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Starting Over In Syracuse

This one’s for all of the orange

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Hey what the hell was that, Syracuse? Three years of improvement in a row, a ten win season last year, and you couldn’t keep a game with Maryland competitive enough to stay ranked for one more weekend? There’s no ranked vs. ranked games this week, this could have been something. As it stands you’re 1-1 and have yet to play a normal football game. Coming into the season there was an expectation that blue chip/extremely Jersey QB Tommy Devito would step right into noted crazy person Eric Dungey’s shoes and the Orange would keep rolling. So far that hasn’t happened and it looks like Syracuse might be in for more growing pains for a while on offense. Through two weeks the offensive line is struggling, Devito appears to be lacking any of Dungey’s ability to improvise, and the receivers and QB look out of synch in Baber’s option route heavy offense.

We’ve hit the Art Briles point of this article. While Briles is justifiably gone from the college game, his impact on schemes at this level is not. Dino Babers runs a scheme that originated out of Art Briles’ “veer and shoot” offenses that melded an inside, option oriented run game with wide splits and aggressive shots downfield in the passing game. Combine that with lightning fast pace and aggressive usage of RPO’s and you have a recipe to create a lot of stress for a defense.

Babers has typically run a more pass oriented version of this system, often using four and five wide receivers to spread the field out vertically. Last year marks the first time in a long time that one of his offenses was able to run the ball efficiently, and the first time Syracuse ran more than threw in his tenure. In 2018 Dungey and then Junior RB Moe Neal were able to provide the backbone of an efficient, if not explosive, rushing attack.

The ground game is where the Syracuse offense has looked its best this year, leaning on the run in the second half against Liberty because Devito was getting throughly outplayed by “Buckshot” Calvert. Neal, Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard give Syracuse an experienced and versatile trio of running backs. Syracuse also has a pair of serviceable tight ends, and has been pretty varied with personnel and formation, even occasionally going under center. Babers is quite good at using formations to create space in the running and passing games.

The Orange base their running game around inside zone, Iso, counter, counter and power. QB power was much more important last year, particularly in the red zone, but Devito is more of an ancillary running threat.

The Orange pair these mostly inside oriented runs with RPO schemes designed to stress a defense horizontally and vertically. Take this play against Liberty, where both tight ends and receivers clear space for an inside zone give.

The wide splits of Orange receivers, combined with frequent run action passes, leave defenders in uncomfortable alignments without many teammates to help them. While hammering the ball between the tackles isn’t the best way to set up explosive runs, it’s a big piece of the passing games explosiveness.

It’s possible that Syracuse is pretty good at running the ball, but it’s also likely that it’s of limited value for this game. The Orange were forced to abandon the run against Maryland when they got behind by several scores early in the first half. That seems like a strong possibility again this week, with Babers saying, “They are so good on offense now that you have a limited time in the game to get them” and if you don’t keep pace with that offense, the game is over”.

The Syracuse passing game focuses heavily on deep shots or the quick passing game. That is to say, they specialize in ways to punish defenses that load the box against the run. In the quick game, the Orange are able to frustrate defenses with simple concepts such as slants, bubble screens and hitch routes because the extreme splits of receivers make it pretty hard to disguise what you’re doing on defense. RB Moe Neal has almost matched his receiving production from last year already, mostly on underneath throws after receivers run defensive backs off.

The vertical passing game is built to punish defenses that bring too many defenders towards the line of scrimmage to stop the runs inside and quick throws outside. Receivers are given quite a bit of freedom on their routes, when it works it’s extremely difficult to stop consistently. Take this concept Syracuse is fond of, where three receivers work to get open vertically, while a fourth receiver tries to outrun an inside defender underneath.

When Devito has had the pass protection, he’s shown himself to be capable of making every throw. Receivers Trishton Jackson, Taj Harris and Sean Riley have all shown potential. Maybe this is the year Nykeim Johnson puts it all together. There’s reason to believe that this could be a much improved offense in a month.

Syracuse is going to have a long day if forced to play one-dimensionally this Saturday. Babers’ system is designed pretty holistically. If one part gets shut down, the whole comes to a halt. Clemson has had success with three down looks and dime against Syracuse before, and we could easily see the three safety look from last week (and Iowa State, probably) again if Syracuse surrenders an early lead.

The Orange offensive line has struggled all season. Forget Maryland, Liberty was able to generate pressure rushing four. While Babers has been willing to keep backs and tight ends in to pass protect, it hasn’t always been enough. Devito is capable of scrambling a bit but his throwing on the run has been shambolic. Through two games Syracuse has five turnovers.

There isn’t much reason to pick the Orange. SP+, which has never been high on Syracuse, gives them just a 9% to win this Saturday, and if the Orange knock our starting QB out for the third year in a row, we riot. I still have a bad feeling about this, something about a college football weekend with no big games just seems rife for upsets, but the Tigers should roll to an easy victory.