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Syracuse football: Breaking down offensive play-calling vs. Pittsburgh

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Despite the loss, I’ve never had more fun re-watching a game.

Syracuse v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

THIS is why I was looking forward to doing these for Syracuse Orange football games under Dino Babers. A loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers, yes. But as Sean mentioned on Monday, it’s hard to be disappointed in the offensive output in the process. Zack Mahoney simply "got it." And in the process, helped deliver arguably the most true-to-system game thus far for the Babers-led Orange.

Strap in. This took awhile (in the best way).

First Quarter

DRIVE 1




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
14:53 1st and 10 SYR 25 Pass Mahoney Screen R Incomplete (Cornelius)
14:49 2nd and 10 SYR 25 Run Strickland End R 3 Yard Gain
14:17 3rd and 7 SYR 28 Pass Cornelius Short R 8 Yard Gain
14:01 1st and 10 SYR 36 Run Strickland Dive L 2 Yard Gain
13:47 2nd and 8 SYR 38 Play Action; Pass Cornelius Mid Range R 12 Yard Gain
13:32 1st and 10 PITT 50 Play Action; Pass Mahoney Deep L Incomplete (Etta-Tawo)
13:23 2nd and 10 PITT 50 Play Action; Pass Estime Short L 5 Yard Gain
13:07 3rd and 5 PITT 45 Pass Etta-Tawo Short R 6 Yard Gain
12:51 1st and 10 PITT 39 Pocket Breakdown; Run Mahoney Off Tackle R 5 Yard Gain
12:27 2nd and 5 PITT 34 PENALTY (False Start) Adams N/A 5 Yard Loss
12:08 2nd and 10 PITT 39 Play Action; Pass Estime Screen L 3 Yard Gain
11:35 3rd and 7 PITT 36 Pass Mahoney Short L Incomplete (Strickland)
DRIVE 2




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
9:55 1st and 10 PITT 45 Pass Mahoney Short R Incomplete (Philips)
9:51 2nd and 10 PITT 45 Play Action; Pass Riley Short L 5 Yard Gain
9:19 3rd and 5 PITT 40 Pass Etta-Tawo Mid Range M 25 Yard Gain
9:01 1st and 10 PITT 15 Pass Philips Screen L 3 Yard Gain
8:41 2nd and 7 PITT 12 Run Mahoney Off Tackle R 4 Yard Gain
8:07 3rd and 3 PITT 8 Run Riley End R 6 Yard Gain
7:48 1st and Goal PITT 2 Run Mahoney Off Tackle R 2 Yard Gain; TD
DRIVE 3




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
6:21 1st and 10 SYR 20 Run Neal End L 3 Yard Loss
5:59 2nd and 13 SYR 17 Pass Mahoney Deep M Incomplete (Ishmael)
5:51 3rd and 13 SYR 17 Pocket Breakdown; Run Mahoney End L 3 Yard Gain
DRIVE 4




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
4:54 1st and 10 SYR 33 Pass Estime Short M 1 Yard Loss
4:31 2nd and 11 SYR 32 PENALTY (False Start) Foster N/A 5 Yard Loss
4:18 2nd and 16 SYR 27 Pass Philips Short M 8 Yard Gain
4:03 3rd and 8 SYR 35 Pass Mahoney Short R Incomplete (Cornelius)
DRIVE 5




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
3:28 1st and 10 SYR 26 Pass Ishmael Screen R 9 Yard Gain
3:11 2nd and 1 SYR 35 Play Action; Pass Ishmael Screen R 7 Yard Gain
2:53 1st and 10 SYR 42 Pass; Sack Mahoney N/A 7 Yard Loss
2:21 2nd and 17 SYR 35 Play Action; Pass Mahoney Screen L Incomplete (Philips)
2:17 3rd and 17 SYR 35 Play Action; Pass Ishmael Deep R 30 Yard Gain
1:57 1st and 10 PITT 35 Pass Philips Short R 12 Yard Gain
1:45 1st and 10 PITT 23 Pocket Breakdown; Run Mahoney Off Tackle L 6 Yard Gain
1:27 2nd and 4 PITT 17 Run Estime End L 5 Yard Gain
1:13 1st and 10 PITT 12 Run Mahoney Dive R 2 Yard Gain
0:41 2nd and 8 PITT 10 PENALTY (Offside) Soto N/A 5 Yard Gain
0:34 2nd and 3 PITT 5 Run Strickland Dive L 5 Yard Gain; TD

Play-Call Breakdown: 25 passes, 9 runs

Uh, 34 PLAYS IN THE FIRST QUARTER?! (/faints) Even by Babers’s standards, this is breakneck speed. Syracuse is operating at a very quick tempo from the start, and it’s clear this is not the team from the last couple weeks. Screens and short passes are setting up deep tries, just like they’re supposed to. The run game is also finding success because they’re not just hammering away at dives. This week’s gameplan latched onto what worked for Mahoney under Tim Lester’s option-based system and those principles worked incredibly well here, too.

