I feel like these grades are getting more interesting to write as the season goes on, but for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately for the Syracuse Orange, there hasn’t been much consistency from game to game. New problems and issues seem to reveal themselves on a weekly basis, which on the plus side makes things interesting for me to dissect.
The downside to that fact is fans are clamoring for some sense of consistency from this Syracuse team. However, injuries and the lack of a proper preseason camp have completely decimated any chance for consistency. What this season has done is provided the Syracuse players and coaches the opportunity to adapt to their personnel and work on identifying and correcting mistakes.
I didn’t start this article with the intention of a grand overview of the 2020 Orange season, but somehow I ended up there. I know you’re just here to see what my grades are and if you agree or disagree with me. So let’s stop wasting time then. As usually, we start with a doozy.
JaCobian Morgan’s late-game drive can only raise this grade so much. For the second game in a row, Rex Culpepper played a huge role in why Syracuse failed to win a game. His turnovers and incompletions in the second half completely stalled the Orange’s ability to generate any offensive momentum to start a comeback attempt. Culpepper’s accuracy continues to be a concern if he continues to start as both of his interceptions weren’t exactly from the prettiest of passes.
Let me take this time to temper your expectations of Morgan as well. If he starts at any point this season, whether it be the next game or a future one, don’t be surprised if he doesn’t look as good as he did today. As Dino Babers mentioned in his post game press conference, Morgan wasn’t particularly pressured on most of his passing attempts. It’s a known fact that the Syracuse offensive line isn’t particularly great at keeping the Orange quarterback clean.
That means Morgan could look like a completely different quarterback once he faces constant pressure. Just the mere threat of a blitz could drastically change his decision making and his accuracy. All of a sudden experienced collegiate rushers could completely derail any sort of confidence that Morgan generated with his touchdown drive.
With that being said, Culpepper’s time as a starting quarterback is quickly running short. It sounded like Babers was still going to keep Culpepper as the Orange starting QB for next week’s game against Boston College, which I know will anger many fans. If Culpepper continues to underperform next week, Babers may have no choice but to switch quarterbacks to end the season.
Running Backs: A-
I mentioned in our predictions thread that Syracuse needed a healthy Sean Tucker in order to have any chance against Wake Forest. While the Orange didn’t have the luxury of the freshman sensation, another young player rose to the occasion and produced.
Cooper Lutz is a redshirt sophomore but didn’t play in any games before this season. He was a running back in high school before initially starting his Orange career as a wide receiver. The Syracuse coaching staff switched back to running back this season. After all the opt-outs and injuries, Lutz got his chance to start against Wake Forest and made the most of his opportunity.
The Pennsylvania native carried the ball 15 times against the Demon Deacons and gained 81 yards. Lutz performed similarly to Tucker from an average yards per carry perspective, which I doubt most Syracuse fans expected. While Lutz found some success hitting some holes behind the tackles, his true influence was to the outside. He showed great agility to get the yards necessary for the passing game to have a theoretically easier time in gaining first downs.
Of course, this was just one game and it remains to be seen if Lutz can replicate his performance should Tucker not be available for another game. Likewise, it gets hard to see who else can provide production from running back as Markenzy Pierre didn’t exactly impress in limited action. Overall, Lutz did exactly what he needed to do in order to give the Orange a fighting chance.
Wide Receivers: B
It’s incredibly hard to grade the wide receivers when Culpepper doesn’t hit his targets. That being said, the incompletions and interceptions didn’t seem to be the fault of the wideouts. There weren’t many questionable drops or effort plays that would seemingly downgrade these guys too much.
Taj Harris didn’t have much of an impact in his first game back after he didn’t play against Clemson. Anthony Queeley continued to look in tune with Culpepper but his impact was limited as well. Nykeim Johnson had the best game although he only touched the ball four times, and two of those touches were rushing attempts. Johnson actually looked good in his one touch as a running back and in his other rushing touch on a jet sweep. Perhaps the H-Back, Ervin Philips role we envisioned for Jawhar Jordan in the preseason could be well suited for Johnson as the season goes on.
There weren’t many positives or negatives to note for the wide receivers. It’s really hard to get an accurate grade of their performance when the quarterback accuracy was all over the place. The good thing is that there weren’t major noticeable mistakes. The bad thing is that you’d probably expect more from the wide receivers in the open field because of the athletes they’ve proven to be.
Tight Ends: B
As is the theme every week, it’s incredibly hard to grade the tight ends when they don’t get the ball. Once again, the tight ends recorded only two receptions. At least one of them was a touchdown, although it was thrown by the backup quarterback.
I’d like to reiterate the point that Syracuse’s future at tight end - Steven Mahar Jr. and Landon Morris - are receiving minded tight ends. Both have been labeled as players who are extremely gifted athletically. It would be a gross misuse of talent if their primary purpose in the Orange offense is to block.
