Trending upward, Syracuse’s defense can grow even more

DefenseswarmUNC
Syracuse's defense stops North Carolina in the first half. Mandatory Photo Credit: Kicia Sears, The Juice Online.

This season, Syracuse got to 9-3 by putting up some gaudy offensive statistics. They stand 12th in the nation with 40.8 points per game and 17th nationally in yards per game. The Orange ran the second-most plays in the nation, finished in the top 35 in the country in both passing yards and rushing yards per game, and also tied for ninth in the country in rushing touchdowns.

All in all, those are pretty fantastic numbers across the board from that calling card of Dino Babers – offense.

The special teams units were pretty stellar, too. Kicker Andre Szmyt and punter Sterling Hofrichter were both named to the All-ACC First Team. Szmyt may yet be named First Team All-American as a freshman after leading the nation in both field goals and points while finishing 7th in field goal percentage on nearly twice as many attempts as any player with a better success rate. The Orange were also eighth in the nation in punt return average.

But, what about the defense? That unit looks pedestrian or worse by a lot of statistical measurements:

  • 73rd in points allowed per game
  • 90th in yards allowed per game
  • 72nd in yards allowed per play
  • 65th in rushing yards allowed per game
  • 67th in rushing yards allowed per attempt
  • 112th in passing yards allowed per game

By those stats, it looks like the Syracuse defense got dragged to that gaudy record by the other two units on the team.

But, maybe there is more info elsewhere, such as in third down conversions allowed, as SU finished the year sixth in the nation, allowing their opponents to convert only 28.1 percent of their third downs. The team also finished 19th nationally in red zone defense.

The Orange defense finished eighth in the nation with 38 sacks as a team, led by Alton Robinson’s ten, which was good enough for him to tie for ninth nationally. That pass rush certainly had an effect on opposing quarterbacks, forcing rushed throws that turned into interceptions or getting there before the throw and stripping the ball.

» Related: Current coaching vacancies unlikely to lure Dino Babers from Syracuse

Oh yes, turnovers.

Syracuse tied for the top spot in the nation by forcing 30 turnovers. SU tied for third in fumble recoveries and fifth in interceptions. Ten different players had at least one fumble recovery (including a couple on special teams) and seven different players picked off at least one pass, led by freshman Andre Cisco’s seven.

So, while the Orange defense may not have been world beaters overall, they certainly contributed with big plays. How big were those plays?

On the 35 possessions during which the Syracuse defense got a sack, the opponent was able to score only six times and ending up punting 24 times. The turnover stats were even more impressive.

The average starting field position for SU after the defense forced a turnover was the opponents’ 38-yard line. In fact, 24 of the 30 turnovers forced were on the opponents’ side of midfield (three of the remaining six came in the SU end zone for touchbacks). On 19 different occasions, the Orange started a drive with 36 or fewer yards to the end zone following a turnover and scored on every one until the last one of the season when they downed out the clock at Boston College.

The Syracuse offense turned those 30 turnovers into 21 scores totaling 115 points, scoring off a turnover in ten of 12 games. They averaged 9.6 points per game scored immediately after a turnover, or nearly one-fourth of their points on the season.

Maybe it’s the makeup of defensive coordinator Brian Ward’s scheme. The SU defense gets the ball back by forcing a punt after a sack or, even better, forcing a turnover. Then, their offensive mates add on a score. Eventually, the offense puts the opponent in a hole and they are forced to pass more to play catch-up, leading to an increased possibility of more sacks or turnovers.

That leads to this question: What if this season’s performance is a baseline of what Ward aims to do – be pretty successful in terms of yards and points allowed, but focus on making impact plays that get the ball back for the offense?

To follow up that question, what if this season’s nine (and maybe ten) wins leads to a higher caliber of talent coming to Syracuse? And what if that defense becomes a little better at following this formula, getting a little stingier in general while still making impact plays?

If you’re not sure about Babers and his staff being able to draw in a higher caliber of playmaking talent, here are some of the defensive players they have already been brought in and the plays they made this season:

  • Alton Robinson (junior college transfer) – 17 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, three fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles
  • Kendall Coleman – nine tackles for loss, seven sacks
  • Kingsley Jonathan – five sacks
  • Ryan Guthrie (junior college transfer) – 101 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries
  • Andrew Armstrong – two fumble recoveries
  • Andre Cisco – seven interceptions, nine passes broken up
  • Evan Foster – 78 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, four passes broken up
  • Ifeatu Melifonwu – six passes broken up
  • Trill Williams – two passes broken up, blocked punt return for a touchdown

Of all those players, only Guthrie will finish his eligibility in Syracuse’s bowl game.

Maybe we are yet to see the ceiling of what the Syracuse football program can be under Dino Babers.

On defense.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 521 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.