Which coaching decisions actually cost Syracuse football the game against Wake Forest?

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When the Syracuse Orange lost to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Saturday, a lot of fingers were pointed at head coach Dino Babers for key missteps taken by the coaching staff in the eyes of the fans. While I think there’s still plenty of division over at least one of the calls, I decided to look at the three biggest moments that coaching decisions swung the game.

In order to add a level of impartiality to the analysis, I enlisted ESPN’s often mocked Win Probability Tracker. While imperfect, it does give a solid context of how most games in a given situation will play out, and so I used it to look at what the Orange’s win probability was calculated at before and after the coaching decisions made by Babers and his staff.

Accepting the Holding Penalty to set up a Wake 3rd and 23

3rd and 13, ball on the Syracuse 34, Syracuse 21 - Wake 10

Win Probability before the Call: Syracuse, 71.3%

Win Probability after the Call: Syracuse, 73.2%

I’m on the record saying that I think Dino made the right call: The Orange defense is good enough to prevent anyone from gaining 23 yards in a single play. However, the call to only rush 3 when Hartman was clearly rattled and the Wake offense had just taken a false start is baffling, especially when Stefon Tompson is the only player guarding the middle of the field at the sticks. Asking a linebacker to cover that key area of the field feels like a failure in play calling, even if the the call to accept the penalty did increase the Orange’s chances to win. The completion would lower Syracuse’s win percentage to 62.8%, one of the single biggest swings in the entire game.

Attempting Field Goal on 4th and 2 on the Wake

4th and 2, Wake 27, Syracuse 27 - Wake 26

Win Probability before the decision: 61.5%

Win Probability after the decision: 53.3%

In one of the most conservative calls of the entire season, Dino wanted to take the points at home, and make Wake score a touchdown to beat his Orange. The missed FG aside, after just gaining 10 yards on a third and two rush with Cooper Lutz, with the ball so deep in Wake territory and 7 minutes left on the clock, a failed 2 point conversion would have about the same results as a missed OR a made field goal: Wake would get the ball back in similar field position, having plenty of clock to get two possessions if their defense could stop the Orange. Meanwhile, a successful two point conversion burns more clock, and sets the Orange up to make the game a two score gap with a touchdown and successful PAT.

Delay of Game Penalty on 2 Point Conversion

2 point conversion attempt on Wake 2, Syracuse 33 - Wake 34

Win Probability before the penalty: N/A

Win Probability after the penalty: N/A

Almost comically, there’s a glitch in ESPN’s win probability model, where because of the penalty on the two point conversion, it lumps all of Tucker’s TD, the penalty, the converted PAT, and the kickoff into one play that swung Wake’s win percentage from 95.1 to 51.2%. So even with the PAT to tie the game, ESPN’s model still showed team’s in Wake’s position win that game slightly more than they lose, which brings us to the failed two point conversion: If the conversion is successful, Syracuse wins the game. If the conversion is unsuccessful, Syracuse does exactly what it did, and loses. The fact that we didn’t get to see that decision play out because players weren’t getting on the field fast enough lies on the coaching staff. Not necessarily Dino as I don’t think it’s his job to push the package on the field, but as the head coach, he’s got to take the heat for all coaching mishaps in a game.

Comments

The holding call was the worst in hindsight

I understand the rationale. But like you pointed out, the execution was terrible.

If you are going to go the route that Babers did, you have to make a better defensive call. Let’s look at the probable options. Hold them with no gain (or even a loss) and they are probably punting. Play to not give up the big gain, probably right back to where we would be if we hadn’t accepted the penalty. 4th down and they try the FG. Maybe they actually pick up more yards and the kick is easier. Decline the penalty they try the FG. Yes, they have a great kicker, but he still has to make the kick. If he does? We still have a 5 point lead. Instead Babers chose the worst option, play a bad scheme, allow Wake to pick up 3rd and eternity and then score the TD.

Attempting the FG on 4th and 2 was weak, but I can understand it. I disagree with it, but when you are coaching not to lose, it makes sense. The 2pt conversion is neither here nor there. Even if you make it, Wake still has 20 seconds. We’ve seen Syracuse give up huge chunks (Hi last minute of the FSU game!) and with an all-world kicker, its possible they would have gotten a chance to win.

My only question about the defense after the penalty is: who called that defense?

Tony White has full defensive playcalling and scheme decisions I’m assuming, so sadly the call falls on him I think. I guess we can say Babers should lean on him to put pressure on Hartman, but of all the facets of the team, what the defense is going to do has been the one we typically don’t need to question.

I recognize that accepting the penalty was the right call by the numbers and I even thought it made sense at the time, but part of me also said, it’s still a long field goal, make them kick it and reward the defense for their good work.

We have a history of giving up 3rd and longs at the absolute worst, momentum turning times.

I told my wife and row mates in the dome what was going to happen before it happened. Was screaming not to take penalty.

I had to read this a couple of times

I believe you have a couple of typos in the attempted FG on 4th and 2 paragraph. You mention 2 point conversion a few times in the paragraph; I assume you mean two yard conversion.

