I've been a pretty big skeptic of Scott Shafer around these parts. My fears started building with the way he hired and managed his coaching staff. They grew when he made questionable decisions in games against Maryland, Louisville, and Pittsburgh, to name a few winnable games that got away last year. The 3-win season seemed less like a fluke due to injuries, and more of a validation of those fears that built during the year.
Now, I'm starting to change my tune a bit.
Let's be clear, this is not about a 3-0 or 3-1 start to the season. We all pretty much predicted three wins at this point, and anything less than that would have really set off the panic button. Hell, I even predicted a 3-0 start en route to a 3-9 finish in the worst-case scenario projection before the season.
But when you look at some of the most-criticized areas of the program over the past year or two, you start to see some significant changes. They're still far from perfect, but dare I say the coaching staff is improving, and that gives me some hope for the future.
Hey, if we criticize someone, and they actually make changes, we have to give credit where it's due. Here's what I mean...
How long have we been complaining about dumb penalties? Well, a lot longer than even Shafer has been head coach. In fact, Syracuse has averaged more than 7.0 penalties per game for four of the last five seasons, and hasn't averaged fewer than 6.5 since 2009. For some context, 6.5 penalties per game would rank 65th best in the nation right now ... so this has not been an area of strength for the Orange ...
... until now.
Maybe this is a fluke from just playing four games and having them mostly be against inferior competition, but right now Syracuse ranks 11th in the nation in penalties per game at 4.25. The Orange have even committed 0.5 fewer penalties per game than Navy, who almost always finishes in the top 10 in average penalties in a full season.
It's not just an above average start to the season from a penalty perspective either. In fact, Syracuse hasn't allowed fewer penalties per game over a full season since at least 1991 (that's the last year cuse.com archives its stats). So if things continue at this pace, the Orange may be having their most disciplined year in program history. Even if things regress a little to the mean, it seems the coaching staff has figured out a way to instill a little more discipline, and that's a big step forward.
2. 4th Downs
So many coaches play conservatively on fourth down even though study after study shows the odds are in the offense's favor of converting on a lot of these situations. Last year, Shafer was probably even conservative by those standards.
In 2014, the Orange faced 13 situations with the ball on at least the SU 45 and 4th-and-5 or shorter and not in obvious field goal range. They punted in 11 of those 13 situations. In the two situations where they went for it, one was on the Clemson 35 (and was successful, and led to a field goal), and one was in the final seconds of a half, where there was nothing really to lose by throwing a Hail Mary.
The 2015 Orange had been playing the same way in the first three games, but to be fair, they led each of those games throughout, and didn't need to be overly aggressive. But in the LSU game, everything changed. Facing 4th-and-3 at the LSU 40, 4th-and-1 at the LSU 41, and 4th and 2 at the SU 45, Shafer elected to go for it all three times (converting 2 of 3). That brings the season total to a much more respectable three out of seven times deciding to go for it in 4th and short in decent field position.
The decision to go for it, especially with a walk-on quarterback, and the defense playing well, shows that Shafer was committed to taking chances to win, instead of just playing it safe. Let's hope that continues.
Let's face it, even with all the injuries, Syracuse could have certainly won an extra game or two if they were just a little better at taking care of the football. The 2014 Orange threw 17 interceptions and fumbled the ball 13 times (losing 4).
This year has been a COMPLETELY different story. Even with four quarterbacks already throwing a pass, the Orange have thrown just three interceptions (fewer than 1 per game), and fumbled the ball just twice (and lost zero). The three lost turnovers ranks as 8th fewest in the nation this season, and shows a commitment to taking care of the football that just wasn't there last year.
On the other side, SU has turned its opponent over nine times this year, leading to a +6 turnover margin that ranks 11th in the nation so far.
4. Running the football
This one's pretty simple. Last year the Orange ran the ball on just 52.5 percent of its plays. This year, that number is up to 63.8 percent. Odds are pretty good that number will go down as SU plays from behind a little more often, but the commitment to the run is very encouraging.
Now that we've talked about the areas the staff has seemingly already improved, let's throw out a few more they can work on going forward.
1. Play Action Defense
We saw a little progress against this in the LSU game, with the Tigers only completing 3-of-5 play action passes on the day. But it's hard to get too excited when one of those incompletions was batted down at the line, and LSU completely abandoned the play fakes later in the game for some unknown reason. I'm not going to throw a parade because the Orange defense covered the play action well one time.
On the season, opposing teams are still 18-for-26 for 242 yards and 2 TDs and 2 pass interference calls. They have to keep working on this.
2. Pre-Snap Alignment
We've already seen the coaching staff have to burn two timeouts because the defense wasn't ready for the play. One was near catastrophic in the Central Michigan game, as the coaching staff realized there were uncovered receivers and had to burn a timeout with 15 seconds left and allowed the Chippewas to call a better play that resulted in a touchdown. The second was in the LSU game where following an SU touchdown and kickoff return by the Tigers, Syracuse seemed to be missing a defensive end and had to burn a timeout.
The defense is young, so mistakes are going to happen, but this is an area the staff can address going forward. It comes from preparation, and that's on the coaches to get them ready.
I look forward to making another post in a few weeks talking about how both of these areas have improved. And if we do that, Shafer may get more than a half-hearted "maybe" endorsement from me.