The 2016 football season is one of transition for the Syracuse Orange. New coaching staff. New scheme on both sides of the ball. New emphasis on offense over defense.
And yet, when watching SU’s 31-24 victory over the UConn Huskies this afternoon, it was hard to ignore that it was the defense that really bailed the Orange out. Just like they used to...
The box score may yield a different story, depending on what you’re looking for. After all, Syracuse did allow the Huskies’ Bryant Shirreffs throw for 264 yards. And were pushed around in the first half when UConn came back from 14 down. And they also left UConn’s leading receiver, Noel Thomas, open for much of the contest (he hauled in 14 catches for 111 yards).
But despite that, and questions around whether this team could make adjustments on either side of the ball, they still showed up when it mattered most, in the second half.
Before UConn’s late fourth quarter touchdown to pull within seven again, the Syracuse defense allowed just three points in the entire second half. Cordell Hudson, who almost nabbed an interception in the second quarter, would end up returning a pick for the go-ahead score in the third. And led by Zaire Franklin, the team managed to stand tall on four straight plays from inside the 10, including a masterful tackle (by Franklin) on fourth down to turn the Huskies over. The series prevented the Huskies from tying the game, and helped set up a 99-yard touchdown drive for SU afterward.
This probably reminds you a bit of Syracuse’s old, attacking defense from before it got terrible over the last two years.
Most importantly, this was a Syracuse defense down four key playmakers, including Antwan Cordy and Juwan Dowels (both out for the season), Kielan Whitner and Kayton Samuels. And yet they still played arguably their best game of the season as a full defensive unit. The team started pressuring Shirreffs from the onset, and even after a slight dip in blitz effectiveness in the second quarter, SU recovered and went right back to getting behind the UConn line.
The stat lines for several defenders were eye-popping, though not surprising if you were paying attention to their respective efforts throughout the game. Zaire Franklin, Parris Bennett and Daivon Ellison all grabbed 14 tackles apiece. You could also point to some key individual plays by each -- Franklin’s fourth down stop, Bennett’s tipped ball, Ellison cutting off a reverse in the third quarter — that made them even more valuable than those numbers let on. Franklin, the defensive captain, also had 2.5 tackles for loss on the game.
While they weren’t blitzing at the same rate they did under Scott Shafer, the defensive was still attacking — a nice change from a group that seemed to sit back and fail to get pressure in previous weeks. The level of opponent was part of it, clearly (UConn is not Louisville or USF). But it was easy to notice an uptick in the Orange level of play and effort, especially in the second half.
This was all 100-percent necessary too, after the offense sputtered and failed to score a touchdown between 10:48 remaining in the first until 2:14 left in the fourth quarter. Couple that futility with some missed field goals as well, and Syracuse’s offense didn’t necessarily hold up its end of the bargain today (Amba Etta-Tawo’s record-setting aside).
We shouldn’t have needed an effort like this from the defense, but we did, and they delivered. No, this team might not be built on the same strengths as previous iterations of Syracuse football, but for a short time it sure looked similar. The offense is coming along, but still needs time. The defense, a personnel mismatch for the Tampa-2, has struggled but moments like we saw today can help us all feel better about that progress too.
So which defense will we see next week against Notre Dame? With luck, it’ll be this one as the Fighting Irish offense is much better than what we saw against UConn. If not, perhaps it’ll finally be the offense’s chance to carry the banner for this Orange squad.