The Syracuse Orange defense played well. Their special teams performed as well. The offense looked abysmal.
In other news, water is wet.
At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised how these Syracuse games play out. The defense continues to impress after a couple of midseason speed bumps. Meanwhile, the offense has stagnated and hasn’t given many people hope that improvement is on the horizon.
In any case, let’s grade how Syracuse did against NC State. This was definitely not the Orange’s worst game of the season, but certain groups didn’t perform up to standards. I think you know where I’m going with this…
Syracuse spikes the ball on 4th down, needing a TD to tie the game. pic.twitter.com/XJH8gTMl1O— Funhouse (@BackAftaThis) November 28, 2020
I was prepared to give Rex Culpepper the benefit of the doubt with some of his throws. His touchdown passes were well thrown, which is all that was keeping him out of the fail zone for me.
Then the end of the game happened, and I can’t justify any positivity for his performance.
We praised Culpepper early on in the season for his quick decision-making. However, Culpepper seemed to make all the wrong decisions at the worst possible times. His decision-making outside of the pocket was horrific as he ran out of bounds for a loss of yards and looked flustered when his first option wasn’t immediately open.
That doesn’t get to the worst part of Culpepper’s afternoon: his accuracy. We knew coming in that Culpepper’s accuracy was shaky at best, but he missed receivers by throwing short and behind his intended target throughout the whole game. Some of the passes were absolutely awful, and the main reason why Culpepper broke 250 yards passing was due to yards after catch, not actual air yards.
Would we like to see Dillon Markiewicz next week against Notre Dame? Perhaps so, but that might not be the best idea. I’ll explain why later.
Running Backs: D
NC State ranked eighth in the ACC in average rushing yards allowed with 170.6 yards per game. Despite the average run defense ranking, the Wolfpack overwhelmed Syracuse’s running backs throughout the entire game. Sean Tucker only gained 30 yards on 16 yards and Cooper Lutz only gained two yards on one carry.
Perhaps the reason that Syracuse found little success on the ground was NC State’s defensive gameplan. Dino Babers mentioned that NC State focused their defense to stop the run, and it clearly succeeded. I won’t pin all of Syracuse’s downfalls in the rushing game to the running backs, but they certainly didn’t help matters. At the very least, this should prove as a great learning experience for Tucker on how to attack defenses whose sole purpose is to stop him.
Wide Receivers: A-
It’s amazing what Syracuse’s wide receivers can do when they get space given a couple of parameters. One, the ball actually needs to get to them. Two, they need to get in space. The Orange receivers have shown a tremendous ability to work and fight for extra yards up the field when they don’t have a defender draped all over them.
The person who took advantage of the available space the most was Taj Harris. He ran a lot of in and crossing routes that allowed him to have some free field to work with. Harris often found the extra turf needed to move the chains or at the very least drag defenders along to gain the first down nonetheless. Lining up in the slot for the majority of the game seemed to help him tremendously.
The other wide receivers also did well when the above criteria was met. It’s been hard to accurately judge how the wide receivers have been this year due to the low completion rate of SU’s quarterback and a lack of creativity in the playbook. The only criticism could be that some wideouts needed to create more separation from their defenders given their natural athletic ability.
Tight Ends: C
It was actually nice to see the Syracuse coaching staff attempt to use Luke Benson today. The downside was that they used him in all the wrong situations. Benson was used as a receiver on inside shovel passes that were doomed from the start and on similar short crossing routes that Taj Harris ran. The problem is that Benson is a better downfield receiver that a short-yardage ball catcher.
Part of the play-calling is because of Culpepper’s relative lack of downfield accuracy. However, all of the downfield throws Culpepper made didn’t go to Benson. I don’t recall seeing the tight end deep down the field, and he’s arguably a more dangerous option on downfield routes.
Offensive Line: D-
We haven’t talked too much about how the offensive line’s run protection has been this year due to the fact that Tucker has been so good at hitting the holes and fighting for extra yards through contact up the middle. The problem for the Syracuse offensive line was that the small holes they attempted to create allowed NC State defenders to plug those openings fairly quickly, which didn’t help lead Tucker to success.
The ongoing problem of the pocket collapsing too quickly came back to haunt Syracuse as Culpepper perhaps needed to make a quick throw or scramble: situations where the quarterback was not at his best. The leaky offensive line is probably the reason why we didn’t see Dillon Markiewicz, as we saw last week what happens when an inexperienced true freshman quarterback plays behind this protection.
Defensive Line: B
This was better as some of the defensive linemen had a couple of nice TFLs and sacks to help in Syracuse’s quest to constantly pressure Bailey Hockman. The NC State quarterback needed to roll out of the pocket on almost every pass play, and the defensive line played a nice part in that success. The NC State running game was kept largely in check as well, largely thanks to the defensive line.
There was excellent pressure provided by Syracuse’s linebackers throughout the entire game. Tony White constantly brought his talented linebackers on the attack and they wrecked havoc all over the NC State backfield. It makes you wonder what would’ve happened if Syracuse brought more linebackers on the pass rush more frequently.
Three sacks from the linebackers plus a pick by Mikel Jones — his sixth takeaway of the season — add up to an effective day at the office for the unit.
This was the first game that both cornerbacks looked vulnerable at some points. All it took was NC State’s wide receivers to execute some incredible circus catches to overcome the pressure that the Orange cornerbacks created. While there was perhaps more that both cornerbacks could have done, there weren’t going to be many people that stopped some of the receptions that NC State’s wide receivers hauled in.
The coverage skills of these guys still remain a big liability in Syracuse’s defense. I know most of them are true freshmen, but they’re starters now, some of them for almost an entire season. The zone coverage of the safeties remains easy for opposing quarterbacks to attack and they’re getting beat over the top in man coverage. A lot of NC State’s third-down conversions came at the expense of weak coverage or penalties from the safeties.
Special Teams: A-
Congratulations to Trebor Pena for Syracuse’s first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2011. That’s such an odd stat because you’d expect someone like Sean Riley to have gotten a kickoff return touchdown at some point during his Syracuse career. Anyways, Andre Szmyt and Nolan Cooney continue to do their jobs very well. Dock half a point for Nykeim Johnson’s fair catch on the safety restart.
Play calling: F
I’ve held back on saying this for a couple of weeks because I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve seen enough. The Sterlin Gilbert experiment has failed. Even though Tucker had been stuffed on runs up the middle throughout the entire game, Gilbert’s run calls were still behind the tackles. Some of the passing plays and primary receivers were questionable at best as well, especially during the middle of the game where Syracuse needed to establish some offensive momentum. Instead, multiple three-and-outs didn’t help extend the Orange advantage.
Now it’s your turn. What grades would you give Syracuse against NC State? Sound off in the comments below.