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Syracuse’s offense needs to keep winning on first down

Digging deeper into the numbers shows optimism.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 07 Syracuse at Maryland

A lot of discussion around Syracuse Orange football has been on the defense after Maryland scored 63 points, but with the Clemson Tigers coming to town it might be up to the Syracuse offense to step up. Looking at the first two games there is some hope that the Orange can keep the ball moving and out of the hands of the Tigers’ playmakers.

Let’s start with the Liberty game though. In the first half, Syracuse hit on two big passing plays totaling 60 yards but otherwise struggled to move the ball. In the other 11 first down plays in the half, the Orange gained 29 yards.

Syracuse on First Down vs Liberty

1st half Run or Pass Yards Liberty- 2H Run or Pass Yards
1st half Run or Pass Yards Liberty- 2H Run or Pass Yards
Run 2 Run 5
Pass (Sack) -5 Run 20
Run 2 Run 0
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Run 1
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Run 3
Run 4 Run 0
Pass 31 Run 0
Run 7 Run 0
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Run 2
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Run 3
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Run 3
Run 8
Pass 8
Pass 29
Pass (Incomplete)
Run 3
Pass (Incomplete) 0
Run 6 26 Run 11
Pass 11 63 Pass 0
Total 28 126 4.5 yards on 1st down
First Down Offense

You can see that in the second half, Dino Babers simply decided to run the ball and trust that the Syracuse defense would keep dominating. The run game wasn’t very effective but did enough to keep the clock moving. This lack of success on first down kept the offense from putting the Liberty defense into positions where they had to respect the run and pass.

Against the Maryland Terrapins things started off much in the same way for Syracuse. Passing on first down resulted in one 39-yard completion and little else. Running the ball proved more effective than the first week but with Syracuse chasing the score the gameplan was seemingly scrapped.

Syracuse on 1st down vs Maryland

1st half Run or Pass Yards 2nd Half Run or Pass Yards
1st half Run or Pass Yards 2nd Half Run or Pass Yards
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Run 6
Run 10 Pass 9
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Pass 52
Pass 7 Pass 16
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Pass (Sack) -13
Run 4 Pass (Incomplete) 0
Run 3 Pass 10
Run 10 Pass 4
Pass (Incomplete) 0 Pass -4
Pass 7 Run 4
Run 6 Pass 11
Pass 39 Pass 19
Run 4 Run 6
Pass (Sack) -6 Pass 5
Pass 3 Run 1
Run 6 37 Run 4
Pass 8 50 Pass 11
15 87 15 122
Total 30 209 6.96 yards on 1st down

The second half passing numbers brought the overall first down numbers to a pretty nice 6.9 yards per play. Obviously the Orange were in a situation where they were well behind and Maryland was likely playing a prevent defense, but the key is that Syracuse is most effective when they can use the run and pass equally. The offense is designed to spread the defense out and attack to keep defenders off-balanced. It’s crucial that they avoid getting behind in down and distance as it will allow opponents to key on the passing game and dial up the pressure on Tommy DeVito.

We’ll see if Syracuse can keep up that second half success on Saturday night. It may sound cliche, but keeping the Clemson defense guessing could open up the types of big plays that the Orange will need to pull off the upset.

Though we’ve yet to see a ton of consistency from Syracuse there this season, previous seasons have shown just how much first down success means for this offense. In SU’s best offensive games since Babers took over, the Orange have typically had 12 or more first down plays of five yards or more — and at the peak, it’s been somewhere between 15 and 18.

Before the season started, we knew the potential for DeVito at quarterback, but were also hoping he wouldn’t be forced into being the Orange’s primary playmaker on offense. So far, that’s largely been the case, and it’s why he’s been put into spots where mistakes can happen. This offense needs balance in the way of having options, but it ultimately needs to be an attack that leans on the run first and foremost.

The longer they can stay in it against Clemson, the more that becomes a reality (and the more that increases their chances of pulling an unlikely upset there — or beating any other opponent, for that matter).