When you put 41 points on the board and have 596 yards of total offense, it seems almost too picky to say anything negative about an offensive unit. However, despite those gaudy numbers, the Syracuse offense has things it can improve on. Let's take an in-depth look at the positives and negatives from Saturday's season opening loss.
The Running Game
Syracuse rushed for 126 yards, ran for a touchdown, and averaged over four yards per carry. Given the uncertainty surrounding the rushing attack heading into the season, those numbers, by themselves, suggest a solid attack. However, outside of a few Prince Tyson-Gulley runs, one Jerome Smith run, and a Marcus Sales misdirection, the attack largely struggled.
Gulley was very good in this game, and maybe didn't get enough carries. He ended up with 50 rushing yards on just seven attempts. He showed decisiveness in the hole, quick feet in traffic, and explosiveness through openings. Gulley seemed to be the best back in this game.
Another positive was no fumbles from the running game. Both Gulley and Smith held the ball securely, and looked confident in their cuts. Gulley especially was patient in the backfield and knew when to attack. Smith had an excellent run in the second quarter where he scampered for 21 yards.
Gulley's best run may have been his touchdown run. On a great seal by Rob Trudo, Gulley took a small crease up the middle and exploded into the Northwestern defense's second level. He then plowed through a defender in for the touchdown. A well blocked, well executed 14 yard touchdown run.
Running the ball up the middle seemed difficult most of the time for the Syracuse offense. Outside of the Gulley touchdown previously mentioned, there wasn't a lot a room. The middle of the line really struggled pushing defenders back to open up inside running lanes. The main culprit seemed to be Ivan Foy and Macky MacPherson. They struggled at times on inside runs.
Ashton Broyld did not have a single carry. This was shocking as he seemed to be one of the better playmakers during camp, and worked almost exclusively with the running backs. Especially given that outside runs or off-tackle runs were more effective than those up the middle, Broyld would've been a prime candidate to take a couple of those carries.
Ryan Nassib is an average runner at best. He made a couple nice plays, but ended up with 12 total carries. That is far too many for a quarterback who was throwing the ball so well. Especially when he's only averaging two and a half yards per carry.
The Passing Game
What a game for the Syracuse passing attack. This is the type of wide-open offense Orange fans expected to see when Doug Marrone took over. If this is the way the passing game is going to be for the entire season, Syracuse should go bowling.
Ryan Nassib was fantastic. He was the game MVP even in a loss. Nassib completed 44 passes on 65 attempts for 470 yards and four touchdowns. He did have one interception, but that was not his fault. The ball was batted into the air by his receiver after missing an easy catch. Nassib looked poised in the pocket, made great decisions all game, and picked apart a young Northwestern secondary.
The 44 completions, 65 attempts, and 470 yards all set new Syracuse single-game records. Nassib threw the deep ball well, the intermediate pass well, the short pass well, and also improvised well. He was smart in the pocket, never forcing a pass the entire game, and read the defense beautifully. His command of the offense was fantastic, frequently changing plays at the line of scrimmage.
Nassib directed the offense beautifully. His deep pass to Kobena at the end of the third quarter was a gorgeous throw and a perfect read. Even better was his touchdown pass to Chris Clark to give Syracuse the lead late in the fourth quarter. Nassib faked the hand-off to Gulley, pump-faked a short pass to Sales, then lofted a beautiful pass to Clark who ran a corner route for the score. Nassib was accurate nearly every time he threw the ball. He has never looked better.
Marcus Sales came back from missing the entire 2011 season to have a breakout performance. He finished with 11 catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. He showed solid hands, ran crisp routes, and showed no rust from his time off. Sales established himself as the best receiver on this team, and should be a threat going forward.
Jeremiah Kobena was a big surprise. He finished with four catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns. Kobena has to do play like this consistently to become an established threat on this team. But the performance in game one is very encouraging. If he can continue to run routes and get open on shorter passes like he did today, his speed will allow him to become a good playmaker for Syracuse.
Chris Clark made a fantastic catch to give Syracuse the lead late in the game. He ran a beautiful corner route, and caught the pass with the tips of his fingers. It was a perfect route, perfect throw, and a perfect catch. Given his struggles earlier in the game, it was a bit of redemption for Clark.
