Keys to the Syracuse Game

New Syracuse Head Coach Greg Robinson has sought to re-energize the dormant Orange program but a brutal schedule and lack of talent has conspired to produce a bad start. The morale of the team could be fragile. Rutgers missed a golden opportunity to assert itself in the new Big East with a win over rebuilt West Virginia. Rutgers travels to Syracuse for the first of two must-win road games. Here are my five keys to a mandatory road win at Syracuse.

KEYS TO THE SYRACUSE GAME


In five years at Rutgers, Head Coach Greg Schiano sports a 15-36 record.  Schiano has won only one game he was not expected to win – versus Syracuse in 2003.  Contrarily, Schiano has lost 12 games he should have won (or was in position to win).  The 41-31 loss at Syracuse last year epitomized such lost opportunities.  Rutgers was not expected to win at the Carrier Dome.  Yet the Scarlet Knights repeatedly had opportunities to put Syracuse away in the 2nd Half.  And repeatedly failed to do so.  The climatic moment occurred when Rutgers recovered a fumble at the SU21 with four minutes remaining and 4-point lead.  Then proceeded to meltdown and lose by 10.  The loss cost Rutgers a golden opportunity to regain the momentum lost against New Hampshire.  Rutgers proceeded to lose five of its final seven games and didn't beat another respectable opponent. 

The 1st Quarter was painful to watch as both teams struggled.  Syracuse opened the game with a 3-n-out but a roughing the punter penalty extended the drive.  Syracuse drove to the RU11 before CB Joe Porter intercepted Orange QB Perry Patterson in the end zone.  Following a quick Rutgers punt, the teams exchanged four consecutive 3-n-outs.  Syracuse mounted a 12-play, 48-drive spanning the quarters and ending with a 39-yard FG by PK Collin Barber.  Following Rutgers' third consecutive 3-n-out, Orange TB Damien Rhodes broke a 25-yard run and a 44-yard TD scamper on Power G to give Syracuse a 10-0 lead.  Rutgers answered with an 11-play, 70-yard TD drive capped by a 7-yard TD reception by TE Clark Harris on a post route.  Orange KOR Diamond Ferri fumbled at the SU27 but Rutgers stalled inside the SU10 and settled for a 26-yard FG by PK Jeremy Ito to tie the game at 10-10.  A 62-yard rush by TB Walter Reyes (on an inside zone play in which Rutgers missed three tackles) keyed a 6 play, 78-yard drive capped with a 24-yard Barber FG.  Rutgers responded with an 11-play, 64-yard drive but again stalled in the red zone; Orange DE James Wyche blocked Ito's 31-yard FGA to preserve Syracuse's 13-10 lead at halftime. 

Rutgers opened the 2nd Half with a 12-play, 86-yard, 6-minute drive finished with a 1-yard TD run by TB Justise Hairston.  WS Jason Nugent intercepted Patterson at midfield but Hairston fumbled two plays later.  Syracuse capitalized with a quick 4-play, 57-yard blitz as Reyes scored on a 23-yard TD on a counter option to regain the lead for Syracuse, 20-17.  Rutgers retorted with an 11-play, 80-yard, 4-minute drive capped with an 8-yard TD post route by Harris.  Syracuse went 3-n-out to start the 4th Quarter.  Presented with a second opportunity to expand the lead, Hairston fumbled away possession at the SU10.  Syracuse drove 90 yards in 9 plays, sparked by a 62-yard run by Reyes (on a counter option) and capped by a 4-ayrd TD pass to FB Greg Hanoian on a play-action drag route for a 27-24 lead.  Rutgers again regained the lead with a 16-play, 80-yard, 7-minute drive that ended with a 5-yard TD pass to WR Chris Baker.  Reyes fumbled at the SU 21 on the next play from scrimmage.  Rutgers could not gain a first down, burned only 22 seconds off the clock, and missed a 43-yard FGA.  Syracuse quickly drove the field behind Patterson's heretofore ineffective passing, covering 75 yards in five plays and scoring on a 21-yard TD run by Reyes to again reclaim the lead, 34-31.  Rutgers turned the ball over on downs – going backwards on penalties – and Syracuse scored a garbage TD after taking possession at the RU03. 

