1. The defense (obviously, since they gave up 64 points and were largely tissue paper out there)
2. Zack Mahoney not being able to play up to whatever standard applied to him by a significant number of fans
The first one’s undeniable. The second is patently false.
I’ll start by saying I’m far from a Mahoney defender -- something that any regular reader will likely agree with. Like many, I’m a fan of his story from walk-on to record-holder, and think he’s a great ambassador for the program and university. But I’ve never been one to campaign for him to start over Eric Dungey. Or even Rex Culpepper, for that matter.
But when I re-watched this weekend’s game, I did pay keen attention to Mahoney’s performance. And while it was far from perfect, I’m just not sure what people wanted from the senior. As I mentioned during the first half:
Dungey's able to do insane things, but those situations are sort of created by the type of offense he runs. Mahoney's turned into a solid drop-back passer in this O and it's a bit more fluid than Dungey's (still very good) offense.— John Cassillo (@JohnCassillo) November 11, 2017
That was at the close of the first half, when things were still far more pleasant and you could look on the bright side of things. But the point stands. Mahoney was 33-of-60 for 384 yards on the game, and was even more accurate than that in the first half. And that’s before accounting for three or four drops. I’ll refer back to the play-calling breakdown for the individual drive details. However, on 15 drives, he led five touchdown drives, two field goal drives and another five got inside the Wake Forest 40-yard line.
For much of the game, first down gains were significant. He wasn’t just padding stats with short screens. He was gaining big chunks at a time, quickly getting Syracuse within scoring range.
Obviously, finishing drives is key -- and that’s something the team failed to do in the second half. But from the perspective of getting the team in position to score, he did that repeatedly; in fact more times in a single game than Eric Dungey has all season.
Of course at this point, you’re probably going to focus the interceptions — which were avoidable since he locked onto receivers both times. And those three straight heaves to the end zone with the ball at the Wake 33 while up just three points. And I agree, those were terrible. But he’s far from the only quarterback to throw a pick this year, or make questionable decisions with momentum and a chance to score. Dino Babers addressed the heaves on Monday:
"I saw that their DBs were playing short. We threw the first one to Devin Butler and he had his guy beat. We threw the second one to Ish, and he had his guy beat. And we threw the third one, I believe, to Ish in the middle of the field and, I believe, he had his guy beat."
Maybe that’s on the staff to adjust for Mahoney’s lesser arm strength, but it really didn’t stop him from completing longer passes at any other point in the game. Like many of you, I openly questioned the decisions at the time, and still do to an extent. But the conventional wisdom on going for the shorter throws may have been shut down by the defense anyway. We’ll never know, though. And if we’re riding with Babers (and we are), we have to take every outcome of the aggressive approach.
So no, this isn’t a loud defense of Mahoney’s interceptions. Or an impassioned plea he should start either of the next two games, regardless of Dungey’s health. But when you take a real look at what he did with a week to prepare with the first-team, it’s tough to ask much more of Mahoney.
Babers’s offense was explosive and fluid for a good chunk of Saturday’s game, and it actually scored the second-most points it has all year (and the most vs. an FBS team). You don’t have to praise Mahoney for what happened on Saturday. But panning his performance as a bad one is also a dishonest assessment.