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Syracuse football 2018 report card: Offensive line

A little bit more protection paid a lot of bit of difference.

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

The Syracuse Orange football program finished 10-3 in 2018 — the first time SU’s done as much since 2001. So while these postseason reviews typically end up skewing toward what went wrong, hopefully this is the first of many seasons in a row where we get to happily recap what went very right.

Despite winning 10 games, though, it’s not as if things were perfect. These “report cards” serve as an assessment of both good and bad. Looking back at the past season, we’re going position by position, to see what worked, what didn’t and how that impacted the Orange’s success (or in rare cases, lack thereof). Hopefully you enjoy. And why wouldn’t you? We have a top-25 team to root for again.

We last focused on the wide receivers and tight ends. This time around:

Offensive line

For Eric Dungey’s first three years at Syracuse, we just kept saying “if he could only get better protection, he’d at least stay healthy.” And with a veteran offensive line in 2018, that was largely true. The senior passer started 13 games, and really only missed about three quarters due to injury (in the Notre Dame game).

Coming into this year, SU already had one of the most experienced lines in program history, and that was before Koda Martin came over from Texas A&M. With Martin slotted in at right tackle, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that things would be better than we’d yet seen under Dino Babers on the line.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Boston College Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

And to some extent it was. The run game improved by leaps and bounds, adding nearly 40 yards per game and more than doubling the number of rushing scores (from 16 in 2017 to 38 this year). All of that deserves some praise, as the stronger run game helped set up a better passing attack.

Still, that passing attack didn’t necessarily have the sort of protection you’d have expected. Syracuse allowed 37 sacks on the season, which was five more than last year (and 0.25 more per game, for those looking to excuse it because of the bowl).

That figure was 114th in the country, despite the Orange having about 80 fewer pass attempts this year versus last.

Now some of that can be excused. Dungey has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, and did create some sacks for himself. Plus, with Tommy DeVito under center for stretches, his inexperience would end up creating pressure when there otherwise wouldn’t have been much. Accounting for those factors, however, there was still marginal improvement at best when it comes to how this line protected the quarterback — a primary part of the unit’s job, aside from opening holes for the run game (which again, it did).

Lucky for them, the eye test isn’t the only measuring tool for O-line play. While sacks were bad, the rest of the line actually graded out extremely well, if you look at Football Outsiders’ numbers. Syracuse was 93rd in sack rate (7.7 percent) and 123rd in passing down sack rate (13.9 percent). Yet, that rate went up to 29th (3.6 percent) on standard downs.

Better still were the rushing numbers, as you may have figured based on the improved play in the run game. It averaged 2.76 line yards per carry (25th in the FBS), and had a power success rate of 77.1 percent (31st overall). The stuff rate was top-10 in the country at just 14.1 percent. This group moved the pile frequently, and they did it on both passing (23rd) and standard downs (32nd).

So perhaps Dungey created a few more of those sacks than we remember...

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

In any case, this group showed the value of having a veteran line that improved over the course of last year, then plugged in new players this year (Martin, a returning Aaron Roberts) to only get better in the most important aspects when it comes to keeping offenses moving.

As we’ve come to learn in year three of Syracuse running an up-tempo attack, keeping things moving is critical. Even if it’s a few yards at a time, that constant tempo wears down defenses. But if you’re unsuccessful, it wears down your own defense just as quick. This team’s ability to successfully move the ball no matter the situation was a big part of the efficiency improvement on offense and big uptick in scoring.

Now that we’ve seen what they can do with an SEC-caliber addition, though, things sort of hit reset in 2019. Evan Adams and Airon Servais are back from this past year’s starters, and Sam Heckel should move up to center or guard, putting his previous starting experience to use once again. The reserves have some inexperience. But after a year of Mike Cavanaugh seemingly coaching up some pretty nice production, there’s faith that he’ll do so again with the quality line depth this team’s built under Babers.

Grade: B+