The running backs were big contributors to the Syracuse passing attack. Gulley finished with seven catches for 46 yards, Jerome Smith had two catches for 39 yards, and Carl Cutler got involved with three catches for 25 yards. Gulley is excellent in the open field, and was solid as a receiver. The Orange used Smith and Gulley in a packaged formation together often in the first half. Gulley was generally split out in the slot position while Smith was next to Nassib in the shotgun.
The hurry-up offense seemed to work very well for Syracuse. They got off a total of 95 plays, which is a huge amount in one game. It allowed Nassib to get in a rhythm early, and the entire offense seemed to feed off of that. They spread the field throughout most of the game and it worked very well. It was a completely different looking offense than what Syracuse had been running in the previous three years under Doug Marrone. The second and third receivers seemed to rotate evenly, with Sales being the consistent top target. West, Kobena, and Clark all rotated in and saw plenty of action.
Jarrod West was extremely solid in this game. He finished with four catches for 59 yards, but his presence was felt much more than that. West drew more than a few pass-interference penalties on deep routes. He was able to beat his man in one on one situations on more than one occasion.
The pass blocking may have been the best its been in years. Nassib faced pressure a few times, but for the most part was able to stay in the pocket and survey the defense as long for as long as he needed.
Sean Hickey looked like an all-conference tackle today, smother the Northwestern pass rush. You would never know that this is his first game in a couple of years. Even when Hickey went out for a little bit in the third quarter, Andrew Phillips came in and didn't miss a beat. If Pugh comes back and returns to his prior All-Big East form, the Orange will have the best tackles in the conference easily.
Lou Alexander held his own as well in pass protection. He helped keep Nassib off his back, and was a pleasant surprise. He moved his feet well, and kept the pass rushers at bay. His long hands frequently kept the Northwestern ends away from his body to prevent the bull rush.
Macky MacPherson, while he struggled with interior run blocking, called protections very well. He kept the pressure off of Nassib, and rotated the line correctly for a vast majority of the game. He also seemed to get a bit of a push on pass protection, negating the interior pass rush.
Zach Chibane, Ivan Foy, and Rob Trudo also pass protected very well. Foy and Trudo rotated for much of the game, and both held their own against the Northwestern tackles. Chibane showed why he's a senior leader on the line. He dominated his man in pass protection most of the game. He also pulled on a few screens extremely well, reaching the second level many times.
There was a lull in the offense from the middle of the second quarter through the middle of the third quarter where they looked lethargic. They couldn't get anything going. The run game wasn't working, receivers weren't getting open, and the blocking broke down.
Mental mistakes really cost Syracuse in this game. There were far too many false start penalties. Drops continue to be a problem despite the incredible numbers put up by the Syracuse offense. The interception was the result of a dropped pass by Marcus Sales. Sales dropped anther pass over the middle. Chris Clark had a couple drops as well. Beckett Wales fumbled the ball after a nice catch. Too many mental mistakes.
Ashton Broyld did not play at all in the first half, and played sparingly in the second half. This was a huge surprise. He was expected to be a huge part of the game plan. Yet he was mysteriously missing for large chunks of the game. Broyld could be a big-time playmaker for this team, and should see more action going forward.
The last drive was a bit of a disappointment. True there were only 39 seconds left when they got the ball back, but they didn't look down the field save for a token deep throw to Clark. They also didn't look to utilize the middle of the field despite having two timeouts. It was disappointing given how well they had played throughout the rest of the game.
Odds and Ends
The Syracuse passing game took a lot of shots down the field. They opened it up, and exploited a weakness in their opponent. This is an encouraging sign going forward. If Sales, West, and Kobena can continue to get open down the field, this passing attack will be potent for the rest of the season.
The offensive line needs to build off of this performance. They only allowed one sack on Ryan Nassib, and looked to be in control for most of the game. If they can take their pass blocking and turn that productivity towards the run blocking, the line could become a strength.
The running game needs to get better if Nassib is going to be able to continue to pick teams apart. The interior blocking must get more of a push and open up holes or teams will start to drop people into coverage and take away lanes for Nassib to throw.
Syracuse played a fantastic offensive football game, save a few mental errors, and yet still has room for improvement. Fixing mental errors, and getting key starters back healthy (Alex Lemon, Justin Pugh) will be important for the Orange as they look to build off of this performance.