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Syracuse football: Breaking down offensive play-calling vs. Wake Forest

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A second-half team somehow becomes a first half team instead.

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Given the nature of Saturday’s Syracuse Orange loss to the Wake Forest Demon deacons, there was an awful lot to digest. How’d Zack Mahoney fare subbing in for Eric Dungey? What happened in the second half? How’d the team look so explosive at times?

We get into all of that and more while breaking down this week’s offensive play-calling:

First Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 13 called passes, 8 called runs

Mahoney came out firing, delivering on-the-money passes to Ervin Philips and Dontae Strickland. Some drops (five in this period) derailed things a bit, but impressively, the team used the pass to set up the run game. Both Strickland and Moe Neal seemed to be running with more power than usual, and it showed in two big first quarter gains on the ground. While we did convert the fourth down with Strickland, I still do hate calling plays on third that have little chance to convert (even if they set up shorter fourths as a result).

Second Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 25 called passes, 7 called runs

Drive No. 5 is exactly what we’ve been asking of Syracuse all along — hurry-up to freeze defense, AND use Chris Elmore at the goal line. Mahoney basically threw the football this entire quarter, but the results came with that effort. Philips had several impressive, physical catches and Mahoney made some nice throws across his body. The Ravian Pierce touchdown here was nearly an exact replica of the earlier touchdown pass to him. Perhaps we go back to that well more this season (and next).

Third Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 10 called passes, 9 called runs

After drive No. 10, Wake Forest seemed able to get significantly more pressure, collapsing the pocket on Mahoney immediately and slowing the run game down a bit too. Maybe it was exhaustion for the offensive line, but the slow down on that side of the ball, plus the momentum swing for Wake’s own offense seemed to set us on the road to ruin here.

Fourth Quarter

Play-Call Breakdown: 24 called passes, 2 called runs

Up three on the initial drive of the fourth, Syracuse heaved three straight deep balls against single coverage to try and get a big touchdown. Dino Babers detailed that thinking here, and it makes sense, though I still don’t agree with the tact. And while settling for the field goal there hurt, it was the later interceptions that damned the Orange’s chances more. Mahoney played well all day, but on both occasions, really locked onto targets, directly leading to picks. Sidenote: Rex Culpepper looked fairly crisp in his limited time.

  • Overall play-calling breakdown: 72 called passes vs. 26 called runs (last week: 63:32)
  • First half play-calling: 38 called passes vs. 15 called runs (34:11 in second half)
  • First downs: 33 total (21 passing, 10 rushing, 2 penalty; 13:7:1 last week)
  • First down play selection: 37 called passes, 12 called runs (19:18 last week)
  • First down play selection on subsequent sets of downs: 27 called passes, 6 called runs (15:6 last week)
  • First down plays for five or more yards: 20 (most all season, though 2:1 in favor of first half)
  • Second down play selection: 23 called passes, 10 called runs (26:6 last week)
  • Third down play selection: 13 called passes, 5 called runs (17:8 last week)
  • Third down conversion: 6-for-18 (3 pass, 3 runs; 7:4 last week)
  • Fourth down conversion: 3-for-5 (two for touchdowns)
  • This week, 52 of Syracuse's 98 play calls (53.1 percent) took place in Wake Forest territory, which is actually a nice uptick (though far more concentrated in the first half).
  • Especially during the first half when they were running the ball well, Syracuse utilized play-action quite a bit. Mahoney was 11-of-24 out of play action, for 128 yards and three touchdowns. Accuracy’s a bit off, but results are very much there. Mahoney also has a much more believable fake than Dungey does.
  • The Orange had 14 plays go for 15 or more yards, which is a season-high, though most of them were confined to the first half. Five of those went for at least 25 yards, showing off a more explosive SU offense. Also, another 12 plays went for between 10 and 14 yards. Syracuse was able to pick up chunk yardage for much of the contest.
  • Including penalties, eight plays went for a loss. With only a couple sacks this week, and an overall reduction in penalties in recent weeks, that’s good progress.
  • The Orange were 4-for-5 in the red zone, scoring three touchdowns to one field goal. You don’t love the miss (especially because it came late). But it’s a step toward fixing the ratio to be more about TDs.
  • Syracuse had three three-and-outs and two turnovers in the contest. That’s probably about average, though made a big difference in this game (especially with regard to the turnovers).
NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

We’ll get into the Mahoney stuff in a separate post at the top of the hour. But I counted six drops on his passes alone, which would’ve pushed his accuracy far closer to something in the mid 60s. He wasn’t perfect, and locking onto those receivers on the interceptions was exasperating. But he still drove this offense down the field a hell of a lot and helped put them in position to score on well over half of his drives.

Abandoning the run game in the second half was only a necessity in the fourth quarter -- and even then, not until later. The Orange found success with the run early and often. I would’ve thought sticking with that while the game was still close could’ve kept the offense more balanced and slowed down the torrid pace things appeared to be moving at in the later stages.

This was yet another game indicating how critical it is to generate big gains on first down. When Syracuse was doing that, the ball was moving quickly and they were putting points on the board. When Wake Forest was making stops on first, SU was derailed more often than not.

Speaking of the first half to second half split: Not sure how this team suddenly became a first half team after a full season of pouring it on in the third quarter.

Also, some nice individual plays/themes to highlight:

  • Nykeim Johnson jet sweep, which we see every so often
  • Line’s early blocking on drive No. 2 is what helped spring Strickland; and they did similar work for Neal later in the first half
  • Ishmael’s physicality was on display all game, but especially on that touchdown grab
  • Speaking of: Erv’s not a big guy, yet was able to battle in the air for a few himself
  • Neal and Strickland also showed themselves capable passing threats yet again -- further hinting at a possible switch to receiver next year that could be very effective for this offense

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