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Syracuse men’s lacrosse vs. Albany: The Face-off Issue

This has gotten out of hand the last two weeks, so let’s talk about it.

Albany v Syracuse Photo by Rich Barnes/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange are a good men’s lacrosse team. They’re one of the most talented in the country, as a matter of fact.

They’ve got one of the best goalies in the country, a couple of All-Americans on defense, and a bevy of studs on offense.

But there’s a problem, and it’s engrained in the very nature of the sport.

Lacrosse is unique in the spectrum of team sports. There is no guarantee of the amount of opportunities an offense will get in a given game. That’s not the case in most other sports. In baseball, your best hitters will get at least four plate appearances every game. In basketball, your best scorer will get 20 shots. In football, your offense will get their 15 or so chances to score a touchdown. But in lacrosse, talented offensive players can go long droughts without even touching the ball, as we saw last week against Notre Dame.

This is the current issue facing this Syracuse team. They have an offense that can stack up competitively with any team in the country, but Stephen Rehfuss, Owen Hiltz and Co. can not, by the rules, get the ball for themselves. They need the assistance of the group known as the face-off unit.

It’s been an inconsistent group on the season, but a disastrous one in the last two games. So when Syracuse takes the field at 5 PM this evening against the Albany Great Danes, the FOGOs will be playing a critical role in putting an end to the current two-game losing streak.

In today’s preview, Christian De Guzman and I take a look into the face-off struggles, why they’ve been happening, and what can possibly be done to improve things moving forward.

Let’s start with the offseason changes: how are the new face-off rules impacting the Syracuse FOGOs?

Christian: The new rules aren’t benefiting Syracuse right now, especially if Phaup’s timing issues are going to continue. The new rules are designed to prevent stalling and long tie-ups at the dot, which means that Syracuse’s FOGOs need to win the ball themselves more frequently. From what we’ve seen, Syracuse is just getting flat out beat FOGO vs. FOGO.

John: In my preseason series, I did an article about the biggest questions heading into the season, and one of the first questions I had was about the face-off rule changes. My main point was that there was going to be a significant unknown and because of the stance and grip changes, previous success would not guarantee future success. Unfortunately, Jakob Phaup and Danny Varello are both struggling to adjust to this new way of doing things. In the past two season combined, Phaup and Varello were 297-of-495 (60 percent) on face-offs. That’s a great number with a huge sample size. This year, they have gone 89-of-188 (47.3 percent). A 13 percent drop in winning percentage is a precipitous drop that indicates just how much they are struggling to adapt to the new style.

On this week’s episode of ‘Yard Sale’ with Anish Shroff, Paul Carcaterra, and Quint Kessenich, Anish brought up that he had heard an ACC assistant talk about watching the tape of the Syracuse-Virginia game, and how he saw that it looked like Jakob Phaup was jumping early but not having it be called (Phaup was 22-of-33 in that game). Once this is realized, opposing ACC coaches are going to be telling the referees to look out for this with Phaup, which possibly explains some of the violations called against him the last two weeks. What’s the reaction to this revelation from ‘Yard Sale’?

Christian: In a way that explains a lot. One of the most valuable traits of a FOGO is anticipating the whistle well. If Phaup figured out a way to get an advantage by starting a little before the referee’s signal that could easily snowball. That would also explain, with expectation to the Army and Vermont games, why Phaup did well during the first part of the season.

John: This definitely helps explain some of what we’ve seen the past two games with the violation calls on Phaup. Multiple times, we’ve seen Phaup get up from a violation and look to the sideline visibly confused with his arms outstretched. It was clear that he was flustered by something in the process of the face-off and something the refs were calling that he didn’t understand, and now it looks possible that he was getting called for actions that he was getting away with against Virginia.

Overall, what has been the biggest issue plaguing the Orange face-off game?

