Syracuse Orange football is 3-3 through six games this season. If you’d told us that when the season started, it wouldn’t take much of a leap to believe it. Perhaps swap the Middle Tennessee and Pitt games, but really, 3-3 was never out of the question.
But the weird thing about 3-3 is that it makes it hard to decipher what you know this tea is from what you want it to be. After SU beat Pitt on Saturday, Dino Babers said, “we’re not winners, we’re not losers.” That sort of assessment accurately describes the uncertainty of being at .500 halfway through a college football season.
In pro sports, schedules are more balanced. Win half of your games at the midway point and there’s reasonable chance you’ll do the same in the second if you change nothing about the team. Teams obviously want to win more than half, so that’s where scheme adjustments, roster moves and coaching changes occur.
But in college, as we all know, sometimes there’s little to glean from the early part of the season except the wins you earned against lesser competition. If Syracuse changed nothing from the first half of the season, it’s unlikely they’d still go 3-3. The Orange would probably be looking at a result more like 2-4 or 1-5, which is unlikely to get SU to a crucial bowl game.
But despite the competition difference between the first half and the second half, Syracuse has still shown us some things that we can expect for the rest of the year. Some of those are positives. Others? Maybe not so much. But these are the biggest takeaways from the season so far.
On offense, the cake’s not done
Sorry to borrow so liberally from Babers’s cake analogy this year, but it’s just such an apt description for this team. Syracuse has repeatedly played the same sort of game on offense against FBS opponents this year: meander through the first quarter and a half, start to show glimmers of competence at the end of the second, then pour it on in the third quarter (and maybe the fourth).
Babers wanted to start faster against Pitt than the Orange had in previous weeks. A drive ending in a field goal sort of accomplished that. But it was followed by four straight punts.
This offense can accumulate yardage with the best of them, and the record book stuff’s all fun. It just needs to result in points more often, for us to truly know this attack is ready.
SU has made great progress this year in terms of staying competitive against better competition. That’s the cake getting warmer. It’s just not done until we start seeing an uptick in points per game (only 32 right now) and finishing drives in the end zone (we’ve scored a touchdown just 50 percent of the time in the red zone).
This defense is embracing what it knows
Even when considering the injuries last year, the Orange defense was historically (for this school) bad. A lot of the blame for that — from fans -- fell at the feet of coordinator Brian Ward for introducing a whole new system counter-intuitive to the blitz-heavy scheme existing Orange players were used to.
This year, it’s an entirely different story. Ward should get ample credit for adjusting the coverage-focused Tampa-2 to incorporate more blitzes and utilize the linebackers’ versatility defending the run and pass. This staff knew it had some depth issues on the line, so they brought in JUCO transfers like Brandon Berry and Alton Robinson who were not just bodies, but pass-rush aficionados. Ryan Guthrie, a JUCO addition to the linebackers, was among the most prolific blitzers in the country at his level last year. He logged the critical sack on Ben Dinucci yesterday that forced Pitt to go with a third-stringer on the final play.
Ends up that compromising the Tampa-2 a bit to accommodate the skill set on the roster has paid major dividends. After finishing near the bottom of the country in tackles for loss last year, SU is top-50 so far this year. Opponents are converting on third down less than 25 percent of the time against the Orange (17 percent points lower than 2016). Pitt didn’t convert on their first 10 (!!!) third down tries on Saturday.
Considering the line was supposed to be a concern, having it as one of the team’s strengths is a big surprise and a major assist given the offensive troubles above.
We’ll only go as far as the offensive line can take us
Even with the offense’s spurts of consistency and the defense’s strong work overall, the offensive line is still the biggest trouble spot for Syracuse — and it could plague us in the second half too.
Last year’s injuries gave young players more reps, but those reps haven’t really resulted in better play. Aaron Roberts’s absence hurts more than we probably realized, as does having a freshman at center. Eric Dungey’s already been sacked 14 times, and his own agility has gotten him out of plenty more jams. The run game is largely as futile as last year’s.
This staff does make adjustments, and you saw some of those in the second half yesterday following a rough first 30 minutes where Pitt really got after Dungey. But the line’s inability to block is hurting every aspect of this offense right now.
Without a push up front, the run game can’t get going, and those rushes become wasted plays. That doesn’t force opponents to drag more defenders to the middle of the field, which then fails to open up the outside for big plays in the passing game. The passing game doesn’t necessarily have a certifiable deep threat like Amba Etta-Tawo, so deep throws are more questionable endeavors than they were last season.
You’ve already seen the passing game get better in the last three weeks (a good sign, since it was against better opponents), but the team’s strength is passes underneath and making things happen with speed after the catch. That’s great, except between that and the up-the-gut runs, it just lets the defense sit on the line of scrimmage and wait for us.
The lack of a deep threat isn’t the line’s fault, but the ability to give Dungey more time to throw to what we have (and help develop a run game) certainly is.
There’s plenty more points to dig down into, and I’d encourage everyone to do that below. At 3-3, we’re largely back where we started, but we won’t finish 3-3 without some adjustments. Some better line play and more consistent execution from offensive playmakers are big asks. But even small tweaks to those aspects of the game could make the difference between three wins or one win the rest of the way.
The Orange have lost three games, but only by a total of 24 points. All of those contests were winnable, despite our flaws. Though our second half opponents are more challenging and might result in another season without a bowl, we can’t lose sight of the progress we’re seeing from this group each week.