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Defensive Breakdown: Syracuse vs. NC State

A look at the defensive side of the ball shows some of the same mental errors the offense suffered from.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Syracuse Orange Head Coach Dino Babers stood tall for his weekly local press conference, and answered questions about his football team in preparation for Pittsburgh this week. His hairline was noticeably crisp, smooth, and well kept.

I say this because it’s incredible he still has hair at all after Saturday’s performance. Leading into last week’s matchup with the N.C. State Wolfpack, scouting reports suggested the Wolfpack’s passing offense would be the greatest threat to Syracuse’s defense.

But it was their run game that stumped the Orange. Misdirection, dive-options, and power run plays defeated Syracuse’s defense play after play and ultimately resulted in 256 yards on 47 attempts. Three different players averaged six yards or more. By the second quarter it became easy to wonder, “what’s going on?”

“They beat us physically” Babers said of the loss.

And in football that might be the worst way to lose. Physicality can’t be coached. It’s a matter of want-to but on a team like Syracuse’s — one pressed for bodies and playing a lot of youth — it isn’t necessarily a requirement to play.

Despite the lack of physical play, Syracuse still had a chance to win the game. But when you add mental errors into the mix. The Orange really had no chance.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

4th Quarter | 10:25 | 20-Yard Line

NC State has the ball here and line up with two receivers wide and an H-Back to the quarterbacks right. Syracuse adjusts to the formation and the ball is snapped. The Wolfpack run a bubble screen to the slot receiver in the group. In the situation, the outside “No. 1” wide receiver goes to block the corner. Leaving the outside linebacker one-on-one with the second receiver running the screen and a safety coming down to help. In this situation, the safety would have outside contain and the linebacker would be inside.

As the play continues, instead of taking a 45-degree angle towards the ball and being an inside presence, the linebacker continues on a 90-degree angle and the H-Back assigned to block him helps wash him out to the sideline the play. The safety who came down to help did his job but had no inside help. The receiver cuts back up field and gains 19 yards. NC State would score on the next play and go up three scores.

2nd Quarter | 11:15 | Midfield

Around midfield, both teams lined up for a second down play. The down and distance indicated run based on NC State’s tendencies up to that point. Here’s an example of the physicality, or lack thereof, Coach Babers had talked about.

The play begins and two seconds in, all four defensive lineman are either on the ground or pushed two yards off the ball. Situations like this one almost always guarantee a successful run and at some point pride has to kick in because you don’t want that kind of play on tape. Defensive line play had been stellar prior to last week. Hopefully they can get back to their old ways against Pitt.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

1st Quarter | 0:30 | SU 20-yard Line

On this play, NC State had just reached the edge of the redzone. The quarterback lines up and makes his reads. Syracuse decided to play 2-man where the corner is situated in press coverage taking away the inside and playing underneath the route. The safety is aligned 10-yards deep on the hash mark playing half coverage.

In this situation, the strength of the formation was to the other side of the field, meaning there was just one receiver to the boundary. One threat. In half coverage this should be manageable because the safety only need to be visual of one man.

There are multiple issues with this play:

1. A fade route should almost never be caught against 2-man. It’s essentially double coverage.

2. The safety is aligned at the 10-yard line on the hash — meaning there are 20 yards to the sideline and 10 yards behind him until the goalline.

3. Geometry tells us that means there are seven yards at a 45-degree angle between where the ball is caught and the initial safety alignment.

4. The play was five seconds long.

If you give the safety one second for a read step, so that means he had four seconds to turn and run seven yards to make a play on the man or the ball. The secondary has misplayed this coverage for several touchdowns now, and until it’s addressed, teams will exploit it. Syracuse needs to make these plays otherwise they will continue to lose.


The game of football isn’t easy. Especially in the ACC. I’ve had my share of bad games and I get it. They happen. No defense is perfect, but the ones who follow through on the little things get the closest. While this defense is certainly skilled, the mental errors and lack of awareness this week suggest they were not prepared. The gameplan can only do so much, but it is up to the players to execute.