Second Quarter

DRIVE 6




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
10:31 1st and 10 SYR 9 Play Action; Pass Etta-Tawo Screen L 10 Yard Gain
10:15 1st and 10 SYR 19 Run Strickland Dive R 11 Yard Gain
10:02 1st and 10 SYR 30 Run Strickland Dive L 4 Yard Gain
9:44 2nd and 6 SYR 34 Play Action; Pass Mahoney Deep M Incomplete (Etta-Tawo)
9:37 3rd and 6 SYR 34 PENALTY (False Start) Foster N/A 5 Yard Loss
9:37 3rd and 11 SYR 29 Pass Ishmael Screen R 5 Yard Gain
DRIVE 7




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
6:51 1st and 10 SYR 32 Play Action; Pass Estime Short L 8 Yard Gain
6:30 2nd and 2 SYR 40 Run Strickland Dive R 3 Yard Gain
6:13 1st and 10 SYR 43 Run Strickland Dive L 6 Yard Gain
5:58 2nd and 4 SYR 49 Run Strickland Dive R 2 Yard Gain
5:38 3rd and 2 PITT 49 Run Strickland Dive R 0 Yard Gain
5:03 4th and 2 PITT 49 Pass Philips Short M 7 Yard Gain
4:47 1st and 10 PITT 42 Pass Estime Short L 5 Yard Gain
4:26 2nd and 5 PITT 37 Run Strickland Dive L 1 Yard Loss
3:50 3rd and 6 PITT 38 Pass Philips Short M 7 Yard Gain
3:38 1st and 10 PITT 31 Run Philips Screen R 8 Yard Gain
3:14 2nd and 2 PITT 23 Run Estime End L 6 Yard Gain
2:48 1st and 10 PITT 17 Pass Philips Screen R 8 Yard Gain
2:09 2nd and 2 PITT 9 Run Strickland Off Tackle L 4 Yard Gain
1:42 1st and Goal PITT 5 Play Action; Pass Etta-Tawo Screen L 5 Yard Gain; TD
DRIVE 8




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
0:03 1st and 10 SYR 38 PENALTY (Delay of Game) Mahoney N/A 5 Yard Loss
0:03 1st and 15 SYR 33 Run Strickland Dive L 3 Yard Gain

Play-Call Breakdown: 11 runs, 9 passes

It’s been quite some time since Babers called more runs than passes in a quarter, but it works quite well here. SU came out at a manic pace on drive six, and the payoff misses by inches on the deep ball to Amba Etta-Tawo. You saw it in the way Dontae Strickland was running; that aspect of the game was working much more effectively than it had all year. Again, harping on drive six, the early plays were this offense at its peak. Then on drive seven, that was arguably the most true-to-form this team has looked all year.

Third Quarter

DRIVE 9




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
12:40 1st and 10 SYR 8 Run Strickland Dive R 3 Yard Gain
12:18 2nd and 7 SYR 11 Run Strickland Dive L 2 Yard Gain
11:42 3rd and 5 SYR 13 Pass Mahoney Short L Interception
DRIVE 10




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
11:31 1st and 10 SYR 11 Run Strickland Dive L 4 Yard Gain
11:03 2nd and 6 SYR 15 Run Strickland Dive R 0 Yard Gain
10:22 3rd and 6 SYR 15 PENALTY (Roughing) Edwards N/A 15 Yard Gain
10:22 1st and 10 SYR 30 Play Action; Pass Ishmael Screen R 0 Yard Gain
10:03 2nd and 10 SYR 30 Pass Mahoney Deep L Incomplete (Etta-Tawo)
9:57 3rd and 10 SYR 30 Pass; Sack Mahoney N/A 7 Yard Loss
DRIVE 11




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
8:54 1st and 10 SYR 15 PENALTY (Delay of Game) Mahoney N/A 5 Yard Loss
8:54 1st and 15 SYR 10 Pass Philips Short M 41 Yard Gain
8:33 1st and 10 PITT 49 Pass Estime Screen L 7 Yard Gain
8:19 2nd and 3 PITT 42 Pass Mahoney Short R Incomplete
8:03 3rd and 3 PITT 42 Run Neal Dive R 42 Yard Gain; TD
DRIVE 12




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
7:23 1st and 10 SYR 17 Run Neal Dive L 2 Yard Gain
6:57 2nd and 8 SYR 19 Run Neal Dive L 1 Yard Gain
6:40 3rd and 7 SYR 20 PENALTY (Pass Interference) Briggs N/A 15 Yard Gain
6:32 1st and 10 SYR 35 Play Action; Pass Mahoney Short R Incomplete (Estime)
6:27 2nd and 10 SYR 35 Run Neal Dive R 2 Yard Gain
6:11 3rd and 8 SYR 37 Pass Estime Screen L 4 Yard Gain
DRIVE 13