Syracuse earned a four-way share of the Big East championship but nonetheless fired Head Coach Paul Pasqualoni.  New Head Coach Greg Robinson sought to re-energize the dormant Orange program but a brutal schedule and lack of talent has conspired to produce a bad start.  A bad loss at upstart Connecticut has brought home the reality of Syracuse's plight to a disbelieving fan base deluded by history and tradition.  Syracuse is a bad team.  The Orange lack talent at the skill positions and personnel to run the west coast offense that Robinson installed.  The morale of the team could be fragile, which has been a problem at Syracuse in recent years, as perpetual cellar-dweller Rutgers pays a visit to upstate New York. Rutgers missed a golden opportunity to assert itself in the new Big East with a win over rebuilt West Virginia.  Instead, turnovers, a sputtering offense, and defense that couldn't contain the edge compromised Rutgers' bid for the upset.  Rutgers travels to Syracuse for the first of two must-win road games.  For a coach with a 1-12 record in Big East road games.  Rutgers should have beaten Syracuse last year.  Now, the Scarlet Knights must prove it.  Here are my five keys to a mandatory road win at Syracuse. 


TEAM KEYS

1.  Control the Tempo.  Last week against West Virginia, Rutgers spotted West Virginia a 21-0 lead that allowed West Virginia to turn the game into a slogging match with their ground attack protecting the lead and consuming the clock.  A struggling Mountaineer offense to played the 2nd Half with little pressure.  Rutgers could not force a Mountaineer offense lacking an effective passing attack into obvious passing situations due either to down/distance or score/clock.  The Scarlet Knights cannot be so accommodating at the Carrier Dome, where Syracuse is much more formidable.  Syracuse is ranked #108 nationally in scoring offense at 17 ppg.  Rutgers features one of the most prolific offense in the Big East.  Rutgers must start quickly and set an early pace that Syracuse will be pressed to match.  A fast pace will force the struggling Orange QB platoon of RS Jr Perry Patterson and So Joe Fields to produce and may cause the platoon to exert more pressure on each QB to score in his limited appearances.  Last year, Rutgers thrice had a 4-point lead and the ball in Syracuse territory and failed to increase its lead.  The close score allowed Syracuse to mile its powerful rushing attack until four minutes remained.  Rutgers must either strike quickly and force Syracuse to keep pace or assemble long TD drives to rest the beleaguered Scarlet Knight defense.  Rutgers must score at least 10 points in the 1st Quarter and 20 points by halftime.  The Scarlet Knights must force a fast scoring tempo upon the lethargic Orange offense and not allow Robinson to lean on his only proven weapon – Sr TB Damien Rhodes. 

2.  Aerial Assault.  Syracuse is allowing only 165 passing yards per game, ranking them #17 nationally (of 117 Division IA teams).  However, the Orange have not faced any prolific passing teams.  Rutgers threw for 360 yards and 3 TDs.  The Scarlet Knight passing attack is more potent that it has ever been.  And is better than any Syracuse has yet to face, with the possible exception of Florida State.  Three First Team All-Big East players, plus the Scarlet Knights' 2003 leading receiver, give the Scarlet Knight QB a plethora of targets.  And the backups are formidable, too.  Syracuse could not cover the Scarlet Knight receivers last year.  Rutgers must come out throwing.  Schiano has replaced three-year starter Sr QB Ryan Hart with RS Fr Mike Teel.  This is not the time to be conservative on offense.  Rutgers must stretch the field vertically and complete passes into the gaps.  A potent passing attack will allow Rutgers to set a fast tempo.  Rutgers must throw for at last 275 passing yards.  If Rutgers can establish the running game against Syracuse, the Scarlet Knights must hit big passes off play action. 

