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Syracuse football 2017 report card: Quarterbacks

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NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football program went 4-8 for the third consecutive season. But since I’m not one to let anything die a peaceful death, we’re going to rehash the year anyway (while also looking forward a bit, too).

Another injury-riddled season provides plenty to ponder this offseason, and as we’re all acutely aware, there’s a high level of “what if” on Syracuse’s 2017 campaign as well. Between all of that, the difficult schedule and the Clemson win, it’s easy to dig around the results for just about any narrative you want.

We’ll choose a more optimistic view on all of it, but that doesn’t mean we’re avoiding criticism either. Looking back at 2017, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or lack thereof).

We start with...

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Miami Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterbacks

Rather than overall offensive progress in 2017, we saw offensive progress under Eric Dungey alone (though really, even that was minimal). After finishing in the top 15 in terms of passing yards per game in 2016, SU dropped to 17th. It’s a small fall comparatively, from 11th to 17th — but the six-spot decrease represented 23 fewer yards per game through the air.

Some of that’s likely attributable to the absence of last year’s deep threat Amba Etta-Tawo. And lest we forget Zack Mahoney’s record-setting passing performance in the 2016 finale that ultimately helped keep those figures afloat for the Orange in Dungey’s absence.

Still, one couldn’t help but feel like the passing game failed to progress much, even if the quarterback position seemed to look better in spots.

The question we asked all season remains: Is this offense working well enough because Dungey’s running it? Would it work better with someone else under center? It seemed like the latter could be the case in the first half against Wake Forest, when Mahoney tallied nearly 300 yards. And even in the BC loss, Rex Culpepper managed 280 yards through the air.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Without Dungey, though, there was a certain “zing” missing from the quarterback spot. He may not have always been efficient (and the S&P+ hated SU’s offense for it). But he’s been the team’s key manufacturer of big plays. Whether through the air or on the ground, his ability to come up with a major gain or a key first down is what’s led the success. When we fail, it’s typically because whoever’s at quarterback can’t make the same plays.

Looking at Dungey’s numbers alone, it’s hard to claim he really had a better season in 2017 than he did in 2016. He threw for one fewer touchdown and 180 fewer yards. His accuracy was down five percentage points and his rating dipped as well. His yards per attempt dropped by nearly a full yard.

Where he was more effective was running the ball, picking up 300 additional yards there compared to last year, plus three more scores. But at what cost?

After another offseason hearing claims that Dungey would run less, he ran 18 more times. He picked up more yards, sure. But those continual hits did lead to his eventual absence for the third straight season. Even if his numbers hadn’t really dipped, it’s still tough to view the quarterback position favorably this year when its function got the starter injured once again.

This isn’t to hammer Dungey, who’s the most crucial player in this offense. It’s to bemoan how he’s been used, and how the QB position has seemingly stalled over the past two seasons. Whether Dino Babers wants it or not, this offense has been pass-first (and second, and probably third). If the passing game isn’t operating more efficiently, though, it’s going to scuttle the offense’s ability to score points. We’ve seen that repeatedly in the past 24 games.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

You can both appreciate Dungey’s impressive stat line (3,090 total yards, 23 touchdowns) and hope for a more injury-averse performance in 2018. That’s equal parts the player not putting himself in harm’s way, the offensive line improving, and the staff not calling as many designed QB runs.

Dungey, or any quarterback in this system, needs to be the straw that stirs the drink. That was the case for most of the first nine games. And it was for parts of Mahoney and Culpepper’s respective performances as well. It seems Syracuse has outlined what’s needed at the QB spot. Now we just need to see it consistently enough. And with that potential consistency should come more scoring and (with help from the defense) more wins, too.

Final grade: B