Orange Watch: Better execution, continued talent upgrade needed for Syracuse football

Item: Okay, we’ll bring a classic out of the closet. When asked by the media about his team’s execution in the early years of the franchise, including a winless 1976 debut season and few other victories, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach John McKay, famous for his quips dating back to his great Southern California college days, replied famously, “I’m all for it.”

Following a game effort against a better opponent in last weekend’s 31-15 setback to now-No. 8/9 Notre Dame in the program-branding boosting, big time live atmosphere of MetLife Stadium, and the national TV spotlight of the ABC primetime broadcast, there was a common theme among the Orange players over the frustration of not being able to take advantage of the opportunities that presented themselves during the evening in the bid to upset a Top Ten team.

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Durell Eskridge’s int. return for a TD was one of the few bright spots in the loss to Notre Dame

“Notre Dame was really disciplined in what they were doing,” said running back Prince-Tyson Gulley after the loss dropped SU to 2-2, and who’s so far averaging 70 yards a game rushing in his final year of eligibility. “After these first four games I know that we can compete with anybody, I will tell you that. We just have to execute what we are doing.”

Ah, the dreaded “E” word. The need for better execution, along with less unforced errors and mental mistakes, inopportune penalties (averaging eight a game), and missed points in the kicking game (six of 10 field goals) would sum up the postgame atmosphere after both September defeats.

With a ‘Cuse defense that has been respectable so far by forcing seven turnovers, but has been plagued by a speedy opponent’s short, underneath passing game, the offense is simply not scoring enough points yet against quality competition.

“The defense did a great job – they gave us the ball,” Terrel Hunt said after finishing with 320 yards of total offense in the defeat to the Irish. “The offense fell short a couple of times. I put that on myself, and (I’ll) just go back to the drawing board and get better next week.”

» Related: Ryan Nassib compliments Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer

There’s not a lot of time to do that with the quicker turnaround to Friday night’s start of a second season of ACC play against new, old foe Louisville (7:00 p.m. ET / ESPN), the Cardinals (4-1, 2-1) already with three league games under their belt. It also begins a six week blitz of “must-wins” against tough conference competition, including both of last season’s division winners, to help get the four more victories needed for bowl eligibility.

On hand watching at MetLife last weekend (not to mention those tuning in) were a number of New York metropolitan area recruits, both Syracuse verbal commits and other highly regarded prospects, the life blood of the Scott Shafer era moving forward. At this summer’s ACC Football kickoff event the two SU players on hand, LB Cam Lynch and OT Sean Hickey, marveled at the increased talent level that was arriving on campus, both unanimously saying it was the best they had seen in their five years with the program.

With reportedly 21 players already identified, pursued, and verbally lined up for February’s national letter-of-intent day, that’s continued good news on the future talent front, but it doesn’t help in the middle of a season.

After falling to Notre Dame, and in what could also serve as a recruiting diatribe to impressionable prospects, Coach Shafer was philosophic in lamenting his eighth loss in 17 games as Orange boss amidst the ongoing building project of finding rising recruits that fit in his “hard-nosed football” Syracuse program.

“The only thing I want to make sure that we understand looking at this is that we’re going to fight our butts off coming back, and we’re going to be the most unselfish team in the country, Shafer said passionately this past weekend. “Things are going to sway back and forth throughout the course of the season and we’ve got to keep fighting and not mistaking effort for results.”

With Shafer setting the bar at eight victories way back in April, the Orange have to go a minimum of 5-3 the rest of the way, and gun for an eighth win in a bowl game to achieve the head coach’s springtime proclamation.

That accomplishment would make quite an impression on the recruiting trail.

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Brad Bierman

About Brad Bierman

Now in his fifth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.
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