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).
Injuries have told the story of Syracuse’s offensive line in nearly every season since we joined the ACC, and this one was no different. Before we’d even played a game, it was announced that starting guard Aaron Roberts would miss the entire year. For a young line that needed help on the interior, it was about the worst news possible.
Early returns were worrisome. Even in game one against an overmatched Central Connecticut team, the Orange only averaged 3.8 yards per carry and the Blue Devils managed three tackles for loss. They got pressure on Eric Dungey too. It seemed like a harbinger of things to come, and in many ways, it was.
Through the season’s first seven weeks, Syracuse averaged more than 3.78 yards per carry just once (a 300-yard effort against Central Michigan). Dungey was under duress as a rule, even against teams like Pitt that couldn’t really generate pressure. Better pass-rushing teams like LSU and Clemson swarmed Dungey, hitting him enough to lay the groundwork for him being so banged up later on.
But despite all of that, things did start to turn around for the line.
The holding penalties and false starts began to decrease, and you saw better pushes in the middle from guys like Airon Servais as they started to get more comfortable in a starting role at a fast tempo. Servais was just a redshirt freshman, and it showed sometimes with snap issues and other red flags. However, he did progress as the year went on.
SU also started to run the ball better, too. The Orange averaged at least 4.38 yards per carry in four of the final five games — and still hit 3.73 in the other one against Florida State. Blocking was improving for Moe Neal, particularly, to make better cuts up the middle. Even as the passing game declined when Dungey got injured and the run game became an even bigger focus, they were still able to get that same push.
While Syracuse still allowed a ton of sacks (32), there was definitive improvement across the board. A look at Football Outsiders’ offensive line numbers:
- Adjusted line yards: 101.3 (67th) — up four full yards from 2016
- Standard down line yards: 2.78 (86th) -- rose nearly 40 spots
- Passing down line yards: 3.07 (85th) -- rose nearly 30 spots
- Opportunity rate: 35.4% (103rd) -- up five full percentage points
- Power success rate: 74.1% (29th) — up nearly 100 spots
- Stuff rate: 17.6% (39th) — up nearly 50 spots
- Adjusted sack rate: 117.7 (47th) -- up nearly 20 spots
- Standard downs sack rate: 5.7% (83rd) -- actually worse, by a hair
- Passing downs sack rate: 6.2% (51st) — down about 33 percent from ‘16
(here’s a glossary to break down what these terms mean if you need it)
You look at all of the improvement there and it’s clear that despite Roberts’s absence and all of the youth, this was clearly a better group in 2017. No, nothing’s necessarily amazing beyond the power success rate, and you can probably attribute that to Dungey. But it’s vastly better than it was before. That’s real, tangible progress. And that’s from a team starting two redshirt freshmen and a redshirt sophomore this year.
The veterans also showed steady progress as well. Junior Cody Conway’s established himself as the team’s best linemen and received recognition from Pro Football Focus for being one of the conference’s best at numerous times this season. Jamar McGloster earned himself an invite to the East-West Shrine Game.
For the first time in awhile, the same five players started every game and played nearly all the snaps. That cohesion paid off toward the end of the ear. And it’s going to pay off going forward as well.
Next season, Syracuse will have six different players with extended starting offensive line experience, plus two blue-chip linemen coming in and a good bit of depth holding over as well. As much as it’s aggravating to play wait-and-see on talent, this year was very much that when it comes to the O-line. It’s going to pay big dividends come next season (and beyond).