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Syracuse’s run game will make or break the 2021 football season

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Quarterbacks get all the ink, but whether or not the running game can become a focal point will determine this team’s ceiling.

Syracuse v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

If you’re new around these parts, the Syracuse Orange football team was very bad last year, especially on offense. Most of these struggles were attributed to a very poor offensive line that left quarterbacks scrambling and running backs lucky to get much on the ground. Most of the offseason conversation around the unit has focused on improving the QB play, and for good reason. However, I would like to counter that I think solving the running game issues will be more impactful for Syracuse than finding the next Eric Dungey.

The Orange return Sean Tucker, Cooper Lutz, Jarveon Howard, and Abdul Adams to the running back group, making them one of the more experienced and most productive returning position group on the team. Their success is important not just because it provides a pressure valve for any quarterback, but because the Dino Babers offense has only found success if the running game has found success.

Look, from a fundamental football standpoint, being able to run the ball effectively means you probably have a decent team. But take a look at how tied to success Dino Babers’ offense is to a successful running game; Both double-digit win seasons for his programs came with (nearly) 200 yards per game on the ground. That magical 10-win ‘Cuse season? The Orange threw for 264 yards/game with 22 touchdowns. The rushing attack generated 38 scores.

Okay let’s have the Dungey convo right now: Yes, he did account for 15 of those ground touchdowns. Yards-wise, if you remove his 200 yard game vs Western Michigan, he averaged 46 yards per game on the ground. Respectable.

On a more schematic level, Babers has never had teams that were better individually ranked football players than most of their opponents, so the basic plan was spread the defense wide via the offense’s formation, and take advantage of less men in the box to execute run plays. Once the defense over-adjusts, kill them in the air. Once the defense is reacting instead of reading the offense, take advantage with a good mix. This system worked pretty well, even at ‘Cuse.

However, one could argue that simplistic era of spread has been neutralized by defenses sacrificing size for linebackers in favor of more speed and athleticism. It’s one reason why we argued for more tight end involvement in the passing game; There are size mismatches to be had, even against elite teams. In previous years, this would worry me that the Orange’s projected system would struggle, even with better line play.

However, this year, the backfield has Tucker (5’10”, 210 lbs.), Howard (5’11”, 205 lbs.), and Adams (5’11”, 211 lbs.). Even without considering Josh Hough (6-foot-3 and 255 lbs!). Those are some bigger, downhill runners who we’ve seen struggle to break outside but can hit gaps between the guards just fine.

Additionally, as Steve mentioned in the LiveCast this week, new offensive line coach Mike Schmidt comes from a team that ran a speciality mid-power running scheme to give an out-wide option to power backs who couldn’t necessarily break a stretch or a toss out wide. I’d like to see offensive coordinator still implement those types of plays in some kind of H-Back role with Lutz or Trebor Pena, but let’s stick to basics for this article.

The bottom line is this: The running game needs to be good for the rest of the offense to function, especially without a game-breaking QB like Eric Dungey or Jimmy Garoppolo. Dino’s done it before (look at 2015!), and the ingredients are on this roster. It’s time to execute on the recipe and get the offense back on track through the running game.