Enter Friday night against Connecticut on national television, and you would be surprised to think of the team in its seemingly former form.
All three phases worked together in order to avenge last season's crushing loss to the Huskies in dominating 40-10 fashion. Upon review of the game tape, it was the little things that SU did right that stood out.
After Jerome Smith flashed his potential time and time again early in the season, and not seemingly enough in the loss to Rutgers – we called for more of him. Not that we have anything to do with it, but Nathaniel Hackett found a way to make the first quarter all about the junior running back to the point that Nassib had 0 yards after the period. The number wasn't a knock on Nassib, but more of a hat tip to Smith – who churned out big run after big run to open the game. The style of his tough running and gashing gallops opened up the entire playbook for SU for the remainder of the game – and 40 points was the result.
While letting Smith impress on a career-high 133-yard night, Nassib was his usual self. He was efficient, made quick decisions and showed excellent toughness. But for the first time all season, he protected the ball for four straight quarters. There were no strip-sacks, pick-sixes or anything that made even the casual fan question what year of eligibility the signal-caller is truly in. The fifth-year senior was simply solid. He was smart with all of his decisions, showing touch over the middle when he needed to on third-and-long, while also knowing when to dial it back and fire one in on slant patterns near the goal line. The deep pass wasn't in the repertoire this time around, but the offense moved the ball nonetheless. It was a balance that the Orange had not been able to previously achieve this season for a full four quarters.
Smith's early pounding opened things up for others, even in the backfield. Prince-Tyson Gulley ran hard in limited chances and made some plays in the passing game as well. Most impressively, for him, was how he picked up the blitz. The offense made noise on early downs to make third down manageable, but guys like Gulley and Smith really picked up free rushers well all night long. With the game in hand, the running back position belonged to Ashton Broyld, who seemed hungrier than at any point this season. Perhaps the combination of him being benched possibly for the fumbling issue against Minnesota combined with more of an understanding of the playbook contributed to it. Either way, the freshman was hitting holes harder than he has in the past and he actually ran behind his pads at 230-plus pounds on a consistent basis while still showing his ability to make defenders miss in the open field. Broyld even sold out multiple times while blocking for others – attempting to prove his worth at all times and not just when his number is called. When Adonis Ameen-Moore's is called, he simply does what's asked of him. He was denied in the "tank" package early in the game after running into Lewellyn Coker's poor lead block, but both made up for it later on with a short score in the popular package for the third straight game.
On the outside, Alec Lemon ruled the day. This should be attributed to the senior's progression after injuries and his chemistry with Nassib. Marcus Sales, who was only targeted a few times, was being bracketed and watched closely by the Husky secondary. As a result, Nassib didn't force the issue while letting Lemon take advantage of isolations in both the slot and outside. His eight grabs for 166 yards and a score was a display of his versatility as a wideout. Lemon isn't the fastest WR you've ever seen, but he's one of the smarter ones. For example, on the 68-yard catch, he was able to use angles to get behind the defender on the wheel route (with the help of Jarrod West's rub route) before hauling in the ball. Once he had it, Lemon used cut-back lanes and others' momentum to nearly get the ball all the way into the end zone despite much faster athletes in pursuit. Other times he was tough in traffic with excellent hands, all ways he capped plays with excellent route-running to provide enough separation in the first place. West, who had just one grab, was a good blocker all night long.
When we talk about balance, and the success of Syracuse's on Friday, it's not just run-pass ratios and situational variety in play-calling. It's targeting and execution, which enabled the tight end position to continue to progress to the point that Beckett Wales broke out. His four catches for 69 yards and a score were all made possible first by the strong running game, but also by Wales ability to block up front. His progression as a blocker led to defenders attacking him more at the line, in-turn allowing a quicker release on a pair of first downs and on his touchdown reception.
Up front, the now-solidified starting lineup had its best game of the season. Justin Pugh is healthy and flirting with that high NFL draft-pick level at left tackle while Zack Chibane and Macky MacPherson continue their steady seasons. Rob Trudo has become one of the better run blockers on the team at right guard, and Sean Hickey continues to play well after flipping to right tackle to make room for Pugh after his injury. The group opened lanes for the backs early on, protected Nassib on manageable passing situations and plowed ahead on short-yardage to help SU gain over 500 yards of offense. Pugh helped seal the edge on runs Smith bounced outside. MacPherson's one bone-head play was disengaging too early on a screen play, but he made up for it with heady plays on a near-interception after a tipped ball and while recovering a fumble and actually running for a few yards. The junior was on-and-off with both traditional and shotgun snaps, but it seemed more like an isolated pair of incidents than a trend considering his success in the exchange all season long.
Balance will be used plenty of times to describe this offense on this night, and 251 yards rushing and 251 yards passing only epitomizes the argument. Hackett deserves considerable credit for keeping UConn's solid defense off balance all night to the point that it even looked easy for Nassib and company. There was still some issue with red zone scoring and short yardage, but converting over 50 percent of third downs (8 for 15) and putting up 40 points should yield a win every time out – especially with the way Scott Shafer's defense is playing.
Safer's group did it again on Friday, and it should be noted. The Syracuse defense not only stymied another very good running back in Lyle McCombs (12 carries for 16 yards), but it continued to protect the end zone. For the fifth straight game, if you count the Rutgers kick-block for a TD as a mark against special teams, the Orange's defense has held its opponent scoring in the teens or less. It's a far cry from the unit that allowed Northwestern (6-2) and USC (6-1) to combine for 84 points in the first two tilts of the season. It usually takes defenses a bit longer to get into the flow of the season, and SU is proving it at this point. We wondered if they could keep it up, and they have. The group has allowed just 73 points over the last five games including Friday's, which is an average of 14.6 per game.
