If you’re like me and you have a child in elementary school, you’ve probably looked in confusion at the new way math is taught. You see the number line and hear terms like “regrouping” and you get this confused look. It looks like a pretty convoluted way to get to the end result, but to the students it’s natural and straightforward. That’s how I imagine lot of people looked at Dino Babers on Saturday afternoon in one particular late-game situation.
The Boston College Eagles had just kicked a field goal and cut the Syracuse Orange lead to 21-20. BC had scored the last 10 points in the contest and with 10 minutes left in the game, momentum was on their side. As you can see below, a Syracuse win, in a game they were dominating statistically, was in danger of slipping away.
A holding penalty on the kick return pushed the Syracuse offense back to the 15-yard line. Since the Orange went three-and-out on their last series, conventional wisdom would dictate that SU would go somewhat conservative to give their defense a rest, to try and gain better field position, and most importantly run some clock.
However, this is Babers’s “New Math” where getting to the end result of a win doesn’t take the approach we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. The Babers approach certainly acts as the polar opposite of “meathead coaching,” of which Steve Addazio is a follower. You see, Addazio, like many others, assumes the Orange are going to run the ball because that’s what coaches do in this situation. He has his defense playing the run as part of his strategy of getting the ball back and going on a clock-eating drive for a game-winning field goal. We’ve seen that approach for a long time at Syracuse, and it doesn’t mean Addazio is a bad coach. It’s just the idea of playing to hold on isn’t a required part of the Babers curriculum.
So, Syracuse starts 1st and 10 from their own 15 and the first play is a deep go route to Amba Etta-Tawo. Eric Dungey isn’t able to connect, which looks to be unfortunate as BC was caught in man coverage on the outside. Even coaches willing to take that chance are unlikely to return to the same play after it doesn’t work. SU came back with a Dungey run on second down, and the quarterback got out to the 32-yard line for the first down.
Out of the shadow of their own end zone and with a fresh set of downs, this is when Syracuse has to run the ball on first down and get the clock moving... except BC’s going to still play Etta-Tawo without any safety help, because they are looking for the run. A play-fake from Dungey draws the safety in a step, which allows Etta-Tawo to run down the field without facing two defenders. With the ball in the air, he’s able to use his size advantage and he makes a ridiculous play grabbing the ball with his left hand while separating from the corner with his right hand.
His 68-yard touchdown and a Cole Murphy extra point later, the Orange are back up eight points and the BC comeback efforts are stalled. I’m sure that when BC watched the tape, they couldn’t blame the safety for biting on the play-action, as it’s clear that the defense is focused on the run.
This is not how you expect a team to try and close out a win on the road, but it’s a new day (yes it is!) and Babers isn’t playing the way you, or a lot of coaches think. At first glance, it might appear to be a bit reckless, but when you look closer, this strategy is playing the percentages. Running the ball up the middle three times against seven or eight defenders would have run some clock, but could have resulted in a punt and given the Eagles the opportunity to need just a field goal to win. Instead, look at what a touchdown did to Syracuse’s win probability, jumping it up from 61 percent to 86 percent, as well taking away any momentum from Boston College.
Sometimes all a coach can do is put players in the best position and hope they execute. For Syracuse football in 2016, that’s produced mixed results, but as the players get more comfortable in the system, the execution should improve. Just like the new math, don’t get too worked up about what looks different and focus on what’s most important: the end result. Dino isn’t going to be adding line by line carrying the one, he’s skipping ahead to count by tens and hundreds. The methods aren’t designed for us to really understand, it’s the players (students) who need to be able to apply them. The best part is that as Syracuse fans we don’t have to help with the homework. We can sit back and just enjoy the results.