It was riveting, sloppy, hot, questionable and long – but in the end, Syracuse fell to Northwestern by one point on Saturday afternoon. The offense was up-tempo, the defense showed flashes of greatness and the special teams were hit or miss in the wild 42-41 game. Let's take a look at each phase of Doug Marrone's team after consulting the game tape.
The offensive side of the ball usually starts with the quarterback, and Ryan Nassib made that look pretty easy on Saturday. It wasn't his record-setting numbers that stole the show; it was how he attained the marks. There wasn't a glaring mistake in his game throughout the back-and-fourth affair, despite an interception being charged to him. Nassib was accurate, composed and perhaps more importantly – decisive throughout the game. He didn't take many risks, and that was just what the doctor ordered. He protected the ball with accuracy and consistency while not being afraid to test Northwestern's often-spotty one-on-one cover skills down the field.
The performance should erase most of the doubt some fans still had with Nassib, especially considering his command in the new up-tempo style that Nathaniel Hackett has developed with the redshirt-senior leader. Some bugaboos with Nassib entering the season were his deep balls, decision-making and consistency – and he solved each problem throughout the day with excellent work despite a so-so offensive line in front of him.
Coming into the season, we knew the running back position would be a hot topic and that the likelihood was a "running back by committee" system. It held true on Saturday as Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley basically split the load. Smith handled early-down rushes and Gulley, the shiftier and more speedy of the two, was in there on third downs and other passing situations. Smith showed solid north-south ability and increased quickness, though he was lacking as a blitz pickup blocker, even accounting for the biggest hit Nassib took in the loss on top of the lateral that was returned for a score. However, Smith looked to be faster in the open field, something that will help him fend off Gulley in the coming weeks. The now-healthy compliment was as quick as ever in the Dome Saturday, and he showed plenty of toughness to go along with it. It was Gulley who was finishing runs with power and breaking tackles in the hedges, not so much Smith. Gulley also served as the better protector for Nassib in the second-half, furthering his case to be the top back on the roster.
On the outside, Syracuse turned out a bit better than expected. Had you reminded Orange faithful that leading receiver Alec Lemon's hamstring injury would not be good enough to go prior to the game, surely there wouldn't be anyone that expected Nassibs's monster day. Instead, he got it from a committee from receivers new and old. Marcus Sales' 100-yard game was easily the biggest surprise in the game next to Nassib's record-setting day, even though the Syracuse native struggled to hold onto the ball on a pair of big plays. One would have provided SU with an early first down and the other ended up as an interception that primed the Wildcats to take the lead. Sales got better as the game progressed, however, serving as the go-to WR in the furious rally. Complementing Sales rather well was Jeremiah Kobena, who used his speed to make the most of his catches including two for scores. One was the Kobena that some expect to see, as he blew by a defender on a go-route for a TD, but the other was more impressive – as he sat in the hole of NU's zone defense before securing a catch and diving into the end zone under two defenders. Jarrod West also made some nice plays, though he failed to capitalize on a jump ball that should have been his early on- showing poor core strength and body control against a much smaller defender that got the best of him despite an on-the-money strike from Nassib. Finally, and surprisingly, transfer Chris Clark was another player Nassib relied on. While the rapport between the two is clearly still developing, the junior's speed was something the offense tried to take advantage of more times than not – including on the go-ahead score with under three minutes to play in the game. Ashton Broyld was also utilized as a wideout, primarily handling bubble screens and quick hitches to get him on the move. Broyld fared well with the ball in his hands, but he struggled in his blocking for others.
The skill positions are supposed to be a strong point for the Orange, in what is supposed to balance out an inexperienced offensive line. While it looked to be the opposite early on Saturday, the line showed its true colors when it counted most. On the final drive, with the game in the balance, the unit collapsed and allowed just a three-man Northwestern rush to bother Nassib and rush each of his final throws to the point that SU could manage just one first down during desperation time. Prior to the final attempt, the line held up for the majority of the game. Lou Alexander was whistled for two false starts and he got off to a rough start while letting defenders get into SU's backfield on consecutive first quarter plays. Sean Hickey was much better on the other side, proving stout as a pass blocker. The interior was solid as well, led by Zack Chibane and Macky MacPherson. Each made big blocks to spring big runs for Gulley and Smith, while protecting Nassib in one of his many attempts. Ivan Foy and Rob Trudo rotated in at right guard, and each had moments of solid plays mixed in with questionable ones. Look for that battle to continue over the next few weeks.
Beckett Wales established himself as the primary tight end on the roster, taking the place of former roommate Nick Provo. He worked the middle of the field well to help steal early first downs, and often fell forward in the process. The only miscue with the Floridian was in securing the football, as he lunged for another first down and lost the ball for one of Syracuse's big turnovers. Carl Cutler also made some quick grabs to help SU move the football.