Offensive Line: C-
It definitely wasn’t the worst performance we’ve seen from the offensive line, but there were still some issues. Penalties continue to play a factor and the run blocking could have been better when the play called for Lutz to run up the middle. However, at this point in the season, we’ll take only two sacks and one quarterback hit allowed.
It’ll be interesting to see how this unit develops with Dakota Davis back from injury. He dressed for the first time this season against Wake Forest, but unless he snuck onto the field for Morgan’s drive, I don’t recall seeing him play. Does Babers and offensive line coach Mike Cavanaugh pull the trigger on a personnel switch to the starting line even if it messes up the communication that the unit has been building? That will be an interesting development to monitor as we approach game-time against Boston College.
Defensive Line: F
Oh boy. I’ve tried to defend these guys for as long as I can because the 3-3-5 system isn’t built for them. The defensive line isn’t necessarily going to find too much success because of the scheme, and in general that’s ok. They don’t need to be world beaters.
What they do need to do is command the attention and earn the respect of the opposing offensive line. It was clear in the beginning of the game against Wake Forest that the defensive line could not lay a finger on Sam Hartman at all. The pressure they tried to generate by themselves was woeful.
Some of that is on the coaching as the last thing I expect to see is a three-man or a four-man rush in the first quarter. What I’m disappointed about is the fact that the defensive line is the one Syracuse unit that has experience. All four defensive lineman that regularly rotate in are upperclassmen. They’ve all had excellent track records of pressuring the quarterback. To see them basically inert to start the game is concerning.
It was a mixed bag for the linebackers, as they seemed bipolar against the run. Some Demon Deacon runs would easily get stopped behind the line or for a minimal gain. Other runs once again benefited from poor Orange tackling. There seems to be no consistency as to how the linebackers stop the run, and as we’ve seen in the 3-3-5, they need to be the primary stoppers of the ball carrier.
I also mentioned in the beginning of the season that the linebackers needed to be extremely versatile, and Tony White proved that as he frequently calls for the unit to drop back in coverage. The unfortunate thing is that the linebackers don’t look particularly good in pass coverage. Initially I thought that was a problem exclusive to zone coverage, but there were multiple man coverage opportunities that the linebackers failed to stop effectively.
But as always, the linebackers continue to excel at pass rushing. Tyrell Richards came up with one of SU’s two sacks on the day. When White brought one or two linebackers to rush Hartman, he seemed very uncomfortable and rushed throws or threw passes that he didn’t want to. The extra linebackers incorporated into the pass rush helped to neutralize the momentum Wake Forest gained on its first offensive drives.
So to summarize, it wasn’t a great day for the linebackers, but it wasn’t all terrible. That means an average performance comes from combining those two factors.
Defensive Backs: B
Did Hartman have 250 yards of passing? Yes. Did it feel like his arm was going to be the reason Syracuse lost the game? No. That has been the theme for most of Syracuse’s games this season. That partially has to do with the excellent play of the Orange cornerbacks: Ifeatu Melifonwu and Garrett Williams. These two are the cornerstone of the current Syracuse defense.
The safeties did what they could as well, but their youth was exposed once again as their zone coverage is similar to the Orange linebackers. The young fill-ins haven’t looked particularly great in zone coverage as well and sometimes struggled to make some open field tackles. But most fans aren’t focusing too much on those safeties being young and inexperienced, which is a good sign.
Imagine what Syracuse’s secondary could look like if all three starting safeties from the North Carolina game were healthy.
Special Teams: A-
Another great game from Special Teams U. Nolan Cooney should be getting more recognition for his punting skills as he has continued to flip the field well in Syracuse’s favor. Nykeim Johnson had some better returns and Trebor Pena didn’t look too horrible in his lone kickoff return.
It’s such a shame that we haven’t seen too much of Andre Szmyt this year. There just haven’t been any opportunities for him this year to kick field goals. His onside kick almost worked as well which was fun.
Despite that sad note, another good game from the Special teams.
Play calling: C-
Sterlin Gilbert looks like he is getting better at his play calling, but a lot of that might be just adjusting to Rex’s capabilities. I’m still frustrated that he doesn’t run the ball as much when a running back like Tucker or Lutz is averaging five yards a carry. There have been a few drives this year that start with a medium gain on the ground and then Syracuse passes the ball twice and goes three-and-out. A couple of drives that followed that pattern appeared in the Wake Forest game.
As usual, we insert our weekly plea to use the tight ends more right here and move on to the next topic.
I don’t often bring up White’s play calling but it was clearly evident there was a problem at the beginning of the game. The fact that White kept on bringing three or four man rushes to start the game gave Wake Forest all the momentum it needed to start the game strong. He should get some credit for adapting to the game and bringing more people on the rush, but the fact the adaptation was needed is a little frustrating.
Now it’s your turn. How would you grade Syracuse against Wake Forest? Sound off in the comments below.