3.  Man-to-Man Coverage.  Last week, Connecticut played man-to-man defense against the Orange with no safety help except in obvious passing situations.  The Huskies physically pressed the Orange WRs and effectively took the Syracuse WRs out of the game.  The Orange QBs could not complete passes over the top or underneath the tight coverage.  The Orange QBs combined to complete only 10 of 31 passes for 125 yards.  Rutgers played a lot of Cover 1 (man-to-man underneath with a single deep safety in centerfield) against Syracuse last year.  Although Patterson completed only 11 of 25 passes for 131 yards, he had receivers open deep all game against beaten Rutgers CBs.  Patterson hit his only deep pass on Syracuse's game winning TD drive.  Rutgers must play physical press coverage to allow the Scarlet Knight safeties to concentrate on run support.  The CBs must jam the WRs at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of their routes.  The CBs must force an outside release where they can use the sideline as another defender, forcing the Orange QBs to drop passes into a small area.  The CBs must yield no more than two big passes (greater than 20 yards).  And none for TDs. 

4.  Nine-Man Front.  Last week, Connecticut deployed all eleven defenders near the line of scrimmage.  The safeties were as shallow as five yards off the line of scrimmage on early downs.  That gave the Huskies two unblocked defenders if the QB was not accounted, which occurred only on bootlegs.  Syracuse did not run any option or any QB keepers.  The rushing yardage for the Orange QBs came solely off scrambles or bootlegs.  Syracuse was unable to force Connecticut out of its nine-man front.  Dared by Connecticut to throw, Syracuse took a few shots deep but couldn't hit them – much as occurred against Rutgers last year.  Instead, Syracuse battered at the Husky defense on the ground, gaining 94 yards on 25 carries (3.8 yards per carry).  If Rutgers can similarly blanket the Orange WRs with press man-to-man coverage, Schiano must deploy both safeties shallow in a nine-man front.  This will allow Rutgers to contain the outside and plug the inside gaps.  Last year, Rutgers allowed six designed runs of at least 20 yards.  Overall, Syracuse gained 370 yards on 40 carries for a whopping 9.2 yards per carry average.  Syracuse's ability to gash Rutgers on the ground enabled Syracuse to keep pace with Rutgers in a high-scoring game.  Rutgers must hold Syracuse to 200 rushing yards – including QB scrambles on designed passes.  And allow no more than two runs of at least 20 yards (and no long TD runs). 

5.  Defending Misdirection.  Last year, Pasqualoni's staff scouted Rutgers defense thoroughly, correctly identified a vulnerability to misdirection, and shrewdly developed a game plan to exploit the weakness.  Syracuse repeatedly hit Rutgers with misdirection – option, counter option, and counter pitch.  The result was typically the Orange TB turning the corner untouched for big yardage down the sideline.  Of Syracuse's six big running plays (> 20 yards), two occurred off misdirection and gained 85 yards.  And a third play gained 19 yards.  Schiano's defense is all balls, no brains.  As their quotes in the paper frequently attest.  They recklessly commit themselves before ascertaining the location of the football.  When opponents use misdirection, the Scarlet Knights get caught leaning the wrong way and are often a man short at the point of attack.  Robinsons's staff would be foolish not to test Rutgers with misdirection.  The Scarlet Knights must be ready.  DEs and OLBs with backside contain responsibilities must honor those assignments before pursuing.  Defenders must work as a team and not a gaggle of individuals.  Know where their help is – and isn't.  Steer the ballcarrier into pursuit.  String out a play towards the 12th defender – the sideline.  Rutgers must not give up more than one big play on misdirection. 


KEY INDIVIDUALS

1.  RS Fr QB Mike Teel.  Reports emerged from summer camp that incumbent starter Sr Ryan Hart was struggling.  My stated preference was a platoon that would allow ongoing evaluation of Hart and Teel.  Regardless, Schiano needed to make a decision about Hart by the end of the Illinois game.  After three easy games to open the season, Rutgers faced a four-game stretch of league games that would decide the season.  If Hart wasn't going to be the answer, Teel needed seasoning against Villanova and Buffalo.  Instead, Mike played one full drive, two 3-n-outs, and a Hail Mary against the Wildcats and Bulls.  After essentially wedding himself to Hart by not actively developing Teel, Schiano suddenly reversed himself this week and named Teel the starting QB.  While replacing Hart with Teel may be the right move, Schiano has not exactly maximized Teel's opportunity to succeed.  Teel has about one half of experience – at least two halves fewer than he should have (Illinois, Villanova, and Buffalo).  Now, he starts at the Carrier Dome.  So far, he has played well but he made his share of rookie mistakes.  Mike must make good decisions and throw the ball to open receivers (not forcing passes into coverage).  He must complete at least 44% of his passes for at least 275 yards.  Most importantly, he must throw at least two deep passes each quarter and hit at least three all game.  This will stretch the defense and create bigger gaps underneath for his WRs.  And will push the Orange safeties back, allowing Rutgers to run against a seven-man front. 

