‘Cuse at 1-3: Time to Panic?

Syracuse football has taken a nose-dive since mid-October, losing eight of its last nine games after garnering some national buzz when it defeated then No. 11 West Virginia. Much of the team remains as does head coach Doug Marrone, so what needs to change in order for SU to regain its momentum as a non-bottom-feeder in America's worst BCS conference?

With Syracuse football in 2012, there are so many ways to look at the team in measuring its positives and negatives – so let's try them all out.

By the numbers

Statistically, one wouldn't think Syracuse is just 1-3 on the year, especially when looking at the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Ryan Nassib is No. 7 in the entire country in total offense (360 total yards per game); ranks second in passing yards (1,367), eighth in touchdowns (10), lies within the top 50 signal-callers in America in QB rating (143.7) and has already set single game school records for yardage and completions in the tough loss to Northwestern.

Marcus Sales ranks 11th nationally with 382 receiving yards and is just one off the FBS leader with five touchdown grabs already. The senior is also 25th in receptions per game and 18th overall with 27 total grabs.

The passing game remains good for both sides of the ball, actually. Nassib and company lead the No. 25 total offense America (487.4 yards per game), and the defense is 26th against the pass (181.25 yards per game). However, each unit has a counter stat that exposes its flaw. For the offense, the yardage is plentiful – but points aren't. The Orange ranks just 71st in scoring offense at 27 points per game. Defensively, the stout passing defense has led to teams piling up rushing yards on SU to the point that the unit gives up 176.25 yards per game on the ground, 84th-best nationally. When the offense's 27 points per game stacks up to the defenses 29.50 points allowed per game, 1-3 seems just about right.

Numbers shouldn't cause panic until the following three sentences: There's deeper categories that contribute to the tough times for the Orange, but the basics say enough. None bigger than the No. 1 ratio in sports, the turnover margin. Syracuse is tied for 111th out of 120 FBS teams with a -1.50 ratio thus far, with just four turnovers forced against 10 giveaways.

The naked eye

While stats are nice, it's the naked eye that often judges how a team is performing. Even in a win – like against Stony Brook – the naked eye told you that Syracuse wasn't that good. Some said it didn't even feel like that won. For people of this camp, it is time to panic.

Nassib looks solid for the most part, accurate and timely when the offense needs him most. Can he be more consistent? Of course he can, but there's no question he's been the glue between SU keeping it close against NU, USC and Minnesota and the reason the team does have a win on its current record. Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley have each had their moments, but neither has taken the reigns from the other definitively just yet – then there's Ashton Broyld. He sure looks the part, but is he using all of his skill-set with the ball in his hands?

The wide receiver group looks like a pleasant surprise. Sales is exceeding expectations save a few drops and Jarrod West is doing the same. Alec Lemon is on the mend and the speed of Chris Clark and Jeremiah Kobena (when healthy) may factor big in the long-run. Tight end Beckett Wales has held his own, but like his predecessor and former roommate Nick Provo – he is what he is.

Up front on offense, the line has done pretty much what we thought it would. The running game has been solid to the left side – where Sean Hickey and Zack Chibane are, and everything else has looked subpar at best. Pass protection is an issue across the board, especially off of the right edge, where Lou Alexander has not-so-heroically saved the spot for Hickey once Justin Pugh returns to left tackle next Friday against Pittsburgh.

Defensively, some are frustrated by the line's lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. After watching the group knock out Northwestern's signal-caller and disrupt Matt Barkley for four quarters, I could not disagree more. Yes, the sack numbers aren't exactly dominant (T-47th in America), but Markus Pierce-Brewster and Brandon Sharpe have been the most consistent defenders on the team along with Siriki Diabate, who has excelled leading the linebacker group. The DEs have contained against the run and affected pass attempts on routine more than stats can support.

Dyshawn Davis and Marquis Spruill have adjusted to Diabate in the middle and seem to be settling into the defense just in time for Big East play. They will be the key to the rest of the season on defense with stout running backs like Ray Graham, Rushel Shell, Jawan Jamison, Lyle McCombs and the Louisville duo of Senorise Perry and Jeremy Wright left on the schedule.

The secondary has looked good on paper, but shaky to the naked eye. Each of the four games has featured seemingly easy down-the-field passes to get opponents the momentum. However, tackling has been much improved from last season – especially at cornerback with Brandon Reddish in the fold. He is still learning plenty as a cover-guy, but he's ahead of where Ri'Shard Anderson and Keon Lyn were at this time last season. Lyn remains the top cover-guy, but he does have that occasional mental lapse. The safeties have looked solid more times than not- especially against the run. Shamarko Thomas and Jeremi Wilkes could be the best tackling duo back there in years, however their collective coverage skills scream for more playing time for Durell Eskridge.

