There is no debating that Steve Ishmael is Syracuse's number one wide receiver. His ability to make plays in coverage has been pivotal to their offensive success this season. After a career day in which Ishmael snatched seven receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh, he only had one catch against Florida State and four against Louisville.
Against the Cardinals, his lone touchdown catch came in garbage time with the game essentially over. So why hasn't Ishmael been consistently targeted like he was against the Panthers? The answer is simple. Teams are game planning for him and scheming him out of the game. How? Bracket coverage.
Despite leading the team with 30 catches for 458 yards and five touchdowns, all of which have surpassed last season's numbers, many believe he could be an even larger part of the offense. But the way teams are now defending Syracuse has made it difficult to get him the ball.
Louisville used primarily zone coverage, with one defensive back playing underneath Ishmael and one over the top. Basically, Ishmael was double teamed. Forcing the ball into that type of coverage is risky and leads to more turnovers than big plays. Florida State did some of that as well. As long as bracketing Ishmael is effective, teams will continue to implement that strategy.
So how can Syracuse counter the increased attention on Ishmael in order to get him more one-on-one coverage?
When brackets a receiver like Louisville did, it leaves them vulnerable to the ground attack. There are generally six men in the box in those situations, meaning there is a hat on a hat with five linemen and a tight end. That is advantageous to the offense when trying to run the ball. Unfortunately for Syracuse, they struggled against Louisville in that area, due in large part to the Cardinals defensive front dominating the Orange in the trenches.
Syracuse has also suffered without a consistent threat opposite Ishmael. That has allowed teams to shift their coverage towards him, which also makes it difficult for him to get targets. If other receivers were able to get separation more consistently, it would not allow defenses to focus on just one receiving threat. This would open things up for Ishmael.
If Syracuse is able to have more success running the ball, it also creates more opportunities for Steve. It means teams cannot drop more players into coverage in order to bracket or double him. That creates more one-on-one chances, which Ishmael excels at winning.
The task for the Orange is no different going forward than it has been the rest of the season. If they are to make enough to plays to grab some wins in the final three games, they have to be able to balanced offensively. Show teams they have multiple weapons, run the ball effectively, and utilize play action off of that run game.
In that scenario, Ishmael will have more advantageous coverages and should see more targets.