Big East Preview -- Part 4

This is the fourth in a seven part preseason tour of the Big East. I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the reorganized Syracuse Orange. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

SYRACUSE ORANGE PREVIEW


Syracuse  (6-5, 4-2 Big East) had a rollercoaster season, much like Pittsburgh.  The Orange's schedule was a death march, with non-conference games at Purdue, at Virginia, and against Florida State.  It was not an accommodating schedule for a coach on the hot seat.  And 14-year Head Coach Paul Pasqualoni was on the hot seat.  Syracuse had played in only one bowl game in the previous four years.  And attendance was in decline.  Syracuse staggered out of the gate with a season-opening blowout at Purdue.  Closer-than-expected losses to Virginia and Florida State ensued.  And the Orange narrowly escaped its first home loss to Rutgers since 1986.  Through with its brutal non-conference schedule, Syracuse rebounded in the Big East.  Syracuse beat Pittsburgh in 2OT to vault themselves into the Big East race.  A stunning loss at Temple cost Syracuse the Big East title as a dominating road win at Boston College only earned the Orange a four-way share of the crown, instead of an outright championship.  A 2-1 record against their fellow co-champs enabled Syracuse to clear the first tie-breaker.  But a lower BCS ranking versus Pittsburgh cost the Orange a BCS appearance.  Syracuse lost a Gator Bowl appearance to a more appealing West Virginia team.  And an Insight Bowl appearance to Notre Dame.  A Continental Tire Bowl berth to Boston College.  An a Motor City Bowl bid to feel-good Connecticut.  Syracuse was the leper of the Big East bowl teams.  Fortunately, enough at-large bids were available and Syracuse landed a bid to the Champs Sports Bowl.  Unfortunately, Syracuse ended the season like it began, with a humiliating loss – 51-14 – to Georgia Tech. 

With the resignation of former Athletic Director Jake Crouthamel, Pasqualoni lost his strongest supporter.  Pasqualoni was dismissed and incoming AD Daryl Gross hired former Texas Defensive Coordinator Greg Robinson as only the fifth Orange head coach in the past fifty years.   Robinson has overhauled an Orange program in need of a new direction.  Syracuse, in recent years, lacked an athletic QB to run its complicated freeze option offense.  The Orange offense became increasingly one-dimensional.  Meanwhile, the defense slipped.  The increasing use of true freshmen to fill gaps on the two-deep was a strong indication of a program in decline.  As was the record, of course.  Robinson returns 15 starters plus one kicker from a young team that was wildly inconsistent.  As one of the Big East's original flagship programs, Syracuse must return to its lofty achievements of the late 80s and early 90s if the New Big East is to maintain its status as a BCS conference.  Here's a look at the reorganized Syracuse Orange. 


OFFENSE

Syracuse lost five starters from yet another one-dimensional and mediocre offense.  Robinson has installed a west coast offense but Syracuse, much like Nebraska last year, lacks the personnel to run the system.  The Orange are weak at QB and receiver, meaning Robinson will likely rely heavily upon his running game to carry the offense.  Syracuse's 2004 offensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 179 rushing yards per game (#3 in the old Big East and #31 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 170 passing yards per game (#6 in the old Big East and #100 in Division 1A)
  • 349 yards per game (#7 in the old Big East and #78 in Division 1A)
  • 24 points per game (#6 in the old Big East and #74 in Division 1A)


