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Syracuse football: After years of bending, Brian Ward (and his defense) finally broke

Saturday’s embarrassing effort was the last straw.

NCAA Football: Boston College at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Syracuse Orange football team allowed a program-record number of rushing yards on Saturday. That’s embarrassing against any opponent. But against a peer like Boston College — who brought a very one-dimensional attack to the table — it’s especially jarring.

SU’s struggled for much of the year against the run, due to McKinley Williams’s absence and linebacker struggles. However, allowing nearly 500 yards is an entirely different story; one that’s only made worse by the revelation (via Steve Addazio) that the Eagles ran the same play about 30 times because SU didn’t adjust and couldn’t really stop it. That quote — with or without the tape — was enough to lead Dino Babers to fire defensive coordinator Brian Ward.

#FireWard has been a thing since Babers took over Syracuse football in 2016, but the volume’s died down on the call each year. SU’s raw defensive numbers were never going to be great given the tempo of the offense supplying, but last year’s switch to a 4-5-2 and a more blitz-heavy and ball-hawking approach did pay some major dividends.

Those continued through one game of 2019, when the Orange shut out Liberty and continued to get after opposing passers. The Maryland game obviously got the ball rolling in the opposite direction, though. And even with some better efforts (including most of the NC State game less than a month ago), there was something off this year — a season which features a handful of future NFL players — and it all came to a head with the Boston College effort (or lack thereof).

Ward’s Tampa-2 has always been a “bend but don’t break” defense, and some years it’s bent more than others. You can certainly argue it’s broken before (the 76-61 loss to Pitt in 2016 being the pinnacle of that concept). What we saw against Maryland — getting read-optioned to death — and Boston College — getting pounded by the same play repeatedly without an answer in sight — was not just breaking, though. It was getting run off the field. It was a lack of preparation and a lack of answers. It was unacceptable.

Western Michigan v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

That, and the fact that it’s happened more than once this year, is the reason Ward was the sacrificial lamb during a disastrous season that surely needed one (as discussed here on Sunday morning, prior to Ward’s departure). He may not be the last. However, the clear lack of active coaching against BC supplied the scapegoat required.

Has Ward been the worst assistant on this staff during a forgettable season? No, it’s tough to argue he was, given the state of the offensive line. But if Syracuse is going to take football as seriously as it claims to, the head that rolls can’t be an O-line coach. Coordinators can’t be untouchable, and members of Dino’s “family band” have perhaps seemed as much to this point. Letting Ward go potentially functions as a sign of a new way of doing things for Babers — one that’s certain to extend into a very important offseason for him and this program.

We’ll see if this is a move that starts the turnaround (this year or next), or is just a stopgap for appearances. For now, I’m opting to give Dino the benefit of the doubt that as a leader, he’s hitting the reset button and making a key adjustment after a year sullied by a lack of them.