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Syracuse football’s grades vs. Notre Dame

Pour one out for the grades

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Well Syracuse Orange fans, somehow we made it. The end of the 2020 season is here and Syracuse is unfortunately 1-10. We’ve seen a whole mixture of performances throughout the year, and that was no different against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. A few positive and outstanding performances were balanced with equally frustrating showings.

So what were my finals grades of the season? Regrettably, we must start with…

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Quarterbacks: D

Rex Culpepper actually had some better accuracy on his balls. His decisiveness early in the game was good, especially since his early reads were the correct ones to make. The problem with Culpepper, and what ultimately cost Syracuse the game, was his ball security. He fumbled twice which completely changed the momentum of the game and the late interception sealed Syracuse’s fate.

As inspiring as Culpepper’s story is, Syracuse fans should be excited about what’s coming next at quarterback. I’m not out on Tommy DeVito yet, but JaCobian Morgan should get better after a proper year of practice learning the system. Early reports on Justin Lamson sound promising and the potential in the transfer portal could make things interesting. But all that’s probably a topic reserved for another day. Just be glad for a moment that the Orange quarterback carousel is over.

Running Backs: A

It’s amazing how much of a turnaround a unit can have in one week. Sean Tucker returned to his bruising ways at running back and fought well throughout the game to gain extra yards after contact. He became the first player this season to rush for over 100 yards against Notre Dame, which is a feat that shouldn’t go unrecognized. Tucker finished with 113 rushing yards and a touchdown.

I know it was garbage time also, but Cooper Lutz has proven that he should be getting more playing time. He and Tucker could make a great duo for the next few years. I know his stats are padded due to playing against the Irish second defense and by the 80-yard score, but give him credit for also rushing for 102 yards.

Wide Receivers: B

Early on, Syracuse wide receivers were making themselves easy targets for Culpepper to identify, which greatly helped the early Orange offensive success. However, a couple of drops didn’t help Culpepper’s completion percentage. There weren’t too many, which is a good sign.

As is the theme for Syracuse this season, it’s really hard to judge how the wide receiver did during a game when the large majority of incompletions and plays that ended drives weren’t their fault. At the very least, it was good to see Taj Harris and Anthony Queeley assert their presence early in the game.

Tight Ends: F

When you get limited opportunities, you have to make them count. The last thing Syracuse needed in the third quarter was another turnover, and that’s exactly what happened with Aaron Hackett. Luckily for the Orange the offense got the ball right back after a bad snap but Hackett has certainly had a down year in what could be his final season in Orange.

That still raises the question on why Syracuse didn’t use Luke Benson more. I think he only got one target throughout the game. As we’ve mentioned throughout the year, Benson and the future tight ends that are coming to the program are receiving-minded and should be used more in the passing game. It’s going to be incredibly disappointing if they don’t feature more in 2021.

Offensive Line: C-

Surprisingly, a much better performance from these guys. The offensive line only gave up one sack and the run blocking seemed to be much better than last week. We can’t get a great idea on how the offensive line really played since Culpepper released the ball so quickly on the majority of his pass attempts. Dock a couple of points for some of the silly penalties and the offensive line can take some good things away from this game in my opinion.

I’m sure Steve will still find some ways to disagree with me though, I’ll hold my hand up on that. As usual, defer to him for all your offensive line-related praise or criticism.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Line: B+

This was probably the best performance from the defensive line the entire season. They routinely helped the linebackers in collapsing the pocket quickly around Ian Book and got some good penetration against the scary Notre Dame offensive line. Each starting defensive lineman got a tackle for loss on the day.

That performance against Notre Dame showcases what can happen if the defensive line in the 3-3-5 does its job correctly and becomes a headache for the opposing offensive line. Because the Syracuse front three was so effective, Tony White took the opportunity to get creative with his blitz packages to force Book to scramble or make a bad throw. While it’s unfortunate that some of the defensive line may have played their last game in an Orange uniform, they did lay down a solid blueprint to show how their roles in the 3-3-5 work.

Linebackers: B+

Much like the defensive line, the linebackers got into the pocket often to make Book’s game uncomfortable. Geoff Cantin-Arku was the big benefactor with two sacks on the day. The Orange linebackers also played a key role in overwhelming Notre Dame’s offensive line at times and forcing Book into decisions he didn’t want to make. It turns out that the Orange pass rush still is one of the better parts of White’s defense.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerbacks: B

There wasn’t much that these guys could do about the touchdowns that were thrown their way. Javon McKinley had an excellent day and made some terrific catches to secure points for the Irish. Other than those plays, the Syracuse cornerbacks still did their jobs on the pass break-ups they could make. What’s really impressive from both cornerbacks is their ability to limit yards gained by opposing receivers after the catch, which was shown in full effect against Notre Dame.

Safeties: C

There were some good plays and some bad plays from the safeties. The safeties still are liabilities when Syracuse goes to zone coverage. However, their man defense is still pretty good considering that most of them are true freshmen. What also gives Syracuse some hope for the future is that the angles that the safeties took to tackle ball carriers looked much better against Notre Dame, which is a great sign of improvement.

Special Teams: B

This grade would be an A without the fair catch decision on kickoffs and the penalty by Lutz late in the game. I say that because Nolan Cooney had yet another brilliant game punting the ball. He’s quietly filled in very well for Sterling Hofrichter. Once again, it’s a shame we didn’t see Andre Szmyt go to work outside the extra point opportunities.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Play Calling: D+

To give Sterlin Gilbert some credit, the early game plan for the offense was very good. He has adjusted well to Culpepper’s abilities and given him throws that he was more likely to make. The thing that Gilbert hasn’t done well is adjusted mid-game. The plays get more confusing as the game goes on, as evident by the lackluster second half from a play calling perspective. The Orange went 0-5 on third downs in the second half, and that’s not all on Culpepper’s inaccuracy.

Now it’s your turn. What grades did you give Syracuse’s units against Notre Dame? Sound off in the comments below.