A week after routing Connecticut, Syracuse looked to move to 3-1 in the Big East at South Florida. Weather it was the travel or simply trying to slow B.J. Daniels, the Orange seemed a step to slow out of the gate before steering clear of error in the second half – for the most part – on the way to a sterling comeback win.
We took a second look at the game tape to find out what was working late and why the Orange stumbled early on.
Ryan Nassib had one of his more memorable performances of his long career on Saturday, but it sure didn't look like he was on the way to it early on. It was truly a tale of two halves, and the redshirt senior was arguably the reason the SU offense could not produce more points at the break (3). The running game was working and the targets were finding their ways open, yet Nassib was a bit erratic with the ball. While his decision-making was on point as usual and he didn't risk any interceptions, he was inaccurate with the rock. He short-hopped the ball, missed wide and missed high as he seems to do when he's off. The second quarter was especially tough for Nassib, despite not dealing with much pressure.
But in the third and fourth quarters, Nassib looked like the projected NFL Draft pick that he's become. He hung in the pocket and began attacking the Bulls defense as opposed to settling for what the Bulls offered. He went deep and over the top as the secondary crept up to stop the Orange run game, he threw wideouts open, he used pump fakes and he stared down the blitz and fired a touchdown on the way back. Nassib was aware and played like a gamer on the final drive as well; hitting pin-point passes against the cover-2 zone that will intrigue NFL scouts, who cannot question his arm-strength or situational awareness. The final touchdown, with three seconds left, was about as good as it gets on the run and with pressure. It's no surprised he finished with 328 yards, four scores and zero interceptions.
The running game was SU's bread and butter early in the game, and it was once again sparked by Jerome Smith. He ran with good speed and great power, as he continues to form his identity at this level. Smith wasn't only running tough inside, but he eluded a tackler in the backfield and picked up the blitz when called upon on more than one occasion – resulting in both a first down and a touchdown. The junior's only knock on this day was at the end of the first drive, when he had a walk-in score on a pass from Nassib that he couldn't come up with. Prince-Tyson Gulley also held his own, picking his spots well inside and occasionally bouncing out. His burst and ability to catch-and-run is the only thing keeping him on the field with as hot as Smith is, and Gulley was able to show it once more. Adonis Ameen-Moore and Ashton Broyld were unable to help out for different reasons, but the Orange didn't need either on this day.
The pass-catchers had one of their better days on Saturday. Tight end-wise, Beckett Wales made a few plays based off of play action and his blocking is improved to the point that he is now trusted to single-block defensive ends on passing plays. David Stevens proved as a tough blocker as well, especially on Alec Lemon's reverse-score as the tight end led the way. Lemon, who scored the game-winner, was as on point as he has been of late. It's officially to the point that he is playing at the level that helped him to set the career receptions record at SU – coming up big with great routes and top-notch hands. Marcus Sales continues to put up gaudy yardage numbers, coming up with nine grabs for 125 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He still has a drop here-and-there, but his progression as a route-runner while displaying good body control has made him a great opposite to Lemon at Nassib's disposal. Jarrod West has closed the gap between he and the senior pair, using his improved route-running and hands quite well with his above-average frame. Nassib has relied on him as a down the field threat and the two hooked up for six from 31 yards out.
Up front, the running game was made possible by the power and drive of the offensive line. Center Macky MacPherson and guards Rob Trudo and Zack Chibane really controlled USF's interior to the point that the lanes were open more times than not on Saturday for Smith and company. Trudo, in particular, really showed the type of aggression that has helped him to win the full-time job over Ivan Foy. While his pass-blocking is still average at best, as he accounted for a penalty after being beat on a routing pass play, Trudo is making strides by the game. His down blocks and drive blocks may be second to none on the roster. Justin Pugh and Sean Hickey held their own on the outside, protecting Nassib all game long, while also helping to seal the edge in the running game. For the entire group, the only consistent question mark came when the Orange reached short-yardage and goal line situations. Smith, Gulley or anybody had a tough time avoiding contact soon after in said instances. Even the "tank" package saw struggles, as fullback/linebacker Lewellyn Coker was often beat physically to the point that not only was the goal not attained but the play was stopped in the backfield.
The Syracuse defense has been as good as it has been in years over the last five games, but it had to stop at some point. The Orange were limiting points and productivity in the running game to some of the best backs in the Big East, but all that came to a halt against Daniels and crew on Saturday.
