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Syracuse’s offense misses Amba Etta-Tawo more than we realized

Ends up you can’t just replace an All-American.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Replacing an All-American is not an easy task, but it’s one we felt the Syracuse Orange were up for it going into 2017. Steve Ishmael could step up into Amba Etta-Tawo’s role, and then some combination of Devin C. Butler and Jamal Custis would fill the other outside receiver role. “Simple,” we though.

Ishmael has stepped up as the team’s leading receiver, sure. He leads the country with 26 catches. But the big plays -- where Etta-Tawo excelled — have been largely absent from the passing game.

Last week, Syracuse had zero passing gains over 15 yards. Just three deep balls were tried, and all three failed to hit the mark (and that’s not on Eric Dungey — they were largely dropped). Against Central Connecticut, SU had six passing plays go for 15 or more yards, and four go for 25 or more. Adjusting for opponent, it’s easy to see how those results come in so differently.

Middle Tennessee v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

According to Bill Connelly’s numbers, we’re currently ranked 101st in explosiveness. We were 71st (still not great, but better) last year. The first two games of 2016 featured 19 plays of 15 or more yards, and 10 of 25 or more. That’s when Syracuse was first figuring out the offense.

As Kevin pointed out the other day, one way Syracuse can fix the run game is by throwing the ball more. Right now, this is a West Coast offense, basically, with short passes and short runs dictating the entire attack. Defenses can hang around the line of scrimmage because nine out of 10 times, the play will be there.

In game one, the lack of a deep threat wasn’t for lack of trying. Dungey hit his first two deep passes, before the next seven were incomplete. Ishmael hasn’t been utilized a ton in this deep role, with the team looking at Custis and Butler fare more (something we expected). Ervin Philips got a shot at a deep pass vs. CCSU, but also failed to haul it in.

Middle Tennessee v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The problem isn’t Dungey, who’s delivered these passes on the money, for the most part. It’s drops. And between that eroding confidence that receivers can haul in deep passes, and an offensive line that can’t protect Dungey long enough to let him target a deep route, this isn’t looking pretty.

Against Central Michigan, the pass rush won’t be great, but the secondary isn’t likely to yield a lot of one-on-one matchups. For Ishmael, that’s something he can get around. Assuming Butler is getting the start over a possibly injured Custis, we’ll see if the green sophomore can get separation in traffic. He’ll need to figure that out quickly, given the quality of the secondaries left on the schedule. Etta-Tawo faced plenty of single coverage last year, but also understood how to create space in any part of the field. SU doesn’t appear to have a receiver that can do that just yet.

While they wait (potentially without ever receiving an answer), the team does still have some options. The short passing game has worked, so perhaps find ways to further involve Philips and Sean Riley there. Use Ravian Pierce to pull an extra defender to the middle of the field.

An effective run game pulls linebackers in, but without that, an effective inside passing game does as well. Since we’re not banking on the rushing attack figuring itself out, the latter may have to feature more prominently, but with different personnel. Ishmael can be used there, but he needs to be freed up for those deep shots on the outside. Butler/Custis shouldn’t be near the line of scrimmage at all, going deep more often than not.

Syracuse can still run an effective offense without a deep passing attack, but it won’t necessarily be the offense Dino Babers wants to employ each game, either. This week is our last chance to start moving away from the West Coast offense, before the schedule gets infinitely tougher. Expect Babers to have some new wrinkles, so we’re better prepared for both LSU and ACC play going forward.