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Syracuse football: a downhill season since the Clemson game

It’s been a tale of two teams since the Orange’s meltdown against Clemson. The numbers back it up.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What comes up, at some point, must come back down.

A little over three weeks ago, Syracuse Orange football was at its peak. ‘Cuse was coming off a 6-0 start to the season, the team’s best start in over 30 years. After a dominant victory against the then-19th-ranked NC State Wolfpack, the Orange went to Clemson looking to make a statement.

And after three quarters, things were looking up for Syracuse. Up 21-10 at halftime and allowing zero points in the third quarter, the Orange were 15 minutes away from breaking the Clemson Tiger’s 37-game winning streak at home. Things went so badly for Clemson that Dabo Swinney benched starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei in favor of backup Cade Klubnik.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Anderson Independent Mail-USA TODAY NETWORK

And then, heartbreak ensued. Clemson notched 17-straight points in the 4th quarter. The Orange forgot it still possessed dark-horse Heisman candidate Sean Tucker on its roster. Syracuse’s elite defense grew tired and overwhelmed, and Clemson’s dominant ground game fueled the comeback victory.

Since then, Syracuse continues to be plagued with injuries, fatigue, and frustration. Four straight losses later and coming off a 35-point drubbing versus the Florida State Seminoles, the downward trend has left bitterness in the minds of fans of the Orange, even if the players aren’t necessarily at fault here.

Again, perspective matters. TNIAAM predicted Syracuse to finish at or around a .500 record. I planted my flag into the three-to-four-win camp, and the team surpassed my expectations and then some. Even after a disappointing couple of weeks, the Orange will still be a bowl eligible-team that performed above preseason expectations.

With all that out of the way, let’s forego the off-the-field speculation and emotional irritation. Simply looking at the statistics, let’s deep-dive into what specifically has gone wrong for the Orange over the past month’s worth of action, and if there’s a chance for an end-of-year turnaround with just two games left to go in the season.

The offensive drought continues

Syracuse shot out of the gate on offense, relentlessly putting up points in their first six games.

But, that hasn’t been the case in the past four contests. Comparing the team’s total offensive production, it’s almost like there are two different versions of the Syracuse offense.

Syracuse’s offense: first six games vs. last four games

Syracuse Football Points per game Rush yards per game Pass yards per game Average margin of victory
Syracuse Football Points per game Rush yards per game Pass yards per game Average margin of victory
First six games (6-0) 36 188.5 244.3 plus-137
Last four games (0-4) 14.25 76.25 144.25 minus-68
After four straight weeks, Syracuse’s offense has fallen off of a cliff. Dominic Chiappone

There are a couple of important points to note. For starters, Garrett Shrader’s nagging injuries haven’t helped on the offensive front. Second, the point and yard totals in the first six games are a little inflated given Syracuse’s matchups against Wagner and UConn.

With all that said, the Orange’s production on offense in recent weeks is inexcusable. The offensive line continues to break down, preventing Sean Tucker from going for bigger runs. On offense, wide receiver Oronde Gadsden cooled off since his hot start, and there really hasn’t been a fallback catcher Shrader could go to.

The obvious fact to point out is that Syracuse is competing against tougher competition compared to the first half of its schedule. The Orange have faced off in five straight games against then or currently-ranked teams.

But with Tucker, Syracuse can’t afford to be ranked 75th in rushing offense, nor can it be 73rd in scoring offense in the NCAA.

In recent weeks, there’s been too many three-and-outs and not enough longer, well-developed drives down the field.

Injuries and fatigue plague the defense

On the flip side, Syracuse’s inefficient offense almost correlates with the team’s poor defensive performances in the past couple of games.

Simply put, the defense is plagued with injuries and too much time on the field. There isn’t enough rest for the likes of Mikel Jones and company.

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

In particular, the Orange’s rushing defense continues to fall off a cliff. The team sits 71st in rushing defense, but that wasn’t always the case this season.

The turning point for Syracuse’s rushing defense was against Clemson, when the Orange held the Tigers to 157 passing yards but gave up 293 rushing yards in a come-from-behind win for Clemson.

Not enough pressure up front allows teams to get the ground game going and, therefore, forces Syracuse into choosing between covering the run or the pass.

It’s been a tough month for the defense.

What’s next?

The path forward for Syracuse is going to be tough. The Orange enter this week with just two games left in its schedule, both against ACC rivals.

With no more home games left, ‘Cuse will first take on Wake Forest on the road Saturday night at Truist field.

The Demon Deacons will be a tough test for the Orange. Wake Forest had been as high as 15th in the AP Top 25, and the team is coming off just a two-point loss to 13th-ranked North Carolina. Wake Forest barely lost in overtime to 9th-ranked Clemson, and has a win against 20th-ranked Florida State, who just defeated Syracuse 38-3.

On the flip side, Wake Forest enters the game on a two-game skid. One team will break its losing streak by the end of Saturday.

The Orange’s final game will be against Boston College, which sits at just 3-7 overall and 2-5 in the ACC Atlantic, but is coming off a great win against NC State. Syracuse should be the favorites but, if the losing trend keeps going for the Orange, it might be a tough matchup in practice than on paper.

Concluding thoughts

It has to be asked: if Syracuse was still 6-4 by this point in the season, but didn’t begin 6-0 for the first time since 1987, would the fanbase feel different about 2022-2023 Syracuse football.

You have to imagine yes. The expectations rose once the Orange shot out of the gate, beat a ranked ACC opponent, and then nearly took down the second one in one of the toughest college stadiums to play in the country. Had ‘Cuse won, who was then ranked 14th in the AP Poll, suddenly the Orange would’ve been taken seriously.

There’s a lot to explain Syracuse’s recent blunders. It’s been a rough handful of weeks for the team, and there’s definitely a lot of blame to go around.

With all that said, don’t lose sight of the broader context. The Orange going 6-6 or 7-5 is nothing to be ashamed of. Look at how many teams who played below expectations: Miami, Wake Forest, and Louisville, among others.

But, you can’t argue that the loss in Death Valley killed this season for Syracuse.

At the very least, that’s what it feels like.