In a game with so much to speak on both offensively and defensively, the proper way to begin the analysis would be in recognition of the unit that performed the best – special teams.
'Cuse cruises on special teams
On the first burst from Jeremiah Kobena Saturday night, it was evident that the Green Wave would have a tough time keeping pace with the Orange in the often most overlooked phase of the game. The freshman fielded the first-quarter kickoff, with Syracuse facing its only deficit of the game, and he showed top-notch burst by sprinting down the sideline for 79 yards. Sure, he was the fastest player on the field, but kick-out blocks from Tombe Kose and Lewellyn Coker combined with a seal block from Ritchy Desir sprung him. Kobena then made the kicker miss and he would not be caught until he reached the 5-yard line. The speedster added a few more big returns, an he went on to average 44 yards per effort in the win.
Another improved unit on special teams was the field-goal team. There were no glaring protection issues this week, and the solid blocking allowed kicker Ross Krautman to make each of the three field goals as well as the four extra points he attempted. He made the game-winner from 21 yards out, and the effort helped him garner Big East Player of the Week honors. Krautman was also solid in the kickoff game, even sailing the opening kick out of the end zone for a touchback.
Syracuse elected to use both punters in the win, though Jonathan Fisher again handled most of the duties. Shane raupers displayed his solid hang time in his only effort, and Fisher did the same while averaging nearly 37 yards per kick. The punt coverage unit was solid throughout the game as was the kickoff unit in slowing down Tulane's returners.
Offense shows some flashes
As expected, the Orange offense came out of the gates hot on Saturday. Antwon Bailey was able to score on the team's first play from scrimmage from 5 yards out thanks to Kobena's return, and the offense added a field goal on its next drive. Quarterback Ryan Nassib was eased into the game on some easy throws, and there was some designed deep shots as well – though he could not connect with Dorian Graham or Van Chew on the attempts. Still, the unit put up points in a flurry in the first two quarters, hitting the break with a solid 31 points on the board.
Nassib was much better than what he looked like initially despite his pedestrian numbers (19 of 34 passing for 186 yards and two touchdowns). His release was quick, sometimes too quick, but he made good decisions on nearly every play. The senior led his team down the field at will in the opening two frames, and ultimately again with the game in the balance. Nassib again took a beating because of an inconsistent right side of the offensive line, but he hung in there for a solid performance. His reads were all the right ones, though his accuracy was not at its best. But on the pair of scores to Graham, the placement was precise. He put the ball where it needed to be on a pair of deep routes as well, but SU wideouts had a rough night at the office. Still, Nassib was most impressive in big spots. He was gutsy down the stretch and hung in the pocket despite taking some big hits, and he was an effective runner when he needed to be. His rushing touchdown was a perfect read-option, in which the defensive end filtered down towards Bailey, providing a clear lane for the QB.
Bailey was able to bounce back from his pair of fumbles last week, and he notched a third straight 100-yard performance in the process. He has been a good runner and receiver all season, and the win at Tulane was no different. Bailey broke several first-contact tackles as usual, including three defenders on a nifty 15-yard run in which he got going on a step-back cut. The senior also featured his stiff arm as a runner, nearly lifting a defensive back in the air on the tail-end of a swing pass form Nassib. But the most impressive work from the back was as a blocker. In a game in which the line was not in top form, Bailey picked up the slack. On at least five occasions, he made a critical block to protect Nassib in the pocket. He was off target just once in blitz pickup, and he did miss a cutback lane on what may have been a big run. Still, Bailey made his mark in several ways once again.
On the outside, it was Graham who emerged as the biggest threat. Chew dropped two passes, including one that would have been a momentum swing late in the game (though he was bailed out by a roughing the passer penalty on Nassib). Alec Lemon was decent, but he again had trouble creating separation from defensive backs and even a linebacker late in the game. The two starters combined for 43 yards on three catches. Graham, on the other hand, was utilized both as a runner and receiver. He notched a pair of touchdowns in the air, both on stellar throws and adjustments. The first was on a corner route in the back of the end zone that he hauled in over-the-shoulder in good form. The second was on a designed running play that Nassib audibled into a slant at the goal line and Graham was able to hold on despite taking a big hit. The former defensive back ended up with four catches for 55 yards and he made good on a pair of reverses utilizing his solid speed on the way to 22 yards.
Of all the positives detailed above, most of the analysis stems from the first half. In the second, ‘Cuse did not secure a first down until midway through the final quarter. Conservative play-calling, penalties and mental errors led to the offensive lull.
