The Syracuse Orange have started fast, but sputtered in the third quarter of games in 2016. It’s been touched on a lot for the last four to five weeks as we try to determine what’s happening to cause this occurrence. But one factor that we might not be paying enough attention to is just how big of a role the injuries on the already inexperienced offensive line are playing.
Every summer when Phil Steele begins to release his college football projections, he pays special attention to returning starts for each offensive line. When you click that link, you’ll notice that Syracuse was 110th out of 128 teams, and 14th in the ACC, with just 34 returning starts. Those starts were all from three players: Omari Palmer (21), Jason Emerich (12), and Michael Lasker (1).
Emerich has missed the last three games, Palmer has missed the last two, along with Cody Conway who started the first three games. What this means is that an already inexperienced line has lost the leaders. Stephen Bailey pointed out just how young this group became when Emerich and Palmer went out.
If you’re wondering if Steele is correct in suggesting the importance of offensive line experience, let’s look at three of the more successful Syracuse seasons in the modern era.
Heading into 2012, Syracuse fielded an offensive line with 75 career starts: Zach Chibane (25), Justin Pugh (25), Macky MacPherson (12), and Sean Hickey (13). Only Rob Trudo was a new starter that season. That group played most of the season together, as Ivan Foy and Lou Alexander were the only others to be called upon to start games in front of fifth-year QB Ryan Nassib. We know that offense put together one of the best seasons in Syracuse history on their way to a Pinstripe Bowl victory.
In 1998, Donovan McNabb played his final season behind the offensive line of Mark Baniewicz, Scott Kiernan, Corey Bowen, William O’Donnell and Jeff Pilon. The first three were returning starters, and Baniewicz went on to become a NFL Draft Pick. That Orange team put up 39 points per game on their way to an 8-win season
If you go back to 1987, Don McPherson also took his final season of snaps behind three returning starters: Blake Bednarz, John Garrett, Craig Stoeppel, who were joined by John Flannery and Turnell Sims. Flannery would go on to become a second round NFL Draft pick. We don’t need to be reminded how well that Syracuse team did that season.
It’s not hard to understand the advantage that having older (experienced) players on the offensive line. After three or four years in a college program, those veterans are stronger and able to move around smaller and younger opponents. They also have more experience in picking up the stunts and blitzes they will face as teams adjust to the Syracuse offense. More time playing together means the offensive line can function together as a cohesive unit.
So while you see an offense that can’t seem to keep momentum going, remember that this group is not only adjusting to a new system, but is incredibly inexperienced up front. It’s not easy for Orange fans to keep saying “wait until next year,” but history has shown that there is a precedent for hope when you can have a number of veterans protecting your quarterback.