The Syracuse Orange football program through four games is 1-3.
They lost their first game after a respectable comeback, 42-41, versus Northwestern. Up to the closing minutes, Syracuse's offense scored 28 unanswered points, with the defense posting a late-game shutout. But within the final minutes, Syracuse's defense allowed a scoring drive that the offense could not respond to.
In their next game against USC, Syracuse fought and was never out of the game, but playing up against probably the most talented threesome they will see this season in Matt Barkley, Marqise Lee, and Robert Woods, proved to be too much for the Orange.
Their third match pitted Syracuse against an FCS (Division I-AA) opponent in Stony Brook. In this game, the Orange defense began to show its evolution into a stronger unit. After almost allowing its allotted rushing yards for an entire game (180) in the first half alone, the defense responded in the second half by giving up a mere 45 yards on the ground. Syracuse won this contest, but the game was too close for some people's comfort despite being a Division I-A versus a Division I-AA match-up.
Syracuse's fourth opponent hosted the Orange in their first true road game of the season, when they traveled to Minnesota to face the Golden Gophers. Syracuse's defense, despite giving up two rushing touchdowns, did condense the run to a little over 100 yards and prevented Max Shortell for throwing a single touchdown pass.
However, where the defense went, the offense did not follow, giving up opportunities, reminiscent of how the offense responded to the defense's aid last season when Syracuse faced off with Big East rival Rutgers. The Orange dropped their third in four tries and have come into their Big East schedule with little room for error.
With no wins against FBS (Division I-A) opponents, some of you may have your finger above the panic button, but here is why you should not push it:
The Orange offensive general has grown into their best quarterback since Donovan McNabb, after a drought that dated back to McNabb's departure in 1998.
Nassib is better than previous seasons at not telegraphing his passes, surveying the field as opposed to staring at his target the entire time. He also looks at his options and is able to go to his next target when needed.
He is spreading the ball better than he ever has, finding at least seven different receivers in each of Syracuse's first four games.
Within the team's first three games this season, Nassib surpassed 1,000 yards through the air.
He has thrown at least one touchdown pass in each game and has kept Syracuse in the game no matter how out of reach a match has appeared to be.
The Receiving Core
Nassib has so many weapons because of the talent at his disposal. Spreading the ball would not be possible without players capable of making plays on the receiving end.
In the Orange's first three games, wide receiver Marcus Sales amounted over 100 receiving yards each time. He leads all receivers on Syracuse's roster with five touchdown receptions. What all of these statistics are saying is that Sales has differentiated himself from one good game to a respectable wide receiver.
After sitting out last season due to poor decision-making off the field, all that was to remember of Sales was his play in the New Era PinStripe Bowl of 2010, which was by far his premiere performance of his career. Going into this season the question was, is that it? To the benefit of the Orange, it is not and Sales, even in games like the match versus Minnesota where he is relatively quiet, still makes important plays, like his reception for a touchdown late in that contest.
Jarrod West, despite not finding the end zone as much as Sales, cannot be overlooked for what he has meant to Syracuse. He has been the deep threat, averaging the most yards per catch with almost 15. When Nassib needs a first down, West has had the trusted hands for the most part to make that happen. Just because you have not seen him much in the end zone should not take away from the fact that he helps get the Orange to their touchdown opportunities.
In the background of Alec Lemon being Syracuse's all-time reception leader is what has helped him get there: his relationship with Nassib. Lemon had the most snaps on the field with Nassib last season, making him the most familiar target this season, providing a reliable option for Nassib. His reliability has already been seen early in the season. Despite being out of the action in part of Fall camp and at the start of the season, Lemon came right in and has given Nassib another set of hands to help move the ball upfield.
All of these receivers, along with help from running backs Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley and tight end Beckett Wales keep defenses from enacting double coverage, which continues to benefit the Orange.
Add in the return of the most trusted hands in Fall camp, that being wide receiver Adrian Flemming, and an already deep core finds room for another target to join the air attack.
The Play of OT Sean Hickey
Going into this season, the right side of the line was left wide open with the guard and tackle position needing to be filled. Then, left tackle Justin Pugh was sidelined with a shoulder injury, turning the focus to the entire line. Hickey provided the most seamless transition from one player to another of any position on the Syracuse squad.
In Fall camp, he improved as time went by, hitting and locking up players, delivering Nassib with time to make a decision. Since the season began, Hickey has never looked flustered. Once he found his comfort in camp, he translated it into actual play and has made the left side of the line the strongest side.
It is not always that your understudy can put on as good of a show, but credit to Pugh's, Hickey can put on a show.
The Return of OT Justin Pugh
Pugh's first start of the season will be in Syracuse's next game, their Big East opener at home against the Pittsburgh Panthers on Friday, October 5th, and it could not have come at a more crucial time. The right side of the line has been in the wrong hands with right tackle Lou Alexander through the first four games. Alexander has accumulated more penalties than times he has prevented a defender from getting by him.
With Pugh back, Hickey can move down the line to right tackle. There is no reason to believe Hickey's positive performance thus far will fade, transitioning Syracuse from a strong one-sided line to a more functional line throughout.
An Improving Rush Defense
Syracuse's defense had been allowing 180 yards on average per game. Against Stony Brook, they had almost hit that total in the first half alone. However, they came back in the second half to give up a mere 45 yards and shut down a rushing attack that had bested them numerous times in the opening half.
In their next match versus Minnesota, Syracuse condensed the run from their almost 200 yards allowed average to a little over 100 yards, despite giving up two touchdowns.
The defense is not perfect by any means against the run, but they are improving. Not allowing running backs to have their way with them as easily is helpful, but now the test becomes keeping opponents' runners from crossing the threshold into the end zone.
At his new position of middle linebacker, Diabate has been involved in more plays and shown more success than last season. He has a good eye for the ball and speeds to the action. Diabate can also lay a hard hit and take players down without help. Add in his reads on opposing quarterbacks and quick movement to knock down passes and you have more of a force in the middle of the defense than the Orange could boast of last season. Diabate has 49 tackles between last season and this season. 25 of them have come from this season alone and Syracuse still has eight more games to play.