But it ended very abruptly as the Bulls ran wild, to the point that they accounted for 369 yards on over eight yards per carry. It was Daniels, it was Lindsey Lamar – it was anybody who was able to get their number called. But it wasn't just the read-option that demoralized the Orange in 2011, it was mostly from broken plays in Daniels' case and quick-hitters from Lamar's.
The defensive line was washed down in this game more than before, but it wasn't to one particular side or against one player. Markus Pierce-Brewster was single blocked on one big run before rebounding to create consistent pressure on Daniels as well as getting good penetration on short yardage and at the goal line. Brandon Sharpe was solid early, getting off blocks with ease, but he was at fault for over pursuing on one of the bigger Bull runs of the day. The interior was all or nothing in this one, led by Deon Goggins. The senior helped set the tone against the read-option scheme, which may have diverted USF away from it. He was doubled later on during another gashing hit, but continued to make plays in the backfield against the single block. Goggins forced rushed throws and recorded tackles for loss once more. Like Trudo on offense, Goggins has progressed every time he has strapped up the pads.
Where the line succeeded, the linebackers did not. When guys like Goggins , Eric Crume and Zian Jones forced two players to help contain him, the second-level was late. Siriki Diabate didn't have one of his better days, often a step to slow on a simple lead play or easily blocked by an uncovered lineman. He was more effective as a blitzer, but he was also a catalyst to get Daniels on the move on passing plays. One particular miss by the senior resulted in yet another big gain and another pair saw him out of place against the pass. Dyshawn Davis was better as a filler against USF's back-side plays, but he didn't have much help. He continues to put pressure on offenses off the edge, as well as by reading his keys from the weak-side. Marquis Spruill was a blend of the two, making plays in the backfield to rush throws and coming up for a tackle for loss while also over pursuing on a big run and getting beat in coverage in addition to missing a tackle early on. The group has been top-notch of late, but Saturday was a collective step back.
The secondary, unlike the front-seven, was able to continue their solid play. By the numbers, it's hard to gauge because of the running success that the Bulls had. But even off the simple eye test or in big-time spots, the group held up. Ri'Shard Anderson and Brandon Reddish didn't account for any big mistakes, and Keon Lyn was about as good as he's been since donning and Orange jersey. The junior did give up a score in man-coverage, but he came up with a few pass-breakups stemming from excellent breaks on the ball and even showed some grit with hits at or behind the line of scrimmage. But while the unit held the USF wideouts in check, it was not able to help out in the running game on some of the big runs that the Bulls were able to carve up. The safeties were up-and-down, since they missed plenty of tackles against USF runners. Shamarko Thomas was a microcosm of this, coming up with a big fumble recovery and some big hits while also helping to spring Lamar on his 80-yard touchdown run that really stole the first-half momentum for South Florida. Jeremi Wilkes was average once more, but he wasn't critically beat in coverage – which is always a positive.
The special teams group was again good overall for the Orange. Ross Krautman did miss a chip-shot field goal, but he was also able to rebound and hit one later on as well as all four of his extra points. The kickoff unit was great, as it was on punts. Returns were again scarce in nature, but a pair of players stood out on the day. Coker, while he was unable to create a seam in the "tank" package, was excellent in pursuit and helped to change the game with a blocked punt. Durell Eskridge was also in on that punt, helping to swing momentum to the Orange for good.
Syracuse escaped one down in Tampa, and it won't be as fortunate going forward. The dual-threat quarterback was a thorn in the Orange's side in 2011 and its not looking good in 2012 after what Daniels was able to do. In-and-out run defense won't work against Cincinnati and Louisville, who each has a mobile signal-caller and a good stable of backs. The good news is that each of those squads prides itself on efficiency and occasional big plays, and the SU secondary has held opponents in check of late.
The offense seems to be back on track after big performances against a good UConn defense and South Florida. Nassib looks more and more like an NFLer and the running game is growing from the inside out as Smith and Gulley seem to be the one-two punch this team has needed to balance-out Nassib in this up-tempo look. Couple that with an improving offensive line and a Bowl game seems much less far off than it was a month ago. Still, defeating two teams out of Cincinnati, Louisville, Missouri and Temple won't be easy.