2-4 is 2-4 is 2-4, but does this Syracuse team appear to be better than that mark? In several games this season, mainly Northwestern and Minnesota, it wasn't unusual to think that the Orange made enough plays to win the game. But the flip-side to that was its loss to Rutgers on Saturday, when the team was in position more times than in recent memory – yet it failed to deliver when the pressure was on.
Let's check the tape.
Outside of two plays, Ryan Nassib engineered a great game against RU. He got into an early rhythm, showed accuracy all afternoon and nearly rallied the Orange back. The only problem was that the two plays were eerily similar, as he starred down his intended receiver against zone coverage – resulting in two interceptions. His impatience against zone coverage stemmed from the Scarlet Knights getting quick pressure on him in the first half with zone blitzes. Credit the RU staff for using that to bait Nassib into rushed throws when the game was on the line, anticipating the senior's hot read on both turnovers.
Nassib was solid otherwise, spreading the ball to the open receiver, showing elite arm strength on short and intermediate throws and leading the offense in the desired up-tempo style en route to another 300-plus yard effort. The loss certainly isn't on him, though he took a pair of sacks that clearly were the result of him holding onto the ball a bit too long.
RU smothered the offensive line against the pass with stunts and blitzes, but it didn't affect the running game much. In the second-straight Ashton Broyld-less game, Jerome Smith was solid in between the tackles. It wasn't that he tallied 67 yards on just 15 carries, but he was breaking tackles by running through a good RU defense enough to outshine a pretty good back on the other team. The same could not be said for Prince-Tyson Gulley, who was often met in the backfield. He didn't necessarily have worse blocking ahead of him than Smith did, but he elects to travel east and west more than No. 45 does. Gulley was a non-factor for the first time this season, ending up with 10 total yards on nine touches. On the other hand, the "tank" package worked well once again, accounting for the Orange's first score of the day as Adonis Ameen-Moore plunged in behind Lewellyn Coker in the first half. AAM would only receive one more carry, on a late third-and-goal from a bit further out to the point that Rutgers was able to slip in Logan Ryan off the corner to stop him for a loss.
While the running game was probably not used enough, the offensive showing against Rutgers allowed us to welcome back the production from the tight end spot. Nassib was eager to go over the middle early and often against an aggressive front-7 and it worked. Beckett Wales was solid underneath for three catches for 26 yards and David Stevens ran crisp routes before displaying above-average catch-and-run ability on the way to 60 yards on five grabs. He typically ran routes passed the sticks and found the hole in between the linebackers and safeties – and area Syracuse has drifted away from of late.
On the outside, the wideouts each made a handful of plays and had a handful of blunders. Marcus Sales led the way with another 100-yard game, his fourth of the season and first since Stony Brook, but he again came up small in big spots. Most of his yardage came on a fourth quarter drive, but he failed to cap it by dropping a touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal. He dropped what looked like an easy third-down conversion early in the game as well. While he has been the surprise of the team with gaudy numbers, Sales has yet to prove clutch for the Orange. Alec Lemon also could not come up with a touchdown grab that hit both of his hands, but he was solid otherwise. The senior was a go-to target when SU was rallying, and he came up with some tough catches in traffic. He was also the best blocking wideout on the roster Saturday, particularly for Smith. The fastest, however, is still Chris Clark. He didn't see too many reps, but should be commended for his focus during his 40-yard score in which the defensive back flashed in front of his face in an attempt to pick off Nassib. Clark then hit the burners on the way to pay dirt soon after. Jarrod West continues to impress as the No. 3 WR on the team, proving tough in traffic like Lemon had on Saturday. However, he also failed to come up with a big grab late in the game near the goal line.
Along the offensive line, the two tackles held their own more times than not – everyone else had somewhat of a head scratcher. Granted, Rutgers can disguise its bliztes as well as anybody in America; it was still no excuse to sometimes abandon basic offensive line principles. The "inside-out" mentality was not consistent enough in protecting Nassib or even in the run game. Center Macky MacPherson and guards Rob Trudo and Zack Chibane had a tough time against both base defense and the blitz, and stunts worked with relative ease for RU. Nassib's second fumble of the afternoon was squarely on the interior three, which was late in reacting to the stunt. Chibane was also beat 1-on-1 for a tackle for loss and a delayed blitz led to the same fate against Trudo later on. Justin Pugh and Sean Hickey funneled stunts inward as instructed and protected Nassib rather well against good defensive ends. The unit echoed good protection as a whole, but the mistakes were magnified by the turnovers created by the pressure they yielded. Even while running the ball, Smith and Gulley were often met at or near the line of scrimmage.
Though Syracuse has just one win to show for it, things have been on the rise for the defense over the last three games. It has held opponents to fewer to than 20 points each time out – the blocked kick return for a TD wasn't on them – and the group has stymied some solid running backs in the process. The trend includes its performance against Rutgers, where rising star Jawan Jamison was limited to 2.3 yards per carry.