Christian: One of the biggest issues is what Anish brought up in the clip. Phaup getting whistled early in the game for the faceoff violations is a big thing. It almost feels like Syracuse’s FOGOs don’t trust themselves to win the initial clamp, which means they have to exploit any small timing advantage that they can get. But because the Orange pick up those faceoff violations really quickly in the first quarter of their recent games, they have to be cautious and conservative on their timing. That largely leads to the quick wins for the opposing FOGOs.

John: The last thing that Christian said is one of the biggest keys, for me. Phaup and Varello have been getting beat off the whistle, leading to quick face-offs wins for the opposition. I think we tend to forget that face-offs are about more than just the FOGOs — they’re also about the wings. Brett Kennedy and Peter Dearth are the starting wings for Syracuse, and they’re very good in the ground ball game when they get the chance. The problem is, in the last two games, they’re simply not getting the chance to contribute enough. For reference, the Notre Dame FOGOs picked up 15 of their 23 overall wins themselves. When they do that, the wings don’t factor into the face-off game. With all these quick wins happening for the opposition, our wings aren’t even getting a chance to run in towards X before the ball has already been scooped up, and that’s a huge problem.

Alright, now we know what the problem has been (and I’m trying to be positive by phrasing that in the past tense), but what is the solution? How do we start winning more face-offs and giving our other units a chance to do what they do?

Christian: There are two ways to take this. First is to attempt to tie up and stall out the opposing FOGO, which as I mentioned above is harder to do with the new faceoff rules. Second is for the Orange FOGOs to win the ball towards the sidelines instead of up and down the field. Both of these solutions would allow the Syracuse wings to get involved more to help out the FOGOs.

Take the Notre Dame game. The Irish FOGOs won 23 faceoffs and grabbed 15 ground balls. That means Notre Dame’s wings won only eight of those faceoffs. Syracuse’s FOGOs only grabbed three ground balls on nine faceoff wins. That means the Orange wings won six of Syracuse’s nine faceoffs, a much higher percentage than Notre Dame’s wings. More often than not, Syracuse has Brett Kennedy and Peter Dearth, two of the better wings in college lacrosse. The Orange should try and use them more.

John: I think one of the most important steps to getting this right is educating Jakob Phaup, because he looks lost at the moment. And I say educating because it’s not just that he’s not winning face-offs, it’s that he genuinely looks like he doesn’t know how the new set-up works this year. If you don’t understand the set-up, your timing and everything else will be off. The results are showing exactly that. Phaup’s mental approach needs to change, and the physical results will follow.

And I agree with Christian about the wings. Our FOGOs have to at least scrap a little longer on some of these re-starts to give our wings a chance to run in and help grab a GB. Once all six face-off players are around the dot on face-offs, it really becomes anyone’s game at that point. The quickness needs to improve in order to tie up our opponents better than we’ve been doing, but that’s critical to getting the wings more involved.

The final option I’ll mention is the potential emergence of Jack Savage, the true freshman FOGO who we saw for the first time this season in the ND game. Savage came in for his first action as a collegian and went 6-of-17 (35.3 percent). Now, that’s bad, but it was better than Phaup and Varello’s combined 3-of-15 (20 percent). I’m guessing it’ll be the two veterans who dominate draws moving forward. However, with all the overall struggles right now, Savage clearly needs to be in the mix for consideration, especially after having the best day of the three in the last game.


On Wednesday, SU announced that the men’s lacrosse game vs. Utah, which had been schedule for Saturday, May 8 at home, has been canceled. According to the SU athletics website, at this time, there is not a plan to reschedule a home game on that date.

This is a potentially dangerous development for Syracuse if they do not or can not replace the Utah game.

The Orange are currently 4-3 on the season. Before, they had five games left on the schedule and could afford to go 2-3 and still qualify for the tournament at 6-6. Now, they must go 2-2 to finish above .500 in four games against Albany, North Carolina, Virginia, and Notre Dame.

That is not an easy prospect, so the hope is that another game will eventually be rescheduled for that date to give us another shot at a win.

The athletics website release said there is not a plan to reschedule a “home game” on that date, so maybe the Orange will be hitting the road on the second weekend in May? Am I reading too much into the wording of that release? Time will tell...