If not, then I’m really confused on what you are saying.

I want the offense to get the ball back

So I’ll let them kick a 50+ FG and live with the 3 pts if they make it because our O is going to score. Plus if they miss we get excellent field position. Wake wasn’t doing much to stop our Offense all 1st half. Allowing Wake to extend that drive ended the momentum we had on offense. This was another ‘shoot yourself in the foot’ decision by our coaching staff.

Whether the defense is good enough

To give up 23 yards isn’t the metric though in whether that call is good or bad. For that acceptance to not be effective, the defense just has to surrender the same number of yards lost, not 23 yards. Not the same thing at all. but it’s worse than that, because Babers said he’d seen their kicker kick a 58 yarder and he didn’t want to give up a makeable field goal, so even getting just some of the yardage back would have put you back in the exact same position you would be in if you had declined the penalty. So what do you gain in the most likely scenarios? And of course the downsides are they get an easier field goal or, as happened, they get the unlikely first down

The holding call was not the right decision

You have a chance to get your fatigued defense off the field and guarantee they don’t score a touchdown.

You also are forcing their kicker to make a 52 yard kick which even for NFL kickers is a coin flip at best. By giving them another chance they can get back more than 10 yards and make it easier for their kicker. A coin flip field Goal is worth 1.5 points. You should never give a potent offense another chance like that for a measly 1.5 points.

That decision resulted in a 1.5 point play Becoming 7 points, and tired out the defense.

Not enough emphasis

I don’t think enough emphasis is being put on the decision to go for two at the end of the 3rd Qtr. Way too early…don’t we win in regulation if we just kicked the extra point there?

I agree 100%

I had a big problem with this call with 2 minutes left in the 3rd qtr. All things being equal I think the chances of winning the game in regulation were high with just the extra point.

Taking the holding call was the right decision.
Rushing three on the next play was a horrible decision.
Trying the FG was the wrong decision, show some faith in your offense.
The dithering on the 2-pt attempt was inexcusable. The nobody doing the color for the game on ESPN2 said, "You have to have that 2pt. play already called if that was your intention all along." If I’m Syracuse, I keep the offense on the field, line up for the 2-pt immediately, Start signaling in the play from the sideline like they usually do. I would bet dollars to donuts that Wake would have called a time out. If they don’t then kick it after the delay of game. The chaos that Babers allowed to happen is just really bad game management.

Not having a punter

Great decision

Thoughts

(1) Decline the holding call, force a long FG attempt. Worst case is WF makes a very long kick to get within 1 point. We’re still leading either way. Forcing them further out of FG range did not have enough upside because of what others have said. There are several scenarios there, where the worst case comes true (like it did), or the FG distance is easier than pre-penalty. Should have forced a long 4th down and a difficult kick, in my opinion. I found this decision to be shocking in real time, even before the ridiculous first down conversion.

(2) 4th and 2 – take the 3 points there. Not sure why everyone is up in arms about this one. I understand wanting to be aggressive, but a 45 yarder from one of the better kickers in the game is not a huge ask. Assuming it went in, we’d be up 4 and it would have forced WF to have to drive the entire field and not be able to settle for a FG. Ultimately, they did just that anyways, but I understand the call. SU’s run game had been working, but its not like WF hadn’t stopped us in the backfield on several occasions. If we hold WF on the next possession, there’s a good chance we can run out the clock.

(3) 2 point conversion/delay of game – Would have been fine with going to overtime or going for the win. It felt like we belonged on the field with WF so, I wouldn’t have been opposed to the more conservative play of forcing OT that ended up happening anyways. Like others, its the delay of game that irks me.

Overall, some debatable calls, some stupid mistakes, and some poor execution. What isn’t debatable, is that we’ve been in every game this year despite being underdogs in nearly all of them. Whether we like it or not, Wake is a top 25 team (though probably overrated), FSU is still a team filled with 4 stars (and probably underrated with that QB at the helm), we’re coming of a 1 win season and, yet, we’re a couple plays from being 5-1 and in the driver’s seat in the Atlantic division. (I’ll chalk the Rutgers game up to an early road game with a young team that stayed in it for most the game.)

I know people are impatient, but it feels like we’re so close, I don’t know how you can bail on Babers quite yet. If nothing else, these games have been on brand…#cardiacCuse

There is certainly overall improvement from last year's team

The final results aren’t necessarily there, but they are being competitive. And some credit has to be given to the coaching staff for getting them to that position.

Rutgers wasn't a road game

and people are bailing on Babers because they are tired of losing winnable games. It’s infuriating to watch the staff stumble around shooting themselves in the foot blowing our chances at a good season. Being "so close" in Year 6 isn’t good enough.

Oops

I was at the Rutgers game and still wrote that it was an away game. Guess I need more sleep…That aside, sometimes I can’t tell if I’m an eternal optimist or a borderline nihilist. I read your post and think "I get it, but…"

Tired of losing winnable games means we’re in winnable games. It wasn’t that long ago we weren’t. In game coaching decisions actually matter now? Nice!

