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Syracuse football grades vs. Clemson

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Well, that was a weird game. Let’s grade it.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

I bet many people before the game assumed that I would give out similar grades to last week’s debacle against Liberty. Gladly, the Syracuse Orange proved us wrong as they put up a valiant effort against Clemson. SU played the Tigers tight throughout the game before it was out of reach in the fourth quarter, and perhaps there’s some positive motivation as the Orange return to the friendly confines of the Carrier Dome.

With that said, not every grade was just a straight-up improvement over the Liberty game. There are still holes and wrinkles that Syracuse needs to smooth out in order to feel confident through the rest of the schedule. So how did the various Orange units perform against the No. 1 team in the country?

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterbacks: D-

Rex Culpepper had a really nice throw to Nykeim Johnson for his 83-yard touchdown. He seemed fairly in tune with Anthony Queeley, who is clearly Culpepper’s favorite target. Throughout the first half, Culpepper’s grade was floating around a low B to a high C. His accuracy wasn’t amazing but he was making some of them and had some fairly decent decision-making.

That all derailed in the second half. I said last week that Culpepper didn’t lose the game for Syracuse. Unfortunately, he did this week against Clemson. His fumble towards the end of the third quarter swung the momentum firmly into Clemson’s hands and they never let go of that momentum. Culpepper’s three interceptions was also the most by any Syracuse quarterback this season in a game, and almost all of them greatly shifted the tide towards the Tigers.

I might be in the minority here, but I’m not completely ready to give up on Culpepper just yet. Keep in mind that this is only his second week running full-time with the ones. The freshman quarterbacks that fans want to see have also been working on the scout team for the majority of the season. Dino Babers has openly admitted that they don’t know how the freshman signal callers play because they haven’t been the primary focus during preseason training camp or practice.

The lack of repetitions that JaCobian Morgan and Dillion Markiewicz have with the Orange offense means that Culpepper is still the best option for the next couple of weeks. But if his accuracy doesn’t improve over the next two or so games, that’s when I think the coaching staff will make a change to see what they have for the future.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Running Backs: C+

If I was solely grading this unit off the performance of Sean Tucker, this grade would be a B+ or A-. Tucker is still making the case for being the best Syracuse player on the field and there’s no doubt now that he’s the current leading running back. Who knows what Abdul Adams or Jarveon Howard will do next year. However, if they decide to return to Syracuse, you could make a very good argument that Tucker should still be RB1.

That being said, we’re still grading all of the Syracuse running backs here, and it’s clear that no one can match the production that Tucker provides. The Orange coaching staff did try as they often gave the ball to Cooper Lutz on first down, but the Pennsylvania native couldn’t get anything going. Lutz only got 18 yards on 10 carries.

Because the Orange didn’t have Tucker to set up manageable distances to move the chains, the Syracuse coaching staff needed Culpepper to throw the ball more, which ultimately led to the turnovers that decided the game. Syracuse couldn’t run the ball effectively in the first two games of the season when Tucker hadn’t emerged, and the Orange will experience that pain once again if Tucker is carrying a serious injury.

Wide Receivers: C+

It’s really hard to say how much Taj Harris would’ve helped Syracuse offensively. Perhaps he’s the spark that Culpepper needs to remain the starting quarterback. However, I actually found that I didn’t notice Harris’s absence from the field until later in the game. As I said earlier, Queely is quickly becoming Culpepper’s favorite target and he’s continuing to show why he jumped up the depth chart at the beginning of the season.

The man that replaced Harris in Syracuse’s offense is the guy many people thought would have Queeley’s spot at the beginning of the season: Ed Hendrix. He didn’t look too bad, grabbing three balls for 24 yards. He seemed a little disconnected on some routes, but it’s hard to say who would be at fault for those types of incompletions.

Nykeim Johnson had that explosive 83-yard touchdown, but he was relatively absent from the game. The big issue for Syracuse is the depth behind Harris, Johnson, and Queeley. Hendrix might become a good fourth option, but we’ve seen the Orange coaching staff trot out Sharod Johnson and Courtney Jackson with little effect.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Jackson didn’t feature against Clemson, but Sharod Johnson appeared towards the end of the game and didn’t exactly impress when he was targeted. When you have a quarterback who can go through his reads quickly like Culpepper does, it behooves the coaching staff to give him multiple options and there aren’t many that Culpepper trusts.