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
3:56 1st and 10 PITT 45 Pass Philips Short R 5 Yard Gain
3:40 2nd and 5 PITT 40 Pass Philips Short R 7 Yard Gain
3:27 1st and 10 PITT 33 Play Action; Pass Estime Mid Range L 17 Yard Gain
2:55 1st and 10 PITT 16 Play Action; Pass Philips Screen L 2 Yard Loss
2:31 2nd and 12 PITT 18 Pass Estime Short L 6 Yard Gain
2:01 3rd and 6 PITT 12 Pass Etta-Tawo Screen R 12 Yard Gain; TD

Play-Call Breakdown: 15 passes, 8 runs

Mahoney’s first bad decision of the day (the interception thrown off his back foot) arguably puts the game away. Beyond that, however, there’s a lot to like — even if it takes Syracuse awhile to get going in this quarter. The runs are noticeably different all game, but especially here. They’re not necessarily dives. Rather, they’re almost counters, and that’s rarely more apparent than Moe Neal’s 42-yard score on a beautifully executed delayed handoff. Play-action works like a charm due to success running the ball, and by quarter’s end, you’re seeing some excellent runs after the catch (Ervin Philips) and some perfect throws on the run by Mahoney. Also, what was that weird play where the entire line played dead? (something the Cincinnati Bearcats did as well the day before)

Fourth Quarter

DRIVE 14




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
13:27 1st and 10 SYR 37 Run Strickland Off Tackle L 6 Yard Gain
12:55 2nd and 4 SYR 43 Run Mahoney Off Tackle L 7 Yard Gain
12:41 1st and 10 PITT 50 Run Neal Dive L 3 Yard Gain
12:27 2nd and 7 PITT 47 Pocket Breakdown; Run Mahoney End L 8 Yard Gain
11:57 1st and 10 PITT 39 Play Action; Pass Etta-Tawo Screen L 12 Yard Gain
11:37 1st and 10 PITT 27 Play Action; Pass Etta-Tawo Screen L 8 Yard Gain
11:24 2nd and 2 PITT 19 Run Mahoney Dive R 19 Yard Gain; TD
DRIVE 15




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
9:33 1st and 10 SYR 35 Pass Ishmael Short R 9 Yard Gain
9:02 2nd and 1 SYR 44 Run Strickland Dive R 2 Yard Gain
8:40 1st and 10 SYR 46 Run Neal Dive L 42 Yard Gain
8:12 1st and 10 PITT 12 Run Neal Dive L 2 Yard Gain
7:59 2nd and 8 PITT 10 Pass Etta-Tawo Screen L 3 Yard Gain
7:33 3rd and 5 PITT 7 Pass Mahoney Mid Range L Incomplete (Etta-Tawo)
7:27 4th and 5 PITT 7 Pass Etta-Tawo Short L 7 Yard Gain; TD
DRIVE 16




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
4:57 1st and 10 SYR 31 Pass Ishmael Mid Range M 16 Yard Gain
4:41 1st and 10 SYR 47 Pass Mahoney Deep L Incomplete
4:30 2nd and 10 SYR 47 Run Strickland Dive L 4 Yard Gain
4:11 3rd and 6 PITT 49 Run Strickland Dive L 0 Yard Gain
4:00 4th and 6 PITT 49 Play Action; Pass Etta-Tawo Screen L 49 Yard Gain; TD
DRIVE 17




Time Down Ball Run/Pass Player Direction Result
3:09 1st and 10 SYR 23 Pocket Breakdown; Run Mahoney End L 11 Yard Gain
2:47 1st and 10 SYR 34 Pass Etta-Tawo Screen L 6 Yard Gain
2:30 2nd and 4 SYR 40 Pass Mahoney Short L Incomplete
2:23 3rd and 4 SYR 40 Pass; Sack Mahoney N/A 4 Yard Loss
1:50 4th and 8 SYR 36 Pass Etta-Tawo Mid Range L 22 Yard Gain
1:37 1st and 10 PITT 42 Pass Mahoney Deep L Incomplete (Etta-Tawo)
1:29 2nd and 10 PITT 42 PENALTY (Offside) Blair N/A 5 Yard Gain
1:29 2nd and 5 PITT 37 Pass Philips Short M 11 Yard Gain
1:23 1st and 10 PITT 26 PENALTY (Roughing) Blair N/A 13 Yard Gain
1:14 1st and 10 PITT 13 Pass Mahoney Mid Range M Incomplete (Philips)
1:10 2nd and 10 PITT 13 Pass Mahoney Short L Incomplete (Etta-Tawo)
1:06 3rd and 10 PITT 13 Play Action; Pass Etta-Tawo Screen L 13 Yard Gain; TD