Syracuse has a legendary running back tradition dating back almost 50 years to Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, and Larry Csonka.  Three-year starter and two-time All Big East (First Team last year) TB Walter Reyes (148 carries for 803 yards and 7 TD plus 14 receptions for 113 yards), who finished second in Syracuse career rushing, departed and joined the list of great Orange RBs.  Former backup TB and leading rusher Sr Damien Rhodes (153 carries for 870 yards and 10 TDs plus 18 receptions for 246 yards and one TD) is the heir apparent to this tradition.  Starting FB Greg Hanoian (10 carries for 41 yards plus 5 receptions for 24 yards and one TD) has departed.  Former backup FB RS So Breyone Evans (7 carries for 50 yards and one TD plus 7 receptions for 46 yards and one TD) will replace Hanoian while RS Jr FB Steven McDonald, who missed last season with a leg injury, will be the backup.  RS Jr Tim Washington, who missed last season with a concussion, will compete with RS Fr Paul Chiara, RS Fr Kareem Jones, and true Fr Curtis Brinkley for the backup job.  The Orange had no viable #3 TB behind Reyes and Rhodes last year, as the starting SS replaced the injured pair at Boston College.  If Rhodes stays healthy and runs harder, he could be the Big East Offensive Player of the Year. 

Syracuse lost two three-year starters – First Team All-Big East and 2nd round NFL draft choice (Baltimore) LT Adam Terry and First Team All-Big East C Matt Tarullo – off a veteran OLine.  Two-year starter RG RS Sr Steve Franklin, starting RT Sr Quinn Ojinnaka, and starting LG RS Sr Jason Greene will form the core of the rebuilt unit.  Former backups RS Jr C Justin Outten and RS Sr LT Kurt Falke will replace Tarullo and Terry in the starting lineup.  RS So C Marvin McCall is the only other returning backup on the two-deep.  RS So LG Carroll Madison, who backup up Greene last year, has dropped off the depth chart.  RS Jr RG Mike Sklarosky – a JUCO who redshirted last year, RS Fr LT Ryan Ehrie, RS Fr LG Ryan Durand, and RS Fr RT Corey Chavers will complete a very inexperienced second team.  The OLine should allow the Orange to again rely very heavily upon their potent running game.  However, the second unit is very green and may not yet be ready to contribute, should they be needed. 

The QB position has been a mess since Donovan McNabb departed in 1998.  Five different QBs have played in the past six seasons, without success.  The switch to the west coast offense appears to be a rash move given the poor production that the Orange have received from the QB position.  RS Jr QB Perry Patterson (168 of 289 for 1,851 yards, 7 TDs, and 10 INTs plus 72 carries for 143 yards and 3 TDs), who missed the 2003 season with an ACL injury, began last season as the backup but replaced the starter after one month and finished the season as the No. 1 QB.  So QB Joe Fields (13 of 29 for 192 yards, one TD, and 3 INTs) enrolled in Spring 2004 and was a surprise starter to open the season.  However, Fields immediately faltered and was replaced by Patterson.   Joe will resume his backup role this year, unless Patterson falters or is injured.  Patterson must execute the west coast offense with a minimum of mistakes.  He is the caretaker until Robinson can recruit a QB with skills better suited to the west coast offense. 

Syracuse has produced one good WR since McNabb departed.  Is it a chicken-and-egg problem?  Are the receivers mediocre because the QBs are bad?  Or are the QBs bad because the receivers are awful?  The receiving corps was so depleted last year that Pasqualoni shifted a starting CB from a suspect secondary to bolster a receiving corps on a one-dimensional team.  A very questionable move.  Starting WR and leading receiver Jared Jones (43 receptions for 621 yards and 3 TDs) departed.  Former starting WR RS Sr Steve Gregory (38 receptions for 420 yards and one TD), who started at CB in 2003, returned to CB in spring camp.  Backup WR Andre Fontenette (15 receptions for 222 yards and one TD) also departed.  Starting TE RS Sr Joe Kowalewski (14 receptions for 181 yards) is the most productive returning receiver.  RS Sr TE Alex Shor returns as the backup.  Former backup WR RS So Landel Bembo (14 receptions for 115 yards), the only experienced WR, earned a starting job by default.  So WR Quinton Brown (5 receptions for minus 1 yard), So WR Rice Moss (4 receptions for 40 yards), and RS Jr WR Tim Lane will battle for the other starting job opposite Bembo.  Unless the young players grow up quickly, the receiving corps looks to be in even worse shape this year than last year. 