The defensive unit was sporadic on Saturday, but there were plenty of things to take from each level of the roster. Maybe most importantly, and easiest to spot, was the fact that Scott Shafer and company have found its defensive ends. Yes, Rob Welsh and Micah Robinson were good at times, but Markus Pierce-Brewster and Brandon Sharpe played like experienced book-ends on Saturday. Each seemingly took turns in the backfield both against the run and the pass. Each took on blocks the right way and helped to contain an explosive NU backfield. Pierce-Brewster was disciplined as a rusher and showed an intense motor even on plays away from him, as he often chased down screens and quick passes from the other side of the field. Sharpe also showed discipline when he broke through, making big stops down the line of scrimmage while truly playing the ball against the same read-option that made SU's 2011 defensive ends look foolish. The interior line held its own throughout the day, led by Jay Bromley. He was disruptive enough and got some help from Eric Crume, Zian Jones and especially Deon Goggins. The senior's versatility enabled him to make plays from both the inside and outside, including on a big second-half sack.
The back-seven was up-and-down all day. The speed of the linebackers was evident throughout the game, especially on blitzes from Dyshawn Davis, Cam Lynch and Dan Vaughan. Marquis Spruill used his athleticism to fly around and make good open-field tackles, and Siriki Diabate was good in run support, though he looked to be a bit behind the curve at times as the coverage shifted during the opposing quarterback's cadence. The most interesting wrinkle was during certain passing situations when Davis would line up as a rush end and one of his linebacker mates would still blitz outside of him, creating a dilemma for the offensive tackle – contributing to the multiple sacks the group was able to register. In pass coverage, the group had a hard time. Passes fell in front of them in zone, and NU worked to single out the outside linebackers on a pair of scores. Vaughan was isolated on one and Davis gave up the other with less than a minute to play.
The secondary also shuffled players in and out of the lineup. It's clear that the staff wants big-hitter Shamarko Thomas in the box more times than not during passing situations, and it allowed him to make more plays near the line of scrimmage and even get to Kain Colter on a huge strip-sack before Sharpe knocked him out of the game. Jeremi Wilkes showed that he may be the guy to replace Thomas' role next season considering he was the best tackler in the group in open space. He prevented a few first downs as a tackler, but again struggled against the pass including on one of the Wildcats early touchdowns. With Thomas and Wilkes seemingly destined for the box, Durrell Eskridge took advantage of his chance to become the top cover safety on the roster. He led the team in tackles anyway, but proved to be safe against the pass in keeping everything in front of him. It's not flashy, but will be a necessity with aggressive guys like Thomas and Wilkes in front of him.
While the safeties shuffled roles and maybe took a step forward, the cornerbacks treaded water. Brandon Reddish held his own in his sophomore debut, showing excellent speed and breaks on the ball despite being washed down in run support. Ri'Shard Anderson also struggled against blocking wideouts, losing contain on more than one occasion because of his lack of physical play. It seems as if Keon Lyn, who started last season, may have the most to gain this week if he can prove his health and discipline against the run and the pass. He played well Saturday, but will unfortunately be remembered for extending Northwestern's final drive with a personal foul that was clearly a bad call (after several still-shots and replays). Reddish separated himself from the pack a bit, but the Wildcats didn't test the corners much on their way to a win. USC will almost certainly do the opposite.
Marrone's first chance to unleash the unit he now oversees wasn't a good one. A big field goal was missed, a few big returns were allowed and the Orange couldn't manage a big return themselves. The unit struggled for most of the day despite a hot start as Ross Krautman nailed his first pair of field goals. The junior later knuckleballed a 44-yard attempt on what looked like a good enough hold by backup QB Charley Loeb. The miss was the tip of the iceberg for SU, which allowed Wildcat returner Venric Mark to expose a slow coverage unit despite great punts from Jonathan Fisher. Though not the fastest unit, lack of discipline led to each of his gaudy returns. The first one, in which he scored a touchdown, was almost squarely on Reddish. His job is to contain one side while Ritchy Desir has the gig on the other. Reddish was lazy in his job to get back to the outside after taking an inside release, and Mark blew by him on the way to pay dirt. On the second big return, Reddish again lost contain because of his angle and inability to stave-off blockers.
When the Orange had its chance to return the ball, Desir only tried to bring one punt back to no avail. Kobena handled the kick returns on what was a subpar performance, breaking a tackle here and there mixed in with a pair of questionable decisions to bring the ball out of the end zone in the first place.
Syracuse looked pretty good on offense and defense at times on Saturday, but the consistency was lacking in certain units within the team. The offensive line remains a big question-mark, as does the secondary heading into the toughest game on the schedule. The special teams unit cost SU momentum on several occasions, something that first downs and solid tackles simply can't make up for. Even with the critiques, the team was in good position to win the game – which is all one could ask for. But with a now six-game losing streak on the line against while facing arguably the best team in America Saturday, the Orange will need an effort in which all three phases provides a consistent 60 minutes to have a chance.