Being "so close" in year 6 isn’t good enough…except it’s the best we’ve got and sure beats "no where near good" in years 1-4 of the next guy.

The coach who won us a national championship took 11 years to get us there and was 4-4 in year six. Coach Mac had a losing record in year six…and went undefeated in year 7 (damn you auburn and your ties). Coach P started strong and ended mediocre. Since him, we haven’t had any coaches get to year 6 until now.

I don’t have the patience either, I just don’t have the patience to start over from scratch, yet again, when we might not have to.

I disagreed with the decision to accept the penalty

And I don’t think on that specific play that declining the penalty would be scared coaching. It’s more playing math and statistics. But I see the argument for accepting it. Not rushing 4 on the play after was way more egregious.

Electing to kick the FG, on the other hand, I damn near punched the tv. Offense was driving down the field and they only needed 2 yards to gain. Gotta go for 6 on that drive when the SU defense was tired that late in the game.

Also I’ve come to terms with the fact that Andre Szmyt is not a great kicker. He’s a decent kicker who had an incredible season.

At least if Szmyt was going to have one incredible season

He chose the right one to do it!

For sure

He earned the Lou Groza award. He was statistically the best kicker in the nation that year and was a big part of why they finished 10-3.

Everyone is barking up the wrong tree with this entire analysis of poor decisions by the coaching staff. That is not why we lost 3 games this year and certainly not the reason that we lost the last two. We are losing close games because the players are not making enough plays when they need to .. to win. Did you see the catch made by the Wale player in the corner of the end zone.. falling down on his back.. still makes the catch. Dude caught 3 passes all foe touchdowns. That is a playmaker… that is why we lost! 3rd and 23 and you can’t get a stop…. Who converts 3rd and 23 in crunch time? That is why we lost. Our Grozza award winning kicker misses from 45 yards.. those are the reasons we lost!

You don’t think the coaches should’ve known that wake player had Syracuse’s number

And I don’t know… double covered him in the play call?

Players made enough plays to win, coaches made the errors here and against Florida state.

Overthinking and not thinking...

What has been apparent in all of this season’s losses is that managing a game for Babers and his staff seems to include overthinking the simple things or obvious moves, and not thinking enough on other critical decisions or consequences of their choices.

Sure, I’ll grant you this could be said generically about most coaches in a losing contest, but the acute impact for Orange football is that the questionable coaching decisions this year have undermined the efforts on the field by our players who for the most part played their butts off in the three losses. What stings most is that none of these losses were blowouts and we were in positions to win each of these games well into the fourth quarter (how long has it been since you could say that about Syracuse football?)

And most unfortunately for Babers, the in-game coaching snafus have turned fans attention away and overshadowed some of the good decisions regarding new hires, player management and game planning moves that Babers has made to reset our offensive strategy, utilize our better players’ talent and bolster our competitiveness in games.

Clock management and use of time-outs is an issue in itself and has been an issue every season, but I’ve come to expect that.

You can debate the probability of success/failure and the merits of coaching decisions from last Saturday’s game against Wake, but the outcomes show that the most questioned decisions mentioned on all these post-game threads did NOT work to Syracuse’s advantage, nor increase our ability to win (in fact arguably some of them proved to advantage Wake).

Let’s hope in-game coaching is better against Clemson this Friday, or at least doesn’t undermine the players efforts on the field.

These were three of the biggest calls of the game

I thought the decision to accept the penalty wasn’t necessarily a bad one, however the play that was called on the 3rd and 23 (rush 3, play zone defense) was not the right one. Not sure if that was White’s decision or Babers. Hartman had been carving up the SU secondary all game when he had plenty of time in the pocket. Felt like the Orange should have rushed at least 4 or 5. Force him to get the ball out quickly and throw it short, then hope your guys can make a tackle, rather than play it safe and let the longer routes develop that would give them a better chance to get the first down, which they ultimately did.

I didn’t hate the call for the field goal that would have put Syracuse up by 4. On the eye test, Szmyt hasn’t been as effective as his Groza Award-winning season. Maybe that’s due to a new holder and developing chemistry there. But you ultimately should trust the player with the most career field goals in school history to make a 45-yard attempt with no wind. Just an unfortunate miss.

The delay of game on the 2-point conversion was indefensible, though. You’ve got to know in that situation as you are driving down the field whether you are going for the win or the tie if you do score a TD. Of course, you don’t want to think too many steps ahead, but that should have been something in the back of Dino’s mind. He should have communicated that to all the players on the sideline as that drive was happening in Wake territory that they would go for 2 if they scored a TD. To not have properly communicated with your players in literally the biggest moment of the game is a direct reflection of the coaching staff. Terrible in-game management in that spot.

Syracuse, even in their last two losses, has shown signs of life as a program. In a down ACC, this Orange team should be able to get to 6-6. But I fear that the questionable coaching and blowing these late games to conference foes will prevent the program from reaching its bowl game potential.

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