Game tape

While many themes from the "naked eye" section will translate to tape review, some big ones will not. For one, Nassib's read progression isn't something you can easily decipher without replay and additional looks. He has done a good job getting from progression read No. 2 to No. 3, but has had a hard time getting off of No. 1 in turnover scenarios. It's no secret that the protection hasn't held up in the same circumstances, which may lend a hand as to why the redshirt senior QB was locked in on his first read when he knew trouble was ahead. Otherwise, Nassib has been accurate and really excelled with the new tempo of the offense. The Minnesota game never really allowed for him to get going because of early-down deficiency, but the tape suggests it's a one-game hiccup more so than a developing trend.

Up front, change is needed and the timing couldn't be better. Rob Trudo and Ivan Foy have tandemed to do a serviceable job at best at the right guard position, but tape suggests that Alexander is out of his league at this point in his career at tackle. Hickey - who has been top-notch along with Chibane – will move over to man that spot leading up to the Pitt game. Once Pugh is back at left tackle, the line will not only improve dramatically from and experience and talent standpoint, but in its balance as well. Teams have picked up on ‘Cuse sliding its pass protection right to help out the weak point as the season has progressed.

The backs and receivers have been effective at times, and tape suggests that it is because of the balanced style. Gulley isn't only carrying the ball outside when he's in the game and Smith isn't limiting himself in-between the tackles when he's got the nod. This is as much a compliment to Nathaniel Hackett as it is to the players themselves for adding a missing dimension to their individual games. Broyld has been up-and-down, demonstrating solid acceleration and big-play ability in the open field while not using all of his 230-plus pounds to be more effective in tight spots. Once his confidence increases, he will gear closer to the weapon most think he can become. Sales, West and Lemon have done well in their route running and surprisingly well in their down-the-field blocking. No run game can flourish without willing blockers at receiver, and each has done his part thus far. Once Lemon returns to full strength to create a balanced defensive look instead of coverage rolling to Sales – the passing game has the chance to flourish even more. Wales has been good as a receiver, but his blocking is still questionable.

The front four on the other side of the ball have been solid for most of the young season. The aforementioned MPB and Sharpe have done their job on the edge, but the same cannot be said for Deon Goggins, Jay Bromley and Eric Crume. Each has rotated between the two inside positions, with a touch of Zian Jones as well, but neither of the foursome has emerged as go-to defenders. That's not a bad thing when considering the conditioning and immense size of most defensive linemen, but it also means experienced players like Goggins and Bromely aren't taking the next step. Each has been as advertised, not necessarily improving – though each has looked pretty good against the run and defeating run blocks.

The crew of Diabate, Spruill and Davis is seeing more playing time than ever, and for good reason. They are each fast-flow linebackers that excel in speed and quickness which enables each to run by blockers and pursue back-side instead of testing their luck against big fullbacks and pulling linemen. It has worked fairly well so far, though missed tackled are also the product of undersized ‘backers – and it has been overly-evident over the last two games.

Secondary-wise, ball skills are still the primary issue that needs correcting. Anderson, Reddish and Lyn are in solid position more times than not on the outside, but tight windows and a lack of awareness have allowed for big plays and bigger touchdowns. Anderson has been picked on the most, especially in the red zone despite his team-leading speed and great size for a corner (6-foot, 187 lbs). The safeties remain liabilities in coverage, which is why the nickel and dime packages will likely continue to rotate with Eskridge and maybe some Ritchy Desir against true spread passing teams like USF and Cincinnati on deck. However, Thomas is leading the group well in its coverage –disguising to the point that players are in position without being out of their responsibility, which is the No. 1 rule of clouding coverage.

Tape suggests it is time to panic, but only some.

Misc.

Yes, we didn't get into special teams – so here's what you need to know. Wayne Morgan has excelled as a kick-cover guy all year and may push for playing time elsewhere as a result. Jonathan Fisher has been a bit sporadic as has the usually-reliable Ross Krautman. Punt coverage has been abysmal and the return game in either area is lacking a game-breaker with the ball in his hands.

Panic time?

The answer is yes, but not because of any single factor besides this: The 2012 Syracuse University squad has yet to put one solid game, featuring good play from each of the three phases of football, together. It's been a month, the team is healthy and the head coach is in charge of the most inconsistent phase of the three – special teams. Doug Marrone is technically in charge of each phase, so maybe it's just his time to panic. Luckily for him, the lowly and unpredictable Big East lay ahead, where wins can come or go with a missed field goal call and bowl berths can re-appear as fast as they can dissolve after a nationally-televised upset win.

With an extra week to prepare for the Pitt Panthers, we may find out all we need to know about this team next Friday night in the Carrier Dome.


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