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

Yup, this was just as fun to rewatch a second time.

Clemson v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

You’ve watched the Syracuse Orange’s upset of the Clemson Tigers at least once at this point, so you understand the critical role play-calling had throughout the contest. We relive many of those encouraging moments and big plays below.

This week’s (triumphant) play-calling recap:

First Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 14 called passes, 6 called runs

SU’s hot start set the tone right away, running right at Clemson’s vaunted front, using screens to avoid pressure and then, punching it into the end zone with urgency. This is what Dino Babers has wanted all season. The second touchdown, a wide open deep ball to Ervin Philips, also hammered home that philosophy. Obviously the Tigers got hits on Eric Dungey. And I’d contend Devin C. Butler should’ve just run on that reverse instead of throwing to Dungey downfield. But this was arguably the best first quarter we’ve seen since Babers arrived.

Second Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 13 called passes, 10 called runs

Look at drive No. 5 — FIVE straight first downs. That drive could’ve honestly buried this game early, but the soft interference call took Steve Ishmael’s TD off the board, and the fumble happened the next play. Still, despite just a turnover and a field goal this quarter, Dungey was delivering some gorgeous passes and Dontae Strickland was running with real purpose. The team’s use of Ravian Pierce is also incredibly encouraging, getting better each week.

Third Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 10 called passes, 6 called runs

Dungey looked shaky at the start of the second half, but all fears were put to rest on the phenomenal 45-yard run down the sideline. The QB has a second gear that can burn anyone else on the field, and he used it there. The one-on-one coverage on Ishmael was exploited all night, and that got the ball into the end zone in this quarter. Ishmael also committed a second offensive pass interference penalty -- just don’t push with two hands!

Fourth Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 8 called passes, 16 called runs

This offense will never be known for clock management, and yet it chewed up over 11 minutes in the fourth quarter. Strickland ran well (as he did all game), but the hero -- of course — was Dungey for his third down efforts. Despite the fact that SU never should’ve gotten the delay of game on the final drive (they had two timeouts), Dungey still delivered the game-winning first down with maybe the most impressive physical effort we’ve ever seen from him.


  • Overall play-calling breakdown: 45 called passes vs. 38 called runs (last week: 55:36)
  • First half play-calling: 27 called passes vs. 16 called runs (18:22 in second half)
  • First downs: 28 total (11 passing, 12 rushing, 5 penalty; 13:10:3 last week)
  • First down play selection: 21 called passes, 20 called runs (22:16 last week)
  • First down play selection on subsequent sets of downs: 12 called passes, 16 called runs (13:13 last week)
  • First down plays for five or more yards: 14 (including several gains of 10-plus)
  • Second down play selection: 16 called passes, 11 called runs (21:9 last week)
  • Third down play selection: 11 called passes, 8 called runs (12:8 last week)
  • Third down conversion: 8-for-19 (3 pass, 5 runs; 4:4 last week)
  • Fourth down conversion: 2-for-2
  • This week, 41 of Syracuse's 83 play calls (49.3 percent) took place in Clemson territory, which isn’t better than some previous weeks, but the Orange seemed to do more with that time on the opposing side of the field. Explosive plays also helped drive that number down a bit.
  • For the second straight game, Syracuse actually had a run game, which helped out play action. The Orange were 6-for-9 throwing out of play action, collecting 100 yards and a touchdown on those throws. SU likely avoiding play action more with the immense pressure the Tigers brought most downs.
  • Syracuse had eight plays go for 15 or more yards, and even better, nearly all of those went for 25 yards or more (including two of the three touchdowns). Five more plays went for between 10 and 14 yards on the night.
  • Including penalties, 22 plays went for a loss, which is insane -- and makes you question how we won this game at all. The offense was largely big play or a loss in this one, with very little middle ground.
  • The Orange were 3-for-3 in the red zone, with two field goals. These need to become touchdowns!
  • Syracuse had one turnover and just two three-and-outs (both of those in the first half).

Following his slow start to the season, Strickland has picked things up running the ball these past two games. He has 158 yards on 44 carries, which doesn’t amount to an impressive average (3.59) but you can see the increased results nonetheless. He’s running smarter with his blockers and putting some drive behind his cuts toward the hole. The Orange picking up 162 rushing yards against Clemson was no small feat, even if 45 of those were from one Dungey run.

Again, it’s worth mentioning the ball control stuff. Syracuse has held the ball for 34 minutes or more in two straight games and closed out each contest in similar fashion, too. If the Orange can grab earlier leads and then kill off quarters like they have against Clemson and Pitt, they become even scarier for opponents.

Two separate wheel routes to Pierce worked to perfection, and Dungey seems to be developing a greater comfort getting the ball to his big tight end. Pierce exploited some mismatches these past two games, and will continue to do so. Strickland has also found his own niche catching passes out of the backfield. The progression of those two have opened up new avenues for this passing game.

At what point are the penalties fixed? I know, we won. But you can’t bank on that every time you draw a ton of flags almost entirely on unforced errors. Ishmael needs to avoid the push-offs. Valid or not, they draw attention. The team not getting set at the line is frustrating, as are the delay of game calls. It’s all very fixable. They just need to pay attention and do it.

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