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Orange is the Old Fast: What happened to Syracuse football's offensive identity?

Examining when and how the SU attack changed for the worse.

South Florida v Syracuse Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

My first Syracuse Orange football game was in 2018, right during the middle of the team’s best run under Dino Babers. It was also at a point where I was definitively not yet a Syracuse football fan - I was still going through the college search process and technically still a part of the Penn State cult fanbase like everyone else in northeast Pennsylvania.

Which is why it’s important to describe how seeing this game in person completely won me over.

One of Dino’s original aspirations for the program was to “have an offense that will not huddle.” That fast-tempo style was on display in front of a roaring Dome crowd... and it worked. Extremely well. So much that it was a rallying cry for those hopeful, energetic teams: Orange is the New Fast.

So where did that aggressiveness go? And why has it been replaced with conservative coaching decisions and a slowed-down system? It may seem like a sudden change directly responsible for recent offensive struggles, but truthfully, this trend has been building for years.

Phase I: Turn & Burn

When Babers first took the Syracuse job, he inherited a quarterback who had the arm strength to consistently take deep shots down the sidelines. By combining Eric Dungey with a flurry of speed-over-size receivers, Babers used his hurry-up system to take advantage of defenses that quickly had to figure out assignments on the fly.

The trick with this system, as the video highlight above shows, is that there was often confusion, or at the least some hesitation, right as the ball is snapped, meaning that all an outside receiver has to do is make the right first move and they’ll have their corner beat. In the same manner, Dungey rarely had to wait long in the pocket - by zeroing on this initial movement, it only took a split second to know if his first read was going to be open.

This allowed the likes of Amba Etta-Tawo and Steve Ishmael to rack up 1,000-yard receiving seasons in 2016 and 2017, respectively. It worked even better in 2018: while Jamal Custis (an exception at 6’5”) and Taj Harris both filled that outside role, the “undersized” duo of Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson wreaked their own havoc by turning catches behind the line of scrimmage into huge gains with blazing speed of their own.

Other teams also quickly figured out that it didn’t matter how small the pair were if they could outrun members of the secondary; that’s exactly what happened on many occasions.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 UConn at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Those first three teams all averaged over 80 offensive plays per game - an over 20% increase from the final days of Scott Shafer. Despite expecting more of the same, SU’s effectiveness began to slowly but surely decline in the following years.

Phase II: A New Arm on Duty

This is where Tommy DeVito takes over as SU’s QB. Just to be clear: no, I am not blaming DeVito for the start of this decline. It’s how he was used, however, and the lack of adjustments based on his skillset, that I believe to be the cause.

Under Dungey, the brutal combo was that not only did each play run quickly one after the other, but the play itself developed so fast that a defender’s first move was usually their last. Dungey didn’t need to worry about pressure all that often because of how quickly his targets did their job; they relied on deception and erratic movements off the line, needing just a step or two to pull away. And if it was clear that nothing was available, he could take off with little issue.

Compare that to DeVito, who is your traditional Pro-style QB. He wasn’t completely immobile, but he also didn’t use his legs nearly as much as Eric, preferring to bide his time until he was positive a deep option opened up. (This also gave safeties more time to shift towards the sidelines.)

Additionally, Tommy had a rocket arm that he fired with a smaller arc most of the time. If you needed a bullet pass fit into a tight window? Great! He was your guy. But lobs that needed to be perfectly placed in order to hit targets in stride? Eh... not so much.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Boston College at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The system still worked to an extent in 2019, with Trishton Jackson taking the 1,000-yard honors this time. There was only a slight decline in the number of plays SU ran, from around 82 down to 75 per game. But the prevailing issue was how Tommy took a beating - with a whopping 64 sacks between 2019 and part of 2020 - before he was lost for the final seven games of his junior year. Coupled with a running game that was decent but not particularly noteworthy, and it was clear that cracks were beginning to show.

The DeVito era came to an unceremonious end when Dino elevated Garrett Shrader to the starting role in Week 4 of the 2021 season. Thus began a drastic shift, one that practically flipped the principles originally established by Babers...

Phase III: The Wrong Kind of Mismatch

Once again, I’ll make the disclaimer that I’m not solely blaming the QB for the faults of the Orange offense. And to be fair, the Shrader/Sean Tucker duo were a blast to watch on the ground in 2021 - the team just ran out of gas in the final three weeks.

What I will blame is something that isn’t inherently a problem, but something that also comes down to seeing it in practice. By this point, Dino had moved away from the idea of recruiting shifty little guys and instead focused on Super-sized receivers.

In an ideal world, the SU wideout corps. looks like this:

  • Damien Alford (6’6”), Oronde Gadsden (6’5”), Isaiah Jones (6’4”), Umari Hatcher (6’3”), Trebor Pena (6’)

That’s a LOT of size, but not nearly as much speed. Gadsden was phenomenal in the slot and fit Shrader’s mold of being a significantly better over-the-middle thrower... but what about the rest?

Jones and Pena are banged up and may not be close to 100% again this year, so there goes Shrader’s passing strength. Despite his frame, Alford has been extremely inconsistent during his time at SU, and Hatcher’s also been very hot and cold so far. Both are seemingly locked into the outside, and neither has shown they can outrun single coverage or use their size to win the 50/50 battles.

The dramatic rise in stalled out drives has put ‘Cuse right back where it was before the Babers era: with offensive plays averaging in the low-to-mid 60s... and that’s with inflated numbers from Colgate and Wagner the past two years.

All that together leaves SU where it is now, with:

  • A QB who’s more known for his scrambling than his deep ball accuracy.
  • An overreliance on a subpar offensive line instead of quick decision making.
  • The inability to keep defenders guessing between effective run and pass games.

Orange was the New Fast, and there’s no shame in admitting that time has passed. Even Dino seemed to do so himself during his press conference at the start of the week.

“The biggest thing is you have to you have to play to your strengths and you have to minimize your weaknesses,” Babers said on Monday. “If I had my way, I’d play fast every single time, but sometimes we have to decide if that is the surest way (to get a win).”

Maybe this will finally be the wake-up call to use this roster in ways that best highlight their abilities, because if the current staff can’t, we could be listening to a new coach’s moniker very soon.