Tight Ends: C

Each tight end received a target and couldn’t do much. Aaron Hackett dropped a pass and Culpepper was looking for Benson when he threw his third interception. I still want to see these guys more in the receiving game.

Offensive Line: C

Anytime that the offensive line gives up only one sack is a good day. There were still pocket issues, particularly on Culpepper’s fumble, that plague the offensive line but the pass protection looked ok for the most part.

The big issue I saw with the offensive line came was in the run blocking. The holes that were available for Tucker seemingly disappeared when Lutz came into the game. Even though Lutz got some outside runs, it seemed like he was running into a mountain of players every time that he ran behind the offensive line.

Keep in mind as well that I’m not the primary voice for this topic, and I’ll freely defer to Steve for any criticism/praise that he has for the offensive line. Oh, and if he’s in the comments, ask him about Airon Servais.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line: C

We saw some nice plays from McKinley Williams, who had two tackles for losses and a sack. Other than that, there weren’t that many outstanding defensive line performances that stood out. However, as I’ve mentioned before, that’s ok given the 3-3-5. The defensive line doesn’t need to completely dominate week after week, they just don’t have to look horrible.

The fact that Clemson didn’t look as dominant in the run game as other teams have means that something improved on the run defense. The defensive line is a great place to start peeking at potential improvements in that area. The sack numbers might not be there, but Syracuse needs to take baby steps back after two dreadful weeks.

Linebackers: C

This is a unit that should be causing more havoc on the field, but their influence was somewhat neutered against Clemson. Fortunately, the gaping holes that were exposed against Duke and Liberty seemed to tighten up against the Tigers, and the linebackers should receive some credit for that. We saw more two or three yard runs from Clemson rather than the eight or more yard runs that plagued Syracuse in the past two games.

The tackling could still be improved and the zone coverage skills of the linebackers could still use some work as there were some gaps that Lawrence found. Overall, not the worst performance from these guys, but nothing outstanding.

Defensive Backs: B-

Garrett Williams put on a show against Clemson and announced himself to the world. He was spectacular against the Tigers and made several key plays that stalled Clemson’s momentum, including his pick six. Don’t forget about Ifeatu Melifonwu, who continued to show why he is one of the best shutdown cornerbacks right now. Lawrence couldn’t get much going when throwing to receivers covered by those two.

What prevents this grade from being higher is Syracuse’s defense against the screen, which were often met by the safeties. When the screen was thrown, two things would happen. Either the safety wouldn’t shed the block fast enough or they would miss the tackle. The screen allowed Clemson to re-establish the offensive momentum that was lost in the second and third quarter due to the play of Williams and Melifonwu.

Special Teams: B

Nolan Cooney continues to be an excellent punter as he continues to prove why Syracuse is Punter U. Andre Szmyt didn’t need to do anything today either, so the main focus goes elsewhere. First of all, the blocked punt was great, and hats off to Drew Tuazama for that. As Dino explained in his postgame press conference, Syracuse was ready for the fake punt, but the blocking from Clemson was in the right position to stop the primary attackers of the ball carrier.

Nykeim Johnson was ok, but he had some questionable decisions on his returns, which eventually led to Trebor Pena returning the last few kicks. It could’ve been an A, but just a couple of mistakes hold this unit back.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Play Calling: B

It’s still getting better, but much more needs to be done. Syracuse showed that the sideline is their main target on passing plays, and Culpepper’s accuracy seems much better when he’s throwing between the numbers. While he’s shown that he can sometimes hit the sideline pass, you’d think that there would be more opportunities for Culpepper to hit someone over the middle of the field. The run vs. pass split was better as well, and you would hope to see that continue as well even if Tucker isn’t available.

Receiver diversity isn’t a topic that often comes up, but let’s take a quick peek at it here, as I briefly brought it up in the wide receiver grades. It seems that while Syracuse’s QBs have a favorite target - Culpepper’s being Queeley - it makes them predictable. I’d like to see the targets more evenly dispersed around the receiving corp and the play calling can help with that. Switching the primary receiver and running more diverse routes might help Culpepper and the Syracuse quarterback less reliant on their favorite options and spread the ball around, which will help the offense’s effectiveness.

Now it’s your turn. How would you grade the Orange? Sound off in the comments below.