Much of the praise for both categories goes to the front-7, which put on another great showing on Saturday. The defensive line, while not flashy or gaudy by the numbers continues to play as a unit with the ability to adjust to the situation. Whether it's coming up with a big stop in short yardage or getting Nassib the ball for one last chance, Scott Shafer's front-4 have gotten the job done of late. Markus Pierce-Brewster and Brandon Sharpe continue to prove their worth as book-ends, each generating a rush on Gary Nova enough to force him to make early decisions while also proving very stout in the run game. Sharpe, in particular, has dominated the right tackle in consecutive games no matter the offense's plan. Jay Bromley , Eric Crume and Deon Goggins each also held their own for a second-straight game. The interior guys have also excelled at occupying their linemen so that the linebackers can make plays at the line of scrimmage instead of at the second-level.
The group of Marquis Spruill, Dyshawn Davis and Siriki Diabate and company had arguably their best game of 2012. Not only was it about slowing Jamison, but each made a play against the pass – something we haven't seen on a consistent enough basis. But the bread and butter of this down-hill group, along with Cam Lynch and Dan Vaughan, is stuffing the run. Diabate again led the charge with top-notch filling against either a fullback or Jamison himself. He scraped backside on routine and it rattled the Scarlet Knight O-line. Davis had a pair of tackles for loss and some nice fills, more than making up for missing two early tackles. Spruill also filled well, creating the most movement of any linebacker on the roster Saturday.
At the back end, the secondary also played one of its better games of 2012. Early on, however, things were rough. Keon Lyn was beat by Brandon Coleman early on despite good man coverage. On the Knights' second drive, it was Brandon Reddish who was out of place in cover-3 to the point that Coleman's wheel route got behind him and he nearly scored. RU scored a few plays after Reddish drifted too much with the outside receiver. Lyn was better as the game progressed, again using his physical nature at the line to help slow RU's tall WR group. Reddish proved to learn from his mistake in three-deep, nearly snagging an interception later on as a result of his discipline in the look. He showed great hustle and speed even after missing a tackle later in the game, when he got right back up and nearly created another turnover with an aggressive strip of the ball. The third-best corner on the roster Ri'Shard Anderson, even appeared to have his best game of the year, as he did not allow a score or big gain. However, he and Jeremi Wilkes nearly combined to allow RU to put the game away in the fourth quarter, but the wideout dropped the easy TD. Wilkes had a rough day at the office at free safety. Not only nearly getting beat for a score, but actually breaking on the ball late on what ended up as the final score of the game for RU. He also missed a tackle that led to a first down early on despite supporting the run as well as he continues to do. Shamarko Thomas echoed Wilkes' ability to help out the front-7 against Jamison, making several 1-on-1 stops against him. The senior made play after play as the last line of defense, preventing several plays that looked like they could gash ‘Cuse from materializing. He was the clear unsung hero of the defense on this day with solid and always-hard hitting.
The offense moved the ball despite turnovers and the defense was solid all afternoon, but the special teams arguably cost Syracuse the game. With Nassib and company driving for the go-ahead score in the third quarter, Ross Krautman's field goal attempt was blocked by seemingly two or three Scarlet Knights on a complete protection breakdown. To make matters worse, the unit allowed Duron Harmon to rumble 75 yards to the end zone after scooping up the ball. The play completely swung momentum for the rest of the game, and SU never fully recovered. Krautman went on to miss another attempt, though this one was tough at over 50-yards out.
Steve Rene continued his quest for questioning as a returner. He was better with kickoffs, averaging a solid 25 yards per try, but when punts are in the air Rene seemingly gets careless. Not only was he unable to muster up any yards despite having considerable time with the ball in his hands, but he lost a fumble as well. Yes, his elbow was clearly down via replay, but the ball should not be put on the ground anyway. Don't give the referees the chance to blow the call on the road against a ranked opponent.
The only real bright spot for the special teams were when it was giving the ball away – on purpose. The kickoff coverage was solid once again with staple Wayne Morgan getting down the field swiftly and Jaston George making a big tone-setting hit to open the game. Ritchy Desir was also consistent on kick and punt coverage, even inducing a personal foul penalty on a bit of a flop. Punter Jonathan Fisher was also amid one of his best days on the job, averaging over 42 yards per boot in addition to pinning Rutgers early in the game.
Again, we are still looking for a game in which all three phases are put together. For Syracuse, maybe it's on Friday night at home against Connecticut. The problem is that each phase has not put it together at the same time thus far and now two phases are turning the ball over. The defense is more than holding its own over the last month and the offense is moving the ball. But getting inside the Rutgers 35 yard-line nearly 10 times with just seven points to show for it is simply not good enough. Special teams need a makeover at the returner spot (Rene) and something must change on the field goal unit to get the group going. Krautman was a weapon in each of the last two seasons, and for one reason or another he is beginning to look like a liability.
Nassib must adjust to the scheme, the running game should be used more and the protection up front has to communicate against exotic looks. The defensive front-7 needs to continue what it's doing and the secondary should prepare for more of a challenge as the weeks progress.
The Huskies are not a powerhouse, and the defense should be able to focus on stopping another good run game. If it does, and the offense and special teams once again do not come to the party – something needs to change in a hurry. Falling to 2-5 with just one home game left on the year seems like a recipe for disaster. Consider Friday to be a must-win scenario for the Orange if a Bowl berth is attainable in 2012.