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The Syracuse Offensive Preview: Things Fall Apart and Tend To Shatter

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From Dino to Dinosaur

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 Wake Forest at Syracuse Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

People had high hopes for the Dino Babers offense in Syracuse. I was one of them. It all fell apart last season and hasn’t recovered in 2021. This team looks little like the fast-paced, power-running, downfield passing offense Babers was supposed to deliver.

The typically fast-paced Orangemen are only ranked 68th in plays per game, sliding below seventy plays per game from their average of 80+ to start Babers’ tenure. Traditionally aggressive, Babers (described as going “for the throat” as a play-caller a few years ago) has attempted a total of five fourth downs this year. The team has converted two, leaving Syracuse ranking in the hundreds in both stats. In addition to being bad overall, this offense is not good in the red zone, resulting in a team that struggles to score the ball consistently.

The running game has been as advertised this year, particularly with Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader (#16) under center, but the passing game has fallen off of a cliff. Shrader also has an absurd hair and beard combination that we have to take a second to acknowledge.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Music City Bowl - Mississippi State v Louisville
We are playing against either a viking or an overgrown garden gnome.
Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A regulation football field is one hundred and twenty yards long. Syracuse is throwing for one hundred and thirty-four yards per game. This is a complete inversion of how Babers teams have played before Syracuse.

To put this in starker terms: the Orangemen run fewer plays per game than Army and throw the ball for fewer yards per game than Clemson. Dino tried to bring a Texas high-school offense to Syracuse and wound up coaching like Jim Harbaugh. Honestly, Harbaugh goes for it on fourth down more.

This is a broken offense under a coach who came in preaching that he was going to bring Syracuse’s offense into the future. Aside from a ten-win season which fades ever deeper into the rearview mirror, it’s year six and Babers has yet to finish above .500. On one hand, Syracuse being able to win by running the ball and leaning on defense is a sign of a coaching staff figuring out ways to win when plan A doesn’t work. On the other hand, having to rely on winning games like that can be seen as evidence that this program lacks an identity.

The typical Babers offense doesn’t consist of that many plays; it’s condensed enough to be taught without a physical playbook. The offense is focused on running the ball inside using schemes such as inside zone, iso, and power, then spreads the ball around using a mix of deep shots, screen passes, and (unlike most other branches of this offense) some air raid concepts.

Babers has begun to mix in outside zone runs over the years and will occasionally go under center, but this is still pretty close to a Briles Baylor offense outside of having “mesh” in the playbook.

How did quarterback Garrett Shrader (the new starter after an injury to Tommy Devito) feel about the offense after scoring thirty points on a dismal Seminoles defense?

“Just spread things out and let us make plays…That’s the biggest thing. When you condense the offense and try to run basic stuff, like in the first quarter you see it – that basic stuff – they kind of shut us down. But as soon as we started spreading things and making some plays, it allowed different people to touch the ball. Different run schemes. All of that stuff. We saw what this offense has the potential to be.”

Shrader is right that Syracuse has expanded the run game from what we’ve seen in years past and it is paying off. Plays such as wham (where a tight end or fullback essentially “trap” blocks a defensive tackle), counter-trey and outside zone do not ask the Oranges’ offensive line to blow players off the line of scrimmage like some of Babers’ base runs.

Syracuse’s offensive line cannot really blow guys off the line of scrimmage at the best of times, but they’re good at blocking on the run and can get up to the second level to open holes for talented RB Sean Tucker (#34).

This translates to a Syracuse running game that struggles with giving up tackles for loss, never a good thing against this Tigers front, but generates explosive plays if they get back to the line of scrimmage.

It’s an odd thing to be a run-first team that’s not good in the red zone or on third down, but Babers has pulled it off in upstate New York. Shrader just is not an accurate enough passer to fit the ball into tight windows when the field shrinks and Syracuse is not a good enough power running team to hammer the ball in for touchdowns. Syracuse is completing wide-open passes off of run-action and little else in the passing game right now.

The lack of a consistent running game leaves the Orange, and Shrader and the offensive line in particular, exposed on third and long. Shrader is a strong runner on direct snaps, scrambling, or in the option game.

When Shrader’s got a clean pocket and set up with play-action he has the arm strength to push the ball downfield. The man is incredibly dangerous on bootlegs, but when he’s put in third and long and asked to drop back, Shrader looks like a running back asked to play QB. I’ve never seen him tasked with making a third read when he passes, and it’s rare to even see a second.

Syracuse’s offensive line was one of the worst in the country last year and while things have improved somewhat, pass protection is still a major weakness. Venables is aggressively minded and Syracuse does not have the downfield passing game to punish teams for sending pressure.

Shrader has some weapons to throw the ball to. Tucker is a great receiver out of the backfield, Taj Harris (#3) has been productive for years and freshman (#85) Courtney Jackson is coming on strong as a playmaker in space.

Here, Syracuse runs an interesting play where Tucker and the offensive line fake that they are going to run full slide protection before Tucker leaks underneath while the end chases Shrader upfield. It’s a screen but the only player to release to block downfield is the tackle (#52) to Tucker’s side.

Full slide protection
https://ftw.usatoday.com/2020/08/getting-home-blitzing-nfl-baltimore-ravens-wink-martindale

Babers has creative passing plays in the playbook, it’s just that Shrader is incapable of passing consistently without some sort of run action built in, and the offensive line doesn’t help anyone.

Shrader does not anticipate receivers coming open well and looks to run early if he doesn’t see anyone open. This approach leads to few turnovers but also a lot of plays that end in scrambles to nowhere.

I would expect Venables to keep a spy on Shrader pretty much the entire game. If you can force Shrader into passing the ball consistently this offense will short circuit. It’s a sad state of affairs for a coach who came in promising a guns blazing offense, but we’re six years into the Babers tenure and Syracuse looks more unmoored on offense than ever.