2.  Jr CB Derrick Roberson.  Roberson was beaten for a starting job last season during summer camp but assumed it during September when the starter struggled.  Roberson struggled as well.  He was frequently targeted by opposing QBs as the weaker CB.  His man-to-man coverage was very soft, allowing easy catches underneath.  And he was repeatedly victimized deep on double moves (e.g., post-corner).  Patterson completed his only deep pass last year past a badly beaten Roberson.  That wasn't the only deep route on which Roberson was beaten by Orange WRs.  Derrick likely will spend much of the game in man-to-man coverage that Syracuse will attempt to exploit.  The more effectively that Roberson can blanket the Orange WRs, the more attention the Scarlet Knight safeties will be able to devote to run support.  Roberson must not get beaten with regularity, short or deep.  He must get beaten deep no more than once.  And must not yield a TD. 

3.  RS Fr SLB Chenry Lewis.  Lewis redshirted last season, practicing at DE with the scout team.  He was switched to OLB in spring camp and, with injuries to starting SLB Sr Terry Bynes and backup LB RS Sr Brad Cunningham, saw significant action in the Spring Game.  In Cunningham's absence, Lewis made the two-deep in summer camp.  However, Schiano's overreaction to rotating his LBs too frequently last year has been to barely rotate them this year.  As a result, Lewis has seen minimal playing time.  The poor performance of Beckford in Bynes' absence against West Virginia prompted Schiano to replace Beckford with Lewis in the starting lineup.  Chenry's first career start will also constitute his first sustained action.  Lewis will be responsible for containing Rhodes on the strong side.  Syracuse runs a lot of zone plays; Lewis will be responsible for outside containment, especially on outside zone plays.  Chenry will also be responsible for covering the Orange TE or RBs on pass plays.  The LBs must play well.  Including Lewis.  Chenry must contribute at least six tackles and must not be repeatedly MIA, as was Beckford. 

4.  RS Jr FB Brian Leonard.  Leonard missed the Syracuse game last year with a thigh bruise.  Brian's absence might have been the difference between a win and a loss.  Schiano could not find a productive replacement for Leonard and the Scarlet Knight ground game struggled.  The Orange have a solid DLine but their LB corps is suspect.  With Teel replacing Hart, Schiano needs solid production from his RBs to take the pressure off Teel.  That need puts the emphasis on the multi-purpose threat Leonard, who will be playing before a contingent from Gouverneur, New York.  Brian must have a big game, with at least 150 all-purpose yards.  He must gain at least 75 rushing yards.  And score 2 TDs. 

5.  RS Jr WR Shawn Tucker.  Rutgers was able to throw deep against Syracuse last year, although the passes were underthrown and left substantial yards after catch (YAC) on the field.  The promotion of Teel into the starting lineup was significantly predicated upon his superior arm strength.  Hart is limited to an effective range of 30 yards downfield and frequently underthrows his receivers on deep passes.  Against Buffalo, Schiano used Teel for a Hail Mary pass at the end of the 1st Half.  If Rutgers is going to stretch the field, Tucker will be a primary candidate.  Shawn has been the leading receiver in three of Rutgers five games, including the Scarlet Knights' best two offensive efforts of the season.  Tucker needs another big game against the shaky Orange secondary.  He must catch at least five passes for at least 100 yards and a TD.  It will only take one deep catch to provide a viable threat of the deep pass.  And that threat alone will create better opportunities underneath for the RBs and receivers. 


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