DEFENSE

Syracuse lost only two starters from a young and inexperienced defense that was among the worst in Division IA for the second time in three years.  Robinson has not abandoned the Orange's overshift 4-3 defense, which features a NT and a SLB on the line of scrimmage over the TE in a 5-2 look.  However, Robinson is expected to play that scheme more aggressively than the bend but don't break style of Pasqualoni. 
Syracuse's 2004 defensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 187 rushing yards per game (#6 in the old Big East and #86 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 240 passing yards per game (#4 in the old Big East and #90 in Division 1A)
  • 427 yards per game (#5 in the old Big East and #101 in Division 1A)
  • 29 points per game (#5 in the old Big East and #76 in Division 1A)


Syracuse was supposed to return intact its entire two-deep at linebacker.  However, backup WLB RS Jr Luke Cain (24 tackles) was indefinitely suspended from the team in summer camp. Former starting SLB RS Jr Kelvin Smith (53 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 2 INTs), who was moved inside to MLB in spring camp while the incumbent was injured, has maintained his grip on the starting job.  Former starting WLB RS Sr Kellen Pruitt (80 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks) will replace Smith at SLB.  Former backup WLB RS Sr Tommy Harris (12 tackles, one FF, and one FR) will apparently replace Pruitt at WLB.  Former starting MLB and leading tackler RS Jr Jerry Mackey (106 tackles, 7 TFLs, 2 sacks, and one FF), who missed spring camp under the new staff with a shoulder injury, was displaced from the starting lineup and will backup Harris at WLB.  Backup MLB RS So Jameel McClain (11 tackles and one FR) also returns in that capacity.  RS Jr SLB Jamar Atkinson, a former JUCO who redshirted last year, will backup Pruitt.  The young LB corps grew up last year and is now deep and experienced.  However, the unit must make more plays. 

Syracuse lost only one player off a six-man DLine rotation – DE Julian Pollard (27 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2 sacks, and one FR).  Two-year starter Second Team All-Big East DE RS Sr James Wyche (68 tackles, 15 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, and one FR), starting DT Sr Kader Drame (31 tackles and 3.5 TFLs), and starting NT RS So Tony Jenkins (49 tackles, 3 TFLs, and one FR) return as the core of the DLine.  Former backup DE RS Sr Ryan LaCasse (32 tackles, 7 TFLS, 5 sacks, and 4 FF) will replace Pollard in the starting lineup.  RS Jr DT Chris Thorner (23 tackles and one FR) is the only experienced backup.  RS So DE Lee Williams, who played negligibly as a backup last year, will backup LaCasse.  Former backup TE RS Sr Cory Brooks and former backup DT RS So Cornelius Campbell, also also played negligibly last year as a backup, will battle for the backup DE job behind Wyche.  RS Sr NT Eugene Brown has displaced Campbell as the backup DT.  Syracuse has great experience in the starting lineup but the backups are generally inexperienced. 

Syracuse lost the best player in its secondary – two-year starter, First Team All-Big East, and second leading tackler SS Diamond Ferri (99 tackles, 2 TFLs, 4 INTs, 6 FF, and 4 FR).  Backup FS O'Neil Scott (37 tackles and 2 INTs) and backup SS Troy Swittenburg (19 tackles) also departed, creating a void at safety.  Two-year starter, Second Team All-Big East, and third leading tackler FS Sr Anthony Smith (85 tackles, 3 INTs, and one FF) returns and will anchor the secondary.  Starting CBs Jr Tanard Jackson (56 tackles. 1.5 TFL, 2 INTs, and one FR) and Sr CB DeAndre LaCaille (34 tackles and 2 FR) also return.  Former starting WR RS Sr Steve Gregory, who started at CB in 2003, returned to CB in spring camp and will push LaCaille for the starting job opposite Jackson.  Backup CB RS Sr Thomas Whitfield (18 tackles and one FR) also returns.  RS So SS Reggie McCoy and former backup CB So Dowayne Davis (7 tackles) will battle for the starting job.  RS Fr FS Ben Maljovec will backup Smith.   Robinson inherits a lot of experience in the secondary but those veterans must improve their pass coverage, which was porous last year. 


