Syracuse did it. Not only did it get that elusive sixth win in 2012, but it got to win No. 7 with a solid win over Temple on the road. The win capped a three-game winning streak to finish the season, a part of a stretch that saw SU on the right side of the score in five of the last six games.
Temple was the last step, and both the offense and defense did its part to make sure Syracuse didn't have the letdown few would have been surprised by.
Let's take a closer look.
Ryan Nassib didn't have to put in a gaudy effort this time – at least by the numbers – but he still put in an efficient effort and one that led the offense at its desired pace. He didn't turn the ball over and got the ball into the hands of play-makers all afternoon long. He didn't focus on getting too vertical, but his intermediate passes were on point as ever. It began with Alec Lemon over the middle and put points on the board on another play with the right combo of accuracy, power and touch in the hook-up with Marcus Sales – the only passing score of his day.
Later on, Nassib missed on some short tosses like on a roll-out that seemed to simply get away from him and a third-down conversion was missed on one he short-hopped to Prince-Tyson Gulley. Other than the rarities, Nassib worked well on short throws including a few over the middle to tight ends and several times on slants to Jarrod West – who was more involved this time around. But much like the running game, the passes seemed to create a churning tempo as opposed to the gashing down-the-field throws en route to 16 of 28 for 215 yards and the TD.
As the plays were called, it was more apparent that Syracuse wanted to control the clock in this one. While setting the tone with a balanced attack is usually the plan, it was more about getting a lead and pounding away on Friday. Jerome Smith continued his excellent season with another hard-running performance. He capped totes with big hits provided by his usually-good pad level. Smith was able to hit the 1,000-yard mark on the day en route to 96 yards on 20 carries. He represents the fifth straight season in which an SU back topped the milestone (Curtis Brinkley 2008, Delone Carter 2009-10, Antwon Bailey 2011). After emerging in the spring, Smith showed good vision, patience, burst and better speed than you think on the way to the mark this season.
Gulley was just as good as a compliment all season long, and he overcame an early fumble in this game for a nice line of 13 carries for 83 yards and an easy score. The offensive line was at its best all afternoon, but PTG was incredibly tough in the lane and provided his usual shiftiness on the edge – all with considerable ball security after the early blunder in which he was simply stripped on a routine tackle. While running was the game plan, Adonis Ameen-Moore took advantage as the No. 3 back on a season-high 10 carries for 57 yards. He got going early on, and even looked nimble on an 18-yard jaunt to get into the end zone off right tackle. AAM was still his powerful self on other carries, and it was good to see him carry the ball as a normal back instead of simply when short yardage conversions are needed. He did score in the "tank" package later on. Each back brings something different to the table and it was nearly too easy for the trio on this day.
Like Nassib, the receivers didn't have as many chances to make plays in this one – but each made the most of the chances. Lemon was still a menace in the slot, and he showed off his elite route-running skills along with his great hands when Nassib needed him the most. He went up for passes, caught some in traffic and even helped out in the ground game on one reverse for a first down. Sales had his ups and downs, but regrouped after an early fumble. He would come up with SU's first TD on a great grab, but then drifted back towards mediocrity with a would-be first down drop and a route he seemingly quit on at a time of need for the Orange. Sales finished the afternoon with 46 yards on three grabs, the same amount West pulled in. West fought for extra yards and made tough catches over the middle, but made his most impressive play on an ad-lib with Nassib that was called back due to a penalty on the line. On the play, Nassib directed West to head up field and he hit him in stride for what would have been a first down. Beckett Wales and David Stevens each hauled in a pass on routine, and Wales also dropped one he should have hauled in. He was a better blocker more times than not, but was beat inside to halt an early run.
