Both Syracuse and Missouri entered Saturday night's game looking to salvage otherwise disappointing seasons with a bowl berth. In a back-and-forth game with plenty of drama late, the Orange pulled out the comeback win as Alec Lemon caught an easy 17-yard pass from Ryan Nassib with just 20 ticks left in the 31-27 win.
It wasn't a banner performance for either of SU's units, but each did just enough to win in a fairly hostile environment. A second look at the game tape points to a few key plays that put ‘Cuse over the top and into bowling season.
Ryan Nassib has done it all year, so why wouldn't he put in another stand-out performance in a big game?
It once again wasn't about his gaudy numbers (385 yards, two touchdowns), but it was about how he kept the pace in the offense and made snap decisions. Even on the one blunder for the offense, a deflected interception, Nassib made the right read and fired in an accurate ball. He was fundamental all game long, and stayed with wideouts that couldn't hold onto early passes. The redshirt senior was more patient than he has been in recent weeks, thanks to solid blocking by the offensive line. He climbed in the pocket at the right time and mixed in some ad-libs on shorter throws to get away from negative plays.
Nassib was special right off the bat, finding isolated matchups on the outside with Lemon and inside with Beckett Wales and Marcus Sales. He continued to show excellent accuracy on the run, and used his pump-fake to shake off zone defenders throughout the game. Nassib even showed some more good decision making as a ball carrier, executing a naked bootleg off of a fake toss for chunk yardage. But it all came down to the game-winning score, in which he allowed Lemon to complete his wheel route before showing some touch in getting the ball there with no defender in sight. Props is due to Nathaniel Hackett on that play, as he moved Lemon inside on a bunch formation and had a pair of players run through to set up the wheel route while causing confusion with the Mizzou secondary at the same time.
The running game wouldn't be as gashing as it was in recent weeks, but both Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley held their own as the offense looked to lean on the run early on. Combining for over 100 yards once again, each back had big plays and a score to his name. Smith was again a tough runner early on, staying behind his pads upon contact. He was patient in the zone scheme and hit the hole once the crease presented itself. He did appear to injure himself a bit, which opened the door more for Gulley. The change-of-pace became the constant, and PTG didn't disappoint. He showed excellent burst, wiggle in the lane and a great stutter-and-go move to pick up a first down. But what Gulley does is always run with toughness despite his size. It was evident near the goal line on his scoring run, ironically a power jaunt as opposed to Smith's jump-cut for six earlier. Gulley also appeared a bit gimpy late in the game, which enabled Adonis Ameen-Moore to see a pair of carries away from the goal line and "tank" package.
The tight end position, against an attacking defense, was big for Syracuse on Saturday. Beckett Wales made his biggest impact as a blocker, consistently creating a crease. He did it with kick-outs, seals and even got out in space on one occasion. The staff obviously trusts him more in the run game, which should continue to open up receiving opportunities although his deflection on a catch attempt led to what looked like a critical interception. Wales still had a pair of grabs as did David Stevens, who shrugged off a tackler for a first down early on.
On the outside, things started slow for the Orange (hint…they would pick up). Lemon, who would go on to be the game's hero, struggled out of his initial breaks and even dropped two of the first three passes his way. He would settled down and get to work in the seams sooner than later on the record-setting 244-yard performance. He was aided by Nassib's pump-fakes and the offensive line buying time, but make no mistake that Lemon made a living against both the man and zone looks the Tigers presented –even making moves after the catch. Lemon is known for route-running and hands, but he extended several plays with sleeper speed and nifty cuts. He even tight-roped the sidelines for 15 yards in the third quarter after what looked like a routine grab. He wasn't as effective as a blocker, getting pancaked on a tackle for loss, but his game-winning score more than made up for the blunder. Sales was solid on the other side, looking more and more like a possession receiver. Still, when he and Lemon combine for over 300 yards on 20 catches – Syracuse will be tough to beat. On the flip side, Jarrod West seems to be drifting into a clear No. 3 role after playing like a possible 1A or a No. 2 earlier this season. It's not necessarily a knock on him, but more of a tip of the cap to Lemon and Sales. West has just five catches over the last three games.
The most consistent group on Saturday, aside from the QB spot, was Syracuse's offensive line. The pass blocking was some of the unit's best work of the season and the run blocking was good enough to establish early on and keep the Tigers honest throughout the game. Justin Pugh was again the anchor and best-in-show for the Orange. He sealed the edge on several running plays, and neutralized anything his way while in his long kick-step otherwise. He allowed Nassib to step up in the pocket with ease on the way to another gaudy effort. Sean Hickey was nearly as good across the board. He executed some nice down blocks in the run game and mirrored Pugh in creating a pocket for Nassib as a passer. Zack Chibane was money in the trenches on short yardage, particularly on both touchdown runs. Macky MacPherson did the same, even recording a pancake right near the goal line. Rob Trudo was the worst of the bunch, but it wasn't by much. He has always excelled as a run blocker, and did the same on Saturday save for a few isolated plays in which he wasn't the lower man at the point of impact and gave up a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage.
Syracuse's defense put in a masterful performance against Louisville at home, but Missouri's spread was closer linked toward the Northwestern game, when gashing plays were a constant. The defense didn't allow as many points as it did to open the season, and there was nearly 15 minutes of shutout football from the second quarter through the middle of the third. That gap allowed the SU offense to rally with 14 points and make the game no more than a one-possession battle from there on out.