SPECIAL TEAMS

Syracuse, a team with a suspect offense, lost a valuable weapon in former Second Team All-Big East PK Collin Barber (14 of 22 FGAs and 24 of 27 XPAs), who departed.  The Orange took another hit in the departure of KOR Diamond Ferri (27 yards per return).  Two-time Second Team All-Big East RS Jr P Brendan Carney (43 yards per punt) returns.  Jr CB Marcus Clayton (8 yards per return) apparently will not return punts this year.  RS So WR Lendel Bembo (4 yards per returns), who shared PR duties with Clayton last year, will battle RS Fr WR JJ Bedle for the job this year.  RS So PK Ricky Krautman will replace Barber.  Sr TB Damien Rhodes (20 yards per return), as the sole experienced TB, is likely too valuable in the backfield to risk on special teams and is not expected to return kickoffs this year.  Clayton, RS Fr TB Paul Chiara, RS Fr TB Kareem Jones, and true Fr TB Curtis Brinkley could emerge as candicates for the KOR job.  Robinson will need his rookie PK and returners to step up to support a ground-based offense. 


SCHEDULE

Syracuse has an 11 game schedule with six home games.  The Orange open the season with a Sunday date against West Virginia.  Syracuse also plays once on Friday night, at Connecticut.  Syracuse has two bye weeks – in late September and again in early November.  The byes do not coincide with the Sunday/Friday dates, giving Syracuse two games on short weeks.  Syracuse plays eight 2004 bowl teams – West Virginia (Gator), Virginia (MPC Computer), Florida State (Gator), Connecticut (Motor City), Pittsburgh (Fiesta), Cincinnati (Fort Worth), Notre Dame (Insight), and Louisville (Liberty).  Once again, Syracuse has a murderous non-conference schedule featuring Virginia, Florida State, and Notre Dame.  The Big East schedule is favorable for a middling team and almost guarantees a middle of the pack finish with easier opponents at home and tougher opponents on the road.  The home schedule is favorable, without a single opponent against whom Syracuse is not capable of beating at the Carrier Dome.  A 5-1 home record is essential to a winning season.  The road schedule only offers one realistic opportunities for a victory – at Connecticut.  Games at Florida State, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Louisville are likely losses.  The key games are the league matchups at Connecticut, versus Rutgers, and versus West Virginia – these will decide a good, mediocre, or bad year. 

 

September 4

West Virginia

September 10

Buffalo

September 17

Virginia

October 1

@ Florida State

October 7

@ Connecticut

October 15

Rutgers

October 22

@ Pittsburgh

October 29

Cincinnati

November 12

South Florida

November 19

@ Notre Dame

November 26

@ Louisville

 


PREDICTION

I predict Syracuse will finish the season with a 7-4 (5-2) record.  Syracuse will capitalize on the dome field advantage to beat rebuilding West Virginia with a rookie QB in the season opener.  The Dome will also pay dividends against Virginia and Rutgers.  The Orange will have enough experience to win at East Hartford against Connecticut, for its only road win of the season.  Past the swing games by mid-October, the rest of the schedule will play out according to script.  By leveraging a favorable league schedule and the Carrier Dome, Syracuse will earn a three-way tie for second place in the Big East.  Syracuse will lose the Gator Bowl and Insight Bowl bids to more appealing Pittsburgh and West Virginia, respectively.  Despite beating Syracuse, Notre Dame will not qualify for a bowl game.  No other Big East team will win more than three games.  Therefore, the Orange will receive the bid to the Meineke (Continental) Bowl in Charlotte against #5 ACC North Carolina.  


Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 5.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at brash Connecticut, who has made a quick ascent of the Division IA ranks in four years.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits. 


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