But the Orange sure had the chance. Multiple, actually.
After taking in the game once more on tape, we break down the intricacies of why SU is sitting at 4-5.
Ryan Nassib started out slowly, having a hard time with timing and accuracy, but he settled into the game in the latter part of the first half. He missed on screens, was too high, too strong on out-routes and even undershot a ball or two early on. But on a third-and-long, he was able to hang in the pocket and find Marcus Sales for a big gain and a first down. Nearly instantly, Nassib was back to his old self.
The accuracy was back, balls were on time and the redshirt senior was incomplete control of the up-tempo look Syracuse used to move the ball very well against the Bearcats. In the process, Nassib took a bunch of big-time hits, but never seemed too rattled. Even near the end of the game, with the Orange down double-digits, he was able to hit the targets needed to move the ball en route to another solid day of work without an interception. The pair of fumbles he had, one which was recovered by Cincy, weren't the product of him holding the ball too long or a miss-read. Blocks were missed.
Behind Nassib, Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley continued to provide balance to the offense. Smith ran hard and even showed some lateral quickness and ability on his way to a third straight 100-yard game. He also improved his short-yardage and goal line tendency by going over-the-top of the line for his one score in the loss. He continues to prove his worth as a one-cut runner and he's becoming more active in the open field as well, which pairs nice with his power. Gulley was once again good with the ball in his hands and he picked up the blitz fairly well, but the one time he missed proved disastrous for SU – as Nassib could not hang onto the ball and the ‘Cats got easy points out of it. Ashton Broyld looked quick in limited work as well.
The receiving targets were again up-and-down for the Orange. Beckett Wales was reliable underneath at the tight end spot, but he dropped a touchdown pass from Nassib, on what was a great thread-the-needle throw. Jarrod West did the same, on arguably Nassib's best deep throw in his career and certainly this season. The junior did come up with a big first-down grab earlier, but not coming up with a much-needed catch in the fourth quarter is tough to overcome. Marcus Sales had a few grabs to move the chains, but he also could not come up with other chances. The one constant in the group was Alec Lemon. The consistent senior has gone beyond his level from a season ago in terms of his route-running and hands, becoming the target that should warrant considerable NFL attention. Lemon came up with a fantastic catch in the end zone while dragging both feet to stay in the field of play for a go-ahead score. Lemon was on the same page as Nassib for over 100 yards for the third time this season. The only gripe against him, and Sales did this as well, was a bit of unawareness on the sidelines early in the game on plays that should have easily been conversions.
Up front, the line continues to play as they have lately. The running game is solid and the pass protection is good enough. But on the times that it isn't, it results in big-time losses as UC took full advantage. On Nassib's first fumble, it was Justin Pugh who collapsed his gap too early to allow a free rusher to pummel the QB. He was better as a run blocker, particularly when he and guard Zack Chibane got to flow downhill at linemen. Was solid for most of the game no matter the play-call, but the same cannot be said for Rob Trudo. He was actually better against the pass than he previously showed, but was beat more times than not in single-block situations. Still, as a group – the unit played well in protecting Nassib especially as the game progressed although it ultimately wasn't enough.
After looking unbelievably strong for five weeks, the Syracuse defense has come back down to earth over the last two weeks. B.J. Daniels proved that the unit was weak against a dual-threat and the combination of Munchie Lagaux, Jordan Luallen and Brendon Kay carried it on. The rush defense was also gashed for the second-straight week traditionally, and this time George Winn did the honor.
The defensive line had a bit of a better game than at first glance, particularly because of all of the missed tackles and flaws the back-end dealt with in this one. And actually, the pressure was good from the front four. Markus Pierce-Brewster, who still has considerable work to do against the run, continues to hold his end as a pass rusher though the sacks aren't there. He had a pair of tackles for loss when he was able to make a play against the run, including one that should have been called a fumble, but he was able to rush Legaux on several occasions. Brandon Sharpe had dissimilar success, as he was getting washed more times than not when Winn and company tested his side. Jay Bromley and Eric Crume were a better inside combo than they were last week in Tampa, but it still isn't as strong as it was early in the year. Bromley ended up with a pass break-up and Crume forced and recovered a fumble with the defense's back against the wall. Deon Goggins continues to play well enough to challenge anyone in the rotation, and he helped create one of the near plays of the game when he pressured the QB enough to force a bad throw that should have been intercepted by Brandon Reddish in the third quarter. Against the run, the linemen were washed out some, but still largely were in position to allow second-level defenders to make a play.
The linebackers simply didn't play their part in this one. Dyshawn Davis had a hard time getting off of blocks on the edge, Marquis Spruill missed several tackles as did Siriki Diabate. Whiffs were the top problem for the entire defense, and the LB unit was at fault more than other levels. Diabate was able to get down the line and fill on occasion, but anytime Winn – or anybody else – was able to break one it was the result of a missed play. Scott Shafer had his defense in position, but the unit's execution was subpar. Pass coverage was better, but UC realized early and often that the ground was the best way to attack the Orange defense. Cam Lynch's limited playing time was a bright spot as his edge rush led to another rushed throw, and his look led to Ri'Shard Anderson's interception.
Anderson was solid in pass coverage, especially when breaking on the ball, as was Keon Lyn and even the safeties. The biggest play against SU's pass defense was a throw-back screen to the tight end. While that also beat the Orange against UConn, it isn't the same down-the-field plays that burned the team early in 2012. Reddish should have had the play of the game on what looked like a 58-yard pick-six, but he could not hang on. While the pass defense was good, coming up and supporting the run was not. Shamarko Thomas had some big hits on the sidelines and on the edge, but he missed big plays in the open field. Jeremi Wilkes was the most active defender early on, but he too over pursued on multiple plays. Durell Eskridge did the same when he was in the game. Tackling was an issue a week ago, but it cost SU a win this time around.
Syracuse was surprisingly solid in the third phase. Yes, Ross Krautman is still struggling some from the field, but everything else on special teams seemed in-line. Well, everything except The Opening kickoff return where Jeremiah Kobena went air-borne before practically spotting Cincinnati seven points. Things also went south when Krautman lined up for another field goal that was blocked in the second quarter. Then, Rob Welsh collapsed to the point that the defender nearly had a free run to Kruatman. Carl Cutler didn't help by not protecting the inside before working back out on the wing.
For the positives with special teams, tackling was much better than it was on defense. Lewellyn Coker continues to impress when he gets out there, and he came up with a great tackle early on in kick coverage. Coker also came up with a big recovery as Cincy muffed a punt. And despite shanking a potentially-costly punt in the second quarter, Jonathan Fisher did a good job pinning the punt returner before the muff.
It's no secret that this loss was a big hit for Syracuse's bowl chances. To win two of three against Louisville, Missouri and Temple – with the final two on the road no less – will be a supremely tough task. The ability of the SU team, and its high potential, flashes in nearly every game – but it still has yet to put one together as it did against UConn. All three phases, all four quarters. It will need a similar formula to contend with the ultra-efficient Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals on senior night. Every game is a must-win from here on out.