This weekend I made the trip up to Syracuse for the third time this football season as an SU alumnus. Having only been out of school for a few months, it almost feels like I never left when I head back into town. The constant construction around campus continues, Chuck's walls are still adorned with the painted signatures that many of us left in May, and a lot of the great people who I spent four years with are still kicking around. The one drastic change has been on the football field.
I think that football is a game that you really need to see live to fully digest (although 'all-22' cameras help), and in the Northwestern, Pittsburgh, and Louisville games at the Dome and the USC "home" game at Metlife Stadium, it really is night and day from any of the teams I watched as a student. The progression to the team that we saw dominate a top-10 opponent on Saturday has been shaky and inconsistent, but I don't know many who are in total shock by the performance that Syracuse put together. In fact, it may just make some of the losses that we've had this year even more maddening, but learning to win is one of the final pieces of the puzzle in putting it all together - this was just another big milestone in a long process.
He's had better stat lines in other games (part of this was that he only threw two passes in the fourth quarter), but I think that this performance by Ryan Nassib will be the one that helps him the most when it comes to auditioning to the NFL. Ryan's been making more and more 'NFL' throws as the season, and his career, has progressed, and this game was full of them. The touchdown in the corner of the endzone to Alec Lemon was an instance of excellent play calling, as this very complimentary write-up from the Louisville perspective describes, but he put it on the money. The most impressive throws were the various seams that Lemon killed Louisville with. It takes an incredibly accurate quarterback to place the ball directly on the inside of a receiver running a seam route with a defender right behind him, but Ryan did just that a few times. The early 45 yard throw to Jeremiah Kobena wasn't the best throw of the day, and a lot of the credit should go to Kobena who made an excellent adjustment to make the catch, but it is a throw he just couldn't complete last year. This season, Ryan's hit on a number of down-field passes.
Naturally, the Ryan Nassib/Teddy Bridgewater debates have started, as to who the best quarterback/player in the conference is. If all things are equal with regards to age, I really think it is a matter of personal preference. Bridgewater is probably more of a big play threat and has really unbelievable poise in the pocket for a sophomore. I think if I need one long, sustained drive where I want my quarterback to pick apart the defense, I'll take Nassib. In my opinion both are NFL players, and I think that they're clearly the two best quarterbacks in the conference.
Speaking of "best players in the conference", Jerome Smith has to enter the discussion among Big East running backs, right? The touchdown numbers bring him down a bit, but how many backs have been as effective as he has over the last few games. While at Chuck's celebrating the game/homecoming/life on Saturday night, a friend of mine texted me asking who the "young Brandon Jacobs who cost (him) $50 on a bet" is. Take heed for the future, ACC. Prince-Tyson Gulley isn't too shabby either, and I love Adonis Ameen-Moore in the tank/closer role. I can only imagine how hard he is to bring down in the late fourth quarter when the defense has been pounded all afternoon by Smith.
The dual performances from Alec Lemon and Ryan Nassib was just a perfect way to send both of those guys off on senior day. Lemon and Nassib really have had similar career arcs. Both garnered some serious praise and optimism with flashes of ability as freshmen, when Ryan came in a few times a game to give defenses a different look from Greg Paulus, and Lemon had his breakout game against UConn. As sophomores, Lemon played through a hand injury that made catching passes very difficult, as you can imagine, and felt a ton of heat due to a number of drops. Many fans openly questioned if Nassib would ever be more than a game manager, a question that was bandied about until probably this season's Northwestern game. Lemon returned to form last season, and both players have had huge senior years, and will go down as one of the more underrated tandems in Syracuse history.
The offensive line deserves a ton of credit. Nassib was only sacked once, and rarely felt pressure beyond that. Smith and Gulley had gaping holes to run through. Justin Pugh had an especially dominant performance, as we've come to expect from him.
Llewellyn Coker deserves his own little paragraph. Coker is a guy whose struggles in grasping some of the defensive schemes haven't been a huge secret, but he's stuck with a program and really plays his heart out on special teams, as evidenced by the big play he made on Scott Radcliff's muffed punt. I believe that he was given the fullback role in the tank package both because he loves contact and has the perfect mentality for it, and as a reward for his hard work. Watching him catch that touchdown pass was probably my favorite moment of the season so far.
A lot of people have been lukewarm on the defense's performance from Saturday, but I think that they did what they needed to do. The defensive backs did an excellent job of containing the Louisville playmakers in the first half, and allowed the offense to jump out to a huge lead. In the second half, the goal was to force Louisville to drive and use clock. Scott Shafer ran plays to keep Bridgewater from making the huge play, and gave the Cardinals a lot of room to work underneath. Louisville was far enough behind that they needed to score really quickly, so we prevented that from happening by playing a softer defense. Bridgewater put up big numbers because he's a great player, but we've all learned that the only numbers that really matter are those on the scoreboard.
...that being said, am I the only one who wasn't entirely comfortable until Dyshawn Davis' interception?
Ri'Shard Anderson gets some praise here as well. After a well-documented abysmal first few weeks of the season, he's probably been our best corner during the last few games. His turn-around has been similar to that of Da'Mon Merkerson (who is playing for the Arizona Rattlers, whatever that is, apparently) in 2009-10.
It was great to see our special teams just dominate another team's. I'll begin to get more optimistic about this part of the team when they do it a few weeks in a row, but great job by them this weekend.
I really don't know what to think about Missouri. The two conflicting lines of thinking are that a.) they will be ripe for the picking because they've been beat up by the SEC schedule, they may be looking past SU, and they could be due for a let down after an emotional overtime win over Tennessee, or b.) they will be really amped up for a game against what should be an inferior opponent and they need this win a lot. I think the early Missouri -5.5 line is very fair based on my knowledge, but I really haven't watched much of their team this season, so we'll see what happens. I'd love to not have bowl eligibility come down to the final week, even if it is a weak Temple team.