It wasn't just how Shafer and company game planned to stop these running games, it's a combination of the front-7 creating considerable pressure while the back-end challenges opponents to get the ball down the field. It hasn't always worked out over the last few years, but it's working more times than not now. Shafer is creating exotic blitzes with movement pre-snap, which also contributed to a pair of false starts on Friday. Against UConn, he brought multiple linebackers off the same side on blitzes, continued using efficient defensive line stunts and even sent more defensive backs than usual. The results have come from great chemistry and solid play-making at all three levels of the defense.
As a unit, the defensive line continues to play the most stable football. Led by bookends Brandon Sharpe and Markus Pierce-Brewster, the group is equipped to excel against the run and the pass on any given play. Sharpe had great pressure all night long, and came up with a pair of big tackles for loss in the running game – including once against the Wildcat. That style of run dismantled Syracuse in 2011. MPB was double-teamed more than he has been in recent memory, yet he still managed to put pressure on the quarterback on the way to his first career sack. The depth at end was also evident on Friday as Rob Welsh got into the mix on some big run-stuffing plays, especially on UConn's first Wildcat attempt. Inside, Jay Bromley, Eric Crume and Deon Goggins continued to keep lineman off of the linebackers. Bromley and Goggins got a great push all night on the way to collapsing the pocket while Crume showed some athleticism while forcing plays outside.
The second-level continues to excel against the run and continues to prove its worth as backfield play-makers. Those who read this weekly report know how that we consider Dyshawn Davis to be the best blitzer on the entire roster, and he proved it again on Friday. Whether it was bone-crushing hits on the quarterback or helping to tame the Wildcat, Davis was on it. He had a few tackles for loss and even made a big play in the passing game to foil a screen attempt. Siriki Diabate also continues to hold his own as a solid run defender. He flows to the ball without over pursuing and he doesn't miss ball carriers in one-on-one situations, critical for any middle linebacker. Dibate also made it a point to target the ball, successfully forcing a fumble 10 yards down the field against a receiver. Should his coverage skills improve, he may have all-conference written all over him. Marquis Spruill also had a solid game, and remains the most complete linebacker on the roster. He did it both against the run and the pass, showing good discipline within his assignment. He came up with a big hit in the backfield and forced Connecticut to throw the ball over him in passing situations. Cam Lynch and Dan Vaughan saw more action in the rotation this week, with each holding his own and Lynch coming up with a big fumble recovery in addition to getting heat on the QB as a blitzer.
If there was a weak-link to the defense even in this fine stretch – it would have been the secondary. It flashed some again on Friday, but not enough to give up the big plays that have helped cripple SU in recent memory. This game plan against the Huskies surrounded the secondary since the front-7 was asked to be in the box so much. It delivered, especially at cornerback. Keon Lyn continues to assert himself as the best of the group with tight man coverage and physical point-of-attack disruptions against widoeuts. He even forced a fumble after defeating a cut block against a WR screen. Brandon Reddish held his own save for biting on play-action while playing the flats in cover-3 – which resulted in a first down. He was attacking the ball and making a name for himself as a run defender, and Ri'Shard Anderson did too. He didn't give up the long ball or a score, and he helped funnel the run with aggressive plays on more than one occasion. Anderson even took on a pulling right tackle on a sweep in order to allow the linebackers to make the play. The safeties were also solid, despite a tough day at work for Jeremi Wilkes. While his much-improved tackling is still critical in run support, his coverage continues to be a liability. With the limited success that the Huskies had in the air, Wilkes was the culprit on several occasions. He over pursued in zone coverage and got out-bodied in man coverage although he tightened up as the game progressed. Shamarko Thomas made impact plays against both the run and the pass before snagging his second interception of the season. His run-after-catch skills, however, came from the Phillip Thomas mold as he ran backwards and east-west before finally yielding the play to fatigue. Ritchy Desir and Durell Eskridge saw more playing time as several backups did towards the end of the game. Eskridge came up with one of the plays of the game as he blitzed and laid a big hit on the quarterback not only for a sack, but to force the fumble that Lynch recovered to help swing momentum.
The offense and defense had their way with UConn, and the special teams department did as well. Ross Krautman responded from some questionable efforts with one of the best games he's had in three years, converting all four of his tried including a pair of deep shots from 42 and 47 yards out. Fellow kicker Ryan Norton more than handled his kickoff duties, blasting seven touchbacks on the evening. The kick and punt coverage units were solid all night, though the punting unit wasn't needed much. When it was (just three times), Johnathan Fisher placed two inside the 20 yard-line.
Perhaps just as critical as the kicking improvements were, the punt return game got a spark. Desir replaced Steve Rene on duty, and he took his first chance 33 yards with some nifty moves and patient running behind his blockers. It was his initial decisiveness that set the entire play up, something we had not seen with Rene's east-west nature. Desire did signal a fair catch at one point, executing it well. He also had a few moderate returns, but didn't disappoint in either chance.
While the excellent Syracuse team we saw on Friday night put it all together for the first time this season, getting bowl eligible will take some additional work. Red zone chances can't be squandered, center-QB exchanges need to be crisp and big plays must continue to be prevented. With a trip to South Florida next up for SU, considerable questions remain for the 3-4 Orange.
Can the running game still set the tone?
Will Ryan Nassib protect the ball?
Will the defense continue to play lights-out, even against a dual-threat in B.J. Daniels?
Can the special teams avoid big blunders in consecutive games?
If the answers to most of the aforementioned questions is yes, than Syracuse should even up its record at 4-4 against an underachieving squad that has wavering confidence after its own 2-5, 0-3 Big East start.