Play-Call Breakdown: 20 passes, 9 runs

The balance gets skewed by the clock-necessitated passing toward the end, but really this was a well-balanced and near-perfect quarter of Babers-branded football. Syracuse scores four TDs on four drives, finds itself in perpetual motion and is going as fast as it possibly can — with great success on nearly every play. Strickland’s speed is apparent in the run game, and Pitt’s front can’t even stop him. Babers sees a play works on drive 14, so he just goes and uses it again the very next snap. At one point, Mahoney has 12 consecutive completions (!!!). This is everything this offense is supposed to be. And maybe more.

***

  • Overall play-calling breakdown: 69 called passes vs. 37 called runs. (/lights cigarette)
  • First half play-calling: 34 passes vs. 20 runs (35:17 in second half)
  • First downs: 38 total (20 passing, 15 rushing, 3 penalty; 9:1:3 last week)
  • First down play selection: 31 called passes, 16 called runs (15:12 last week)
  • First down play selection on subsequent sets of downs: 22 called passes, 10 called runs (7:6 last week)
  • First down plays for five or more yards: 23, which i more than any other week and more than the last three weeks combined.
  • Second down play selection: 18 called passes, 17 called runs (15:10 last week)
  • Third down play selection: 16 called passes, 4 called runs (15:2 last week)
  • Third down conversion: 9-for-20 (6 passes, 1 runs, 2 penalties; 3:0:1 last week)
  • Fourth down conversion: 4-for-4 (0-for-2 last week)
  • This week, 53 of Syracuse's 106 play calls (50 percent) took place in Pitt territory. That’s a great rate, and is even better when you consider how often Orange trips into Pitt territory resulted in point this week (nine out of 10 times).
  • With the running game working as well as it has all year, play-action followed For Mahoney. He was 16-for-20, with 182 yards and three touchdowns coming out of play-action... which is phenomenal.
  • 15+: 10 (16, 17, 19, 22, 25, 30, 41, 42, 42, 49)
  • 25+: 6 (25, 30, 41, 42, 42, 49)
  • 10-14: 10 (10, 11, 11, 11, 12, 12, 12, 12, 13, 13)
  • Syracuse had 10 plays of 15 or more yards (only four last week vs. Florida State). Of those, six went for 25 yards or more — even better, several of those were rushes. Another 10 plays gained between 10 and 14 yards. Those 20 total plays accounted for 420 of the Orange near-record (school-wise) 668 yards from scrimmage. That means the other 86 plays averaged 2.35 yards per. That’s not amazing, though when you consider that 20 plays went for 10 or more, it’s more than inexcusable.
  • Including penalties, 12 plays went for a loss. An additional four plays went for zero yards. So despite all of the positives above, there’s still room for even more gains.
  • Syracuse was a stunning 7-for-7 in the red zone, reversing course on their continued woes inside the 20. While that didn’t do much to help their annual scoring percentage (still among the 30 worst in the country), their touchdown percentage of 67.57 was top-40.
  • The Orange had three three-and-outs if you include the third down interception in the third quarter. That’s a lot of threes. Apologies in advance.

Running just 20 out of 106 plays on third down is actually a pretty big accomplishment considering the relative success (9-for-20) converting and high overall (38) first down mark. That means the Orange were doing a great job creating first down on first and second -- which becomes more apparent when you see the 23 first down play for five or more yards. Unlike they had all season, SU wasn’t creating many third-and-long situations for themselves.

The Orange ran for 228 yards against Pitt. That would be fantastic against any opponent given this offensive line’s struggles, but against the Panthers, it’s pretty stunning. Pittsburgh was a top-five unit against the run going into Saturday. They fell to ninth after SU averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 45 attempts.

Said it earlier, but it’s absolutely worth restating: this was the best the offense had looked all year. They were true to form to most of the concepts of Babers’s scheme, running the ball reasonably well, utilizing screens en masse and finding the occasional big play past the weak Pitt secondary too. Mahoney was a surprising conduit for this system reaching the best of its abilities, but the gameplan was tailored to both his and the offense’s strengths and it worked like gangbusters.

Syracuse finished the year with 971 plays from scrimmage. That puts them 110 beyond the pace of the next-best Syracuse team (2002).

Also, why not just run up some solid numbers like that at the end of every game this year? Babers largely went with clock-killing runs to finish off games in 2016. But what happened vs. Pitt was far more fun.

And if someone wants to frame that fourth quarter for me, go right ahead.

***

Anything else that caught your eye above, or from watching the game yourself? Go ahead and add below.