Franklin Tackle

Plays: 18

Yards: 89

Result: FG

Big Play: Fake punt on 4th and 7 to extend the drive

This was the tale of two drives within one. The Orange allowed some chunk yardage but ultimately forced a 4th and 7 from midfield with plenty of time for the offense to score and win the game for the home team. After the Panthers converted on the fake punt, the defense cracked against the run, allowing a slow and steady march down the field. What could have been a huge momentum builder for the defense, turned into another late-game collapse.

***

Drives: 6

Average Number Of Plays: 12.7

Average Yards Per Drive: 72.5

Average Yards Per Play: 5.7

I wish we could sit here and figure out the one thing that's broken with the defense late in games. Unfortunately, it isn't just one thing. Central Michigan and Virginia picked them apart with short passes before the rush could get there. South Florida used misdirection. LSU used the deep ball. Pittsburgh used trick plays and power running.

Sure, we can look at something like the Franklin facemask and call that bad luck. But that wasn't close to the final play on that drive. Likewise, with the exception of the LSU game, there wasn't one big play that directly led to a score, rather a series of poor plays that added up in the end.

Simply put, whether it's through the air, on the ground, or through trick plays, this defense is failing when it is needed most. I'm not sure how to change that, short of bringing in better players, but something needs to change if this team is ever going to win a close game.