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

Once SU got rolling, they never stopped.

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange wanted to start fast against the Pittsburgh Panthers. And while SU got on the board with a field goal early, we didn’t see much from the offense again until late in the second quarter. From there, things kept on rolling, however. Syracuse didn’t punt at all in the third and fourth quarters -- an encouraging sign for this offense.

Let’s jump into this week’s play-calling:

(apologies in advance if there are issues with the new format -- some changes happened on the back-end)

First Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 17 called passes, 3 called runs

Passing that many times is one way to start fast. SU was humming early with quick passes, and would’ve made even more progress if not for some low throws by Dungey and a drop. The only reason the Orange didn’t make it into the end zone here was because of a bogus offensive pass interference call on Steve Ishmael. Pitt started bringing a real blitz inside the 20. Also, Eric Dungey is almost ALWAYS off the mark on free plays.

Second Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 19 called passes, 4 called runs

Frustratingly, the best play of drives five through seven was the first one: a perfect 26-yard completion on Dontae Strickland wheel route. From there, the pocket collapsed under pressure quite frequently, derailing drives. Dungey also had a few underthrown balls, including that deep incompletion to Ishmael that would’ve been a TD if throw in front of him. All was redeemed on drive No. 8, though. Between quality Strickland runs and on-the-money Dungey throws, the series was crisp -- especially as it culminated in a gorgeous Devin C. Butler touchdown exploiting soft one-on-one coverage.

Third Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 11 called passes, 11 called runs

Reasonable success on runs (we mixed in some off tackle for once) drew the defense in, and they inexplicably failed to cover Ravian Pierce for the entire second half. It’s worth noting that Dungey’s running is getting smarter each week, too (more below). This entire quarter was largely owned by Pierce, Strickland and Butler, continually exploiting holes in the defense in the run and pass. While it’s worth critiquing the third-and-seven call from the Pitt 23, it DID burn a Pitt timeout, which paid off later.

Fourth Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 8 called passes, 18 called runs

This was probably the most consistent the run game has looked all season. Strickland just kept pulling in the defense, freeing up Pierce, and eventually setting up that big touchdown grab from Ishmael. It really takes center stage on the final drive, however, earning first downs and chewing up minutes. Dungey proved once again that he has a brass pair on that 20-yard run, plus the savvy pitch to Strickland on fourth and one. That said: A hard throw to Pierce’s chest on third and 12 is likely a first. And could probably say the same of that shovel pass on fourth.

***

  • Overall play-calling breakdown: 55 called passes vs. 36 called runs (last week: 52:25)
  • First half play-calling: 36 called passes vs. 7 called runs (19:29 in second half)
  • First downs: 26 total (13 passing, 10 rushing, 3 penalty; 13:6:1 last week)
  • First down play selection: 22 called passes, 16 called runs (22:10 last week)
  • First down play selection on subsequent sets of downs: 13 called passes, 13 called runs (13:7 last week)
  • First down plays for five or more yards: 12 (same as last week, but put to better use)
  • Second down play selection: 21 called passes, 9 called runs (16:10 last week)
  • Third down play selection: 12 called passes, 8 called runs (13:4 last week)
  • Third down conversion: 8-for-20 (3 pass, 4 runs, 1 penalty; 5:2:0 last week)
  • Fourth down conversion: 3-for-5
  • This week, 47 of Syracuse's 91 play calls (51.6 percent) took place in territory, which is even better than last week’s 50.6 percent. When SU couldn’t move the ball, it was a quick three-and-out. When they could, they were quick to get into Pitt territory. Nice work, all around.
  • With an actual run game for once, Syracuse actually used play action in earnest -- and it worked! The Orange were 5-of-10 for 81 yards and a touchdown. Early play action wasn’t great, but they also weren’t really running the ball then. As the team ran the ball more, play action opened up.
  • Syracuse had just six plays that went for 15 or more yards, which is less than the past two weeks. However, four of those went for 25 or more -- including a couple touchdowns. There were also a few more near misses that would’ve easily gone for 25 or more. SU also had 12 plays gain between 10 and 14 yards.
  • Including penalties, nine plays went for a loss, which is six less than last week’s total.
  • The Orange were 3-for-4 in the red zone, with two field goals. We can excuse the one miss in there, since it was the final drive that pinned Pitt back. Still, really need more of those trips to turn into touchdowns (we’re near the bottom of the country in TD percentage).
  • Syracuse had zero turnovers and four three-and-outs. They didn’t punt in the second half. That’s a plus.

As we’ve seen all year, you could graph out every Syracuse offensive effort similarly. Flat in the first quarter and a half, then a spike in the late second and it stays up there. Against better teams, that’s a problem. Against like teams, it’s something we can power through. If this team can actually play four full quarters on offense, we may finally see the peak of this system (I’m excluding the Pitt game as an anomaly for now).

Mentioned this above, but Dungey’s running gets smarter and smarter every game. And while teams are still getting knocks on him, this might have been the first game since his debut in 2015 that I wasn’t horrified when he took off. He’s coming into his own as a veteran quarterback, and understands how important he is to the team. Best of all, his production isn’t dropping off as a result.

From the early stages vs. Pitt, we saw glimpses of where Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal might be used down the road (next year, probably). Strickland is a quality pass-catcher and a speedy option on the edge. Neal is an odd choice to send deep (he ran two straight deep patterns in this one). It’s more likely we see him in the slot next year.

Also, the run game: It’s worth repeating that while it lacked for huge plays, and Strickland’s average wasn’t very high, the rushing attack definitely did its job. We saw less dives and more off-tackle, and Strickland followed his blocks to great results. This is not the end of the climb, and Clemson will be bigger test on Friday. But we’re seeing the plan change to fit this personnel, which is a plus.

Anything else catch your eye? Share your own takeaways below.