After John Wolford torched Syracuse for 373 yards through the air in Week 2, I didn't think it was possible for the Orange's pass defense to regress. But that's what happened Saturday, when Central Michigan quarterback Cooper Rush threw for 430 yards and two touchdowns against SU in a 30-27 loss.
Rush is a talented quarterback, but I'm less inclined to give him credit for what transpired than I am to blame Syracuse. Thanks to some inherent flaws in SU's defensive schemes, Rush was consistently throwing to wide open receivers.
On the above play in the first quarter, Syracuse brings a cornerback blitz from Rush's left, freeing up wide receiver Jesse Kroll. SU's safeties are playing deep and only one linebacker (Zaire Franklin) drops back into coverage -- and he doesn't do so until the ball is almost out of Rush's hand and it's clear that CMU won't be running the ball. This leaves Kroll virtually uncovered, and because SU's blitz doesn't get to Rush in time, an easy completion follows.
This became a common theme throughout the day: Syracuse's only hope to stop Rush was to get significant pressure on him.
On a key third down in the second quarter, SU sent more pressure -- this time a six-man blitz -- but completely forgot to account for Kroll, who was left wide open in the flat on Rush's right.
Even when Syracuse wasn't blitzing, the Orange still couldn't stop Rush. They were simply too concerned with (a) stopping the run and (b) preventing the big play. This left them especially susceptible to play action; the linebackers bit on the fake hand-offs and, with the secondary playing prevent, a large area in the middle of the field was constantly left vacant. Take a look:
Plays like the one above make Syracuse's rush defense statistics -- the Orange rank third in the country in rushing yards allowed per game -- look a lot less impressive. SU is taking away the run by stacking the box on most plays, and it works. But when you couple that with the lax defense the secondary plays, it makes it an easy task for opposing quarterbacks to shred SU through the air.
Of course, SU head coach Scott Shafer and defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough know that. They likely fear that if they were to use more press coverages, cornerbacks Julian Whigham and Corey Winfield would get burned from time to time and give up big plays over the top. And Bullough and Shafer would be warranted to fear that; we saw Whigham get beat a number of times in the first half of the Wake Forest game.
So Syracuse will opt to live and die on the expectation that, even if the Orange give up a lot of yards through the air, they'll create enough turnovers and get enough sacks to compensate. So far, that strategy has worked, but it's a risky gamble to play -- and it'll get riskier as the competition gets tougher.