Most of the errors on the night were committed up front. Though the line was solid and plowing in nature in the running game, the pass-blocking was sketchy at-best. Right tackle Michael Hay had a tough game, contributing on several of these plays. For one, he was dominated at times as a blocker. Mistakes by the senior led to Nassib getting hit or rushed on four separate occasions. Hay had trouble with the speed rush, bull rush, tackle-twist (D-line stunt) and even while trying to cut a blitzing linebacker. Not to beat a dead horse, but he was flagged for holding on multiple occasions, one costing the team a first down. To his defense, he was a good run blocker as most of the line was. Justin Pugh may have been the best of the bunch, and his block in space led to the setup for the game-winning field goal on one of Bailey's final runs. Andrew Tiller and Zach Chibane were both beat in the running game once, but the unit regrouped.
The fullbacks were also big contributors in the running game. Senior and captain Adam Harris worked a pair of nice cross-blocks to help pave the way for Bailey. Kose had a nice kickout block, but he was beat in pass protection as well. However, both blocking backs worked well overall, especially when freshman Adonis-Ameen Moore carried the ball in his bruising fashion. Steven Rene was the opposite as a ball carrier, showcasing his burst when he got the call.
Defense: back to the drawing board
After a standout performance last week and a late-game surge the week before, the Syracuse defense took a step back Saturday. The secondary was the main reason why, though the front seven could have aided the effort to slow down Tulane quarterback Ryan Griffin.
The defensive line was solid against the run as usual, but inconsistent against the pass (unfortunately, also as usual). Mikhail Marinovich was the most disciplined of the group, staying at home when the Green Wave attempted several trick plays. He added pressure on the quarterback that ended up as an incompletion and he even dropped into coverage during a zone blitz. On the other end of the line, Brandon Sharpe had a good outing. He was flagged for a facemask that nullified a big kick return from Kobena, but he made up for it with consistent penetration on defense. Sharpe earned his first sack and notched a separate QB hurry while exhibiting good pursuit on the edge, and he was able to get in on a dip and rip move to register a tackle for loss in the running game. Deon Goggins and Eric Crume fought through double teams, and they still managed to clog the running lanes. If they could have issued a bit more pressure against the pass, the D-line would have had the best day as a unit perhaps on the entire team.
The linebackers had another good day of work. Dyshawn Davis continues to make a name for himself on big plays. He recovered a fumble for the first time as a college athlete, and he continues to make the big hits. Davis got behind the lineman on a tackle for a loss and he made a textbook play on the running back after engaging a blocker and shedding him at the right moment. He also continues to show the best blitzing skills from the linebacker position, getting in the mix on another precisely calculated run blitz. Marquise Spruill had a good game in the middle, though he missed a tackle here and there. He was the best of the backers in pass defense, making several open-field tackles late in the game. Dan Vaughn also missed the occasional tackle, but he was involved in one of the bigger defensive plays. He came off of the edge in a zone blitz and got to the quarterback for a sack, and he forced a fumble in the process.
After last week went so well, the secondary was put in vulnerable positions to make plays against the injury-riddled Green Wave receivers. The problem with that was the fact that the unknown wideouts made the most of their chances. Combine that with the SU cornerbacks a bit out of position, and it became a long night. Senior and captain Kevyn Scott, who has been a late-game hero this season, had a tough day in coverage. He was not able to locate the ball on one long score he gave up, and he undercut a pair of passes that still ended up in Tulane players' hands on big plays. In run support, though, he was a good tackler both coming off of blocks and in zone reads. Keon Lyn had an equally shaky outing, giving up a big-time score that tied the game with less then three minutes remaining while out of position in cover three. He was late in his break and slipped on other passes, but he was able to help out the defense as a blitzer to stall one drive. Rishard Anderson fell victim to a trick play and allowed a deep pass, but he was solid in man-to-man coverage on the only deep ball that came his way, running step for step with the opposition.
The safety play picked up the corners for the most part, though the long scores are hard to make up for. Shamarko Thomas, in his first game back after dealing with a hamstring injury, was solid. He was a physical tackler as expected, and he broke up a pair of passes as well. Phillip Thomas missed some time with an upper-body injury, but he came back and played well. He was a strong tackler, and he had the hit of the day on the sidelines against top-notch running back Orleans Darkwa. Thomas did show some over-anxiousness early as most of the defense did, over pursuing on Tulane's misdirection plays.
The best thing about a sloppy road win is that it is still a win. The team is in a good position considering it is sitting at 4-2 at the halfway point of the season. Even better news is that the team has a bye week to rest up and get healthy all while correcting the many mistakes that made the Tulane game a close one when it could have been a route. The return of Chandler Jones to the defensive line should help the pass rush as well as the third-down defense, which have been problems over the last month that he has been out.
We will know how well the Orange utilized their time on October 21, when No. 13 West Virginia comes to town in a game that will be on national television.