While shutting a team out for a quarter is never something to hang your hat on, it helped in a game with two gashing offenses. Even though needed, it was still rough for SU for three quarters against both the run and the pass. Most of the big plays were against a three-man front, when Scott Shafer brought in an extra defensive back to help contain the passing game. With a spread, read-option scheme – the Tigers were able to pick their spots on the ground for chunk yardage and use it to set up nearly 400 yards through the air.
The front four (but mostly three) did rotate plenty and created pressure at key moments in the game. Jay Bromley came up with a pair of big sacks, but he was strung down the line in the run game when he wasn't double-teamed. Bromley did execute a big-time stunt with Micah Robinson on one of the sacks, halting a Mizzou drive. Brandon Sharpe was pretty stout against the run, using his upper-body strength to disengage linemen nearly at will. He also got in on the sack game using a devastating swim move inside to halt a drive deep in Tigers territory. Markus Pierce-Brewster had the hit of the game on a tackle for loss, but he was also in on one of the plays of the game to get SU the ball back in the fourth quarter. Deon Goggins was up-and-down, once again. He was reached early on a big run, put in a tackle for loss and aided MPB on the big fourth quarter stop. Robinson was effective off the edge with pressure and Eric Crume shut down a run near the goal line despite limited playing time. The unit was good as individuals, but the spacing created natural lanes for Missouri all night long.
It was the 3-man front to combat the spread of Mizzou's offense more times than not, which puts more pressure on the linebackers to tackle well and tackle in space. Syracuse's group is a speedy one, but the misdirection and cut-back nature of the zone scheme only helped the Tigers chances coupled with the few bodies up front. Still, when the game was on the line, Siriki Diabate made his best play of the season in stopping Mizzou in the backfield to give SU its final chance to win the game. He shot the gap as he has done so well in 2012 for another big open-field stop. The senior comes downhill against the run prettier than most linebackers, and he can finish with big tackles in tight spots, as he showed on multiple occasions. He wasn't in on passing situations because of the spread look, so Cam Lynch saw extended playing time in this one. Lynch seemed a bit out of his element, as he was consistently near the hole in the zone and often late to break on the ball – resulting in several Missouri first downs. He was decent off the edge when he had the opportunity to blitz. Syracuse sent linebackers more than usual because of the spacing Mizzou presented, and both Dyshawn Davis and Marquis Spruill made big hits on James Franklin as a result. Spruill, who shed a block before hitting the QB, was sent more effectively and he made some plays in pursuit of the run as well. Davis, who was beat on the cutback lane on a few run plays, made up for it late with good discipline against the read-option and while hurrying Franklin. The group made a handful of plays, but overpursued on routine with their fast-flow nature.
Each level of the defense faced immense pressure in this game, and the secondary was no different. Durrel Eskridge and Ritchy Desir saw more playing time in nickel and dime packages, but the safeties were again a weak point in coverage. Each young DB drifted in zone coverage to allow big plays, including an early touchdown. Jeremi Wilkes wasn't much better. On top of receiving several big hits instead of attacking the ball carrier, he was beat for several first downs and committed a pass interference against Dorial Green-Beckham in the end zone. Green-Beckham gashed the entire defense early on in the game on a 70-yard screen and run, in which he outran Wilkes (despite him having the angle) after he was sprung by the combination of an SU blitz and Keon Lyn and Ri'Shard Anderson getting blocked long enough for him to get by. Shamarko Thomas was late in cover-3 early on, but he led a unit that tightened up against the pass as the game progressed. On the outside, Lyn and Anderson held their own. Lyn had a pass break-up in the end zone against the 6-foot-6 Green-Beckham, but was beat on a skinny post later on while late in getting to his bail-man look. He made up for it with the game-sealing interception to clinch the win. Anderson was subpar in run support and in pursuit, but he didn't give up the big plays that plagued him in the first half of the season. Brandon Reddish, instead, was the cornerback being picked on some. He abandoned his fundamentals in cover-2 for a big early gain and missed two tackles that also resulted in first downs. He was better in three-deep, keeping everything in front of him as we've come to expect this season.
Ross Krautman made an early 44-yard field goal, but wasn't called upon late when SU was on the very edge of his range. It was the right call by Doug Marrone as Lemon converted the first down and later the game winner. Ryan Norton was good on kickoffs, again creating a few touchbacks. When he did not, Cam Lynch and Wayne Morgan were excellent in coverage. Jonathan Fisher wasn't called on too much, but he was decent at times. He pinned Mizzou in the third and got a good open-field stop from Desire later on another attempt.
In the return games, Jeremiah Kobena was average at best, as the first wave was enough to stop him all night long. Desir didn't have much space on punt returns, though he still made a few defenders miss in the open field.
With Temple on the horizon, the pressure if off for Syracuse since it has already clinched a bowl berth. Of course, finishing the season above .500 after last year's debacle is still the goal for the team – and it has a shot to do just that against the Owls. The new Big East member has been scrappy this season and running back Montel Harris likely has an NFL future ahead of him, but SU simply has more talent and some momentum offensively after putting up 76 points over the last two games. Temple's defense has given up at least 30 points in each of its last five games and hasn't won a conference game in over a month. If the Orange continues its offensive prowess and the defense focuses on stopping the run – ‘Cuse may be looking at 7-5 and a nice spot in the postseason.