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Syracuse football spent too much time baking the cake, and now it’s overcooked

I can’t believe I’m writing this after two weeks...

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

One of the things that was instantly enjoyable about the Syracuse Orange’s hire of Dino Babers was how quotable he was. From the jump, there was an excitement that he was bringing and understood how to bring fans there with him.

“Belief without evidence”

“Consistently good, not occasionally great”

“You guys will like the cake we’re baking. Now is not the time to eat the batter.”

That last one had long been a favorite, but now resonates differently. Dino’s cake was potentially done baking in year three, and we’ve left it in the oven too long in the years that followed. And now, it’s overcooked.

I don’t even mean to paint the picture that all is bad for Syracuse. To be honest, it isn’t. The Tony White hire was a revelation last year, and what he’s turned this Orange defense into in a very short time is impressive, especially when considering where it was. That group is going to keep the Orange in a lot of games this season, and it’s worth praising White and the fact that Babers hired him.

But on the offensive side... the calamities we’ve had to witness since the start of 2019 are too many to name. And it’s easier and easier to see with time just how much Sean Lewis (now coaching a fun Kent State team) was a key part of that initial scheme. And how Eric Dungey was a major aspect of Syracuse’s offense firing on all cylinders during 2018’s magical run.

The hire of Sterlin Gilbert was met with some initial skepticism before last season, and even more after he was brought back following a season in which the Orange averaged fewer than 18 points per game. Yes, COVID and all, and injuries. But given what was advertised, it seems inexcusable that this team could be so inept on the side of the ball that was supposed to be the staff’s specialty.

And then, Saturday’s game against Rutgers happened, and it’s very clear to me that we simply can’t stomach this cake anymore.

I’m not saying fire Dino. But I am expressing a strong rebuke of what we had to witness against the Scarlet Knights — the team’s home opener, against a regional peer, in fans’ first trip back to the Dome since November 2019. Because especially in the second half, that offensive display was absolutely putrid aside from really two plays (the bomb from Tommy DeVito to Taj Harris, and the Sean Tucker touchdown).

Take a look at the play-calling in the second half and you’ll find a disturbing lack of called runs and hardly any handoffs to Sean Tucker at all. Following his 24-yard touchdown run in the third quarter (SU’s only points of the game), Tucker never ran the ball again (a few passes were thrown his way, however). A week after running for 181 yards on 25 carries, Tucker had just 13 carries for 56 yards.

Rutgers’ best chance for a win was for them to make the Orange pass too much. But they didn’t even need to force them to — Gilbert’s play-calling did all the heavy lifting there, playing to the offense’s weakness over its strength and trying to beat the Scarlet Knights with Tommy’s arm instead of what we knew worked: Tucker.

This isn’t even to take away from a good Rutgers defense. They played pretty well all afternoon. It’s just that they were ALSO done a significant number of favors by the Orange’s poor offensive gameplan and a variety of penalties that scuttled momentum at numerous fronts. These issues are very much on the coaching staff at this point, as is expecting DeVito to carry the offense on his shoulders. He can’t. We know this at this point. And the worst part is, you don’t even have to ask him to given Tucker’s abilities and the depth in the backfield otherwise.

I won’t claim to have a coaching resume at all — nevermind one as long as Babers’s or Gilbert’s. But the above didn’t appear to be groundbreaking stuff. Leaning on the run (our strength) against a questionable run defense seemed like the only gameplan. Dare them to stop it and THEN you pivot if needed.

Instead, we got yet another vanilla afternoon of an offense with few wrinkles that only work if you’re going fast. And if you’re not (and we haven’t since Dungey departed), it’s a simple scheme to plan against and adjust to.

Speaking of adjustments... that’s really where the issues lie during this game. Babers didn’t make adjustments late when the passing game clearly wasn’t working, but earlier, spent a significant amount of time making unnecessary tweaks.

Was seeing Garrett Shrader out there interesting? Sure, for one out of three drives. The other two were unnecessary gambles with SU’s back to their own end zone, killing off any perceived momentum the Orange could’ve had.

In the fourth quarter, punter James Williams — who didn’t have the best day, admittedly, but also not the worst — was subbed out for a walk-on who shanked a punt and set up Rutgers with great field position. If you’re curious what you have on your team at positions like QB or punter, maybe make the fourth quarter of a 20-point win the “lab” instead of the game where you basically just gave the game away over the final 15 minutes.

I’m sure this sounds exasperated and it is. Between play-calling and testing out “new” things at inopportune times, it’s getting harder and harder to defend continuing with the current staff. So to be honest, I don’t think I will. Again, not calling for Babers to be fired, though I’m not actively endorsing his retention anymore at this point. But I’ll take a change like firing Gilbert (as he should’ve been following last year). And ceasing the experimental nonsense with a game in the balance.

In a tight game vs. Rutgers, it certainly wasn’t the time for it. And knowing what we know about this offense, I have a feeling few games but Albany this season will even present an opportunity to tweak the formula in real-time, just to see what happens.

I don’t need a gourmet cake. I just need a cake that’s edible at this point. Syracuse’s offense and the coaching staff calling the plays just can’t even give me that.