Scott Shafer and the Syracuse Orange, who have yet to take the field at the Carrier Dome, let alone play their first ACC conference game, find themselves squarely at a crossroads.
Sitting at 0-2 on the young season, and fresh off a disastrous 48-27 road loss to the Northwestern Wildcats, Syracuse welcomes FCS opponent Wagner to the Dome on Saturday afternoon. The Syracuse defense, which performed very well in a 23-17 loss to Penn State, was shredded by Northwestern’s two-headed quarterback tandem of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. The two were a combined 30-of-37 for 375 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. Starting Orange quarterback Drew Allen has been a disappointment so far with six interceptions compared to one touchdown pass, a 16-yard connection with Kendall Moore in the third quarter against Northwestern.
Before fans start screaming that the sky is falling, it’s important to put Syracuse’s schedule into perspective. The Orange opened against two Big Ten opponents. The Penn State game was played at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. Penn State started a very highly recruited freshman quarterback in Christian Hackenberg and has playmakers in wide receiver Allen Robinson and blue-chip freshman recruit Eugene Lewis. Both of them hauled in touchdown passes in excess of 50 yards in the victory over SU.
The trip to Northwestern was the home opener for the Wildcats, who returned most of an offense that lit up Syracuse last year in the Carrier Dome. Besides the air assault unleashed by Colter and Kain last Saturday, Tony Jones caught nine balls for 185 yards including a 47-yard touchdown. Colter also led the Wildcats in rushing with 87 yards on only 11 carries while scoring a touchdown. Northwestern won 10 games last year and is a notch below Michigan and Ohio State this year for conference supremacy. Defeating the Wildcats on the road was going to be a tall order even if Syracuse had last season’s powerful offense.
Compare the strength of Syracuse’s first two opponents with the top three teams in the ACC. After defeating Pittsburgh on the road to open the season, Florida State had a bye last weekend. The Seminoles’ next two games are both at home against Nevada and Bethune-Cookman. The Clemson Tigers scored a very tough win at home against No. 5 Georgia to open the season before destroying South Carolina State, 52-13, in Death Valley. And the Miami Hurricanes sandwiched a hard-fought home win against the Florida Gators in between an opening victory over Florida Atlantic and a visit from Savannah State this weekend.
After the visit from Wagner, Syracuse hosts Tulane next weekend. So while the Orange square off against an FCS squad and a non-AQ school in the span of eight days before jumping into the deep end of the ACC pool when Clemson pays a visit, there’s something to be said for coming out of the gate against the meat of your non-conference slate. That aside, the Orange has a lot of work to do before conference play begins. The next two games offer Syracuse a chance to plug some holes on offense and defense.
What happened to Syracuse’s rushing attack? Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley ran rough shod over West Virginia in last year’s Pinstripe Bowl victory to the tune of 365 yards on 55 carries with two touchdowns (both by Gulley). Through two games this season, the pair has a total of 174 yards and four touchdowns, three by Smith. The Orange’s running back cupboard is even deeper with the addition of freshmen Devante McFarlane and George Morris II. Shafer needs to find a way to get the ground game back in gear.
Stop the big plays
Shafer’s defense needs to start making the other teams earn it by grinding out drives instead of scoring on quick strike plays. Syracuse has given up eight touchdowns so far. None of those have come via special teams or turnovers converted by the opponents’ defense. Of those eight scores, six have been on plays longer than 16 yards. Four of the six have come on pass plays of 20, 47, 51 and 54 yards. Syracuse has scored six touchdowns this season. Five of them have been runs. The longest of which was 15 yards by back-up quarterback Terrell Hunt in the fourth quarter of the Northwestern game against the second and third team defenders.
About those big plays
When former coach Doug Marrone arrived on campus, speedy playmakers were non-existent on the roster. After several years of improved recruiting, Syracuse finally has some guys who can run. That doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if those players don’t get to touch the ball, and, most importantly, from positions they can make game-changing plays. The offense needs to involve Ashton Broyld, Jeremiah Kobena, transfer (and MIA) receiver Quinta Funderburk, McFarlane, Morris and speed demon frosh Brisly Estime more than it has. A couple of long plays from a few of them will give opposing defenses something to think about while opening up the running game for Smith and Gulley.
Syracuse coaches said this week that Hunt will definitely play some against Wagner, though Allen remains the starter. In limited duty against Northwestern, Hunt completed two of his four pass attempts for 22 yards, both to Funderburk. Hunt also possesses the ability to scramble as highlighted by his touchdown run. Hunt was supposedly in the lead for the QB position coming out of spring practice, though Allen had yet to arrive on campus. If Allen continues to struggle, Shafer won’t have a choice but to hand the keys to the car to Hunt.Steve Auger (Follow on Twitter @Corner_Cube)