Up front, the offensive line had its best run-paving game of the season. Justin Pugh and Sean Hickey were masterful on the outside, creating an ideal pocket for Nassib – but the run blocking was teaching-tape worthy. Whenever the run blocking is excellent, it means your center and guard combination is putting in work. It was the case here, especially with Rob Trudo. He was on the move more in this game on pulls and seals, and it played to his downhill strength. Trudo created some dynamic holes for each back, particularly on Ameen-Moore's first score. He came up with crushing hits while pulling; delivering none bigger than one on Sales' fumbled screen pass when he wiped out an incoming linebacker. Macky MacPherson showed some versatility inside, often chipping and getting to the second level or getting back-side for a solid seal. Zack Chibane provided similar in a dominating effort, capping a very consistent regular season.
Temple had its chances against SU's fast-flowing defense, but Scott Shafer's group eventually figured things out and put a stop to a seemingly-solid running game in the second half.
Montel Harris is a fine back, and he had his way early on. That was due in part to the defensive line, which eventually held its own. Markus Pierce-Brewster created a consistent push on the edge, even registering a few tackles for loss against the run game. Brandon Sharpe was a bit more sporadic on the other side, and the read-option scheme got the better of him early. He adjusted and sealed the edge well while getting pressure in the passing game. Micah Robinson saw more playing time up front, and like Sharpe, was undisciplined early on – most notably on a scoring run for QB Clinton Granger. The interior lineman were occupiers and pursuers against the scheme that often has an outside focus, but Zian Jones, Jay Bromley and Eric Crume flowed well. The same could not be said for Deon Goggins, who may have been a point of emphasis for the Temple offensive line. He was dominated more times than not, even getting pancaked on multiple occasions. To his defense, he did face the most double-teams of the group.
The second-level had a good game against the run. It was more scheme against physical play, but when SU was in position – it made the necessary stops to win. Siriki Diabate again put on a clinic on how to scrape and fill a hole against a downhill runner. He comes in hot but doesn't play out of control in the hole as most inexperienced talents often do. Diabate showed good discipline against the option, finished tackles with authority and was a step off in zone coverage – all what we've come to expect from him. Marquis Spruill was good in many ways, often blitzing to put pressure on the passer as well as in coverage. But his most impressive plays came in the open field, when he not only prevented some first downs, but helped to swing momentum SU's way with a TD-saving play early on. Dyshawn Davis flanked Diabate well in the run game aside from one major lapse in contain when Granger hit the outside and he was serviceable against the pass. Cameron Lynch saw more playing time in the rotation, showing hustle on a forced fumble down the field as well as good instincts against the run while improving against the pass – particularly in zone coverage.
The secondary also had a good day, which should have happened against an inexperienced passer. Keon Lyn was the star of the show, giving up zero completions and coming up with both the interception to put the game out of reach on a touchdown return and the pick that effectively ended the game soon after. One was a solid reaction in zone coverage while the other was a disciplined trail in bracket-coverage. Ri'Shard Anderson was good on the other side, continuing his progress after a dreadful September and October. Brandon Reddish was up-and-down. He was beat in man coverage across the field that led to a touchdown and he missed a tackle that resulted in a big gain, but he was again steady in the zone and came up with a textbook forced fumble when SU needed it the most. The safeties rotated some more, but both Shamarko Thomas and Jeremi Wilkes held their own. Durell Eskridge came up with a beautiful sack on a blitz, but Thomas and Wilkes showed discipline and tackling in the open field after early-game missteps.
There wasn't anything spectacular in the game's third phase – and that's okay. It's when it cost you a turnover or part of the game that makes you scratch your head, so a normal game is just fine. It actually was a part of a turnover this time around, as Dan Vaughan recovered a muffed punt. Lewellyn Coker was excellent in coverage as usual, and Ritchy Desir was average in punt returns. He was a bit more hesitant than one would want, but it was an isolated incident unlike that of a previous returner.
Well, now it's time for the waiting game.
Syracuse will sit back on its 7-5 record and wait for the bowl selection process to play out. As of now, it seems like a toss-up between the Pinstripe Bowl (New York, N.Y.) and the BBVA Compasss Bowl (Birmingham, Ala.).
The Orange will be a nice pickup for either bowl game because of their appeal as a recognizable team with an up-tempo offense, so we'll see.