Syracuse still needs to establish running game

At the ACC’s recent spring meetings held on a barrier island off the coast of Florida, coach Doug Marrone told ESPN blogger Andrea Adelson that he hopes the Orange will “open it up,” on offense.

To be sure, it’s an exciting thing to hear, or at least, it’s an exciting sentiment to get behind. But big, flashy plays don’t win football games alone.

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good play-action pass to a tight-end down the seam unexpectedly on first-and-ten, but it also induces some nail-biting. An offense can’t subsist solely on a diet of exciting-yet-risky plays. It’s akin to mass consumption of Ring-Dings: so beautiful and delicious at first yet liable to bite you hard in the ass further down the road.

What I’m saying is, the Orange needs to run the football, and run the football well in order to first clear the path to “opening it up.” Before the razzle-dazzle of downfield theatrics transpires, there must come something else and that is a solid, established and feared run-game.

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A good running game brings defenses closer to the line and with those corners creeping up, it’d give the Cuse receiving corps a free-pass to sprint freely down the sidelines. But that run game must come first.

There is, as we know, one problem. The current backfield Coach Marrone has access to have combined for just 345 yards on 85 carries with Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley carrying 86% of that load.

It’s not that the backfield is altogether anemic, rather, it’s that these backs are largely untested. While it was clear last season that there was no one who could hold a candle to Antwon Bailey, it’s still a shame that Gulley and Smith weren’t given more than a few opportunities to get the crucial, in-game experience needed to morph into marquee tailbacks.

Both Gulley and Smith have shown flashes but as Juniors, their time is running short to prove their mettle. Surely the largely failed 15-freshmen-forgoing-redshirts experiment of 2010 didn’t help—Smith endured a season-ending shoulder injury two games in and Gulley, while impressive on kick returns, played second fiddle to the almighty Bailey.

And so, the hope is twofold: one, that Marrone pounds into both back’s heads just how important they are to this team and two, that at least one of the Juniors breaks out and becomes the reliable, go-to guy on third-and-short.

» What do you think of SU’s running game?

Troy Nunes and R.J. Anderson were able to, miraculously, pull off a ten-win season in 2001. How? Consistency from James Mungro, Anderson, and a bit of Walter Reyes on the ground. Compare that to the woeful Perry Patterson-led offense of 2004, with a backfield consisting of an injury-plagued Reyes and an inconsistent Damien Rhodes, the Orange produced a lukewarm regular season, finishing with a thrashing in the Champ’s Sports Bowl, the game that ultimately did Paul Paqualoni in.

Ryan Nassib is far more adept in his role than Nunes, Anderson or Patterson ever were. He’ll be able to distribute the ball just fine, but he won’t win games without some legs behind him.

Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett need to get the ball in Gulley and Smith’s hands early and often, to give the backs the confidence they’ll need to aid the Orange in producing long, sustained drives down the field. Once that happens, Marrone can “open it up” all he’d like.

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