Yes, that was me. I was the one who said “eight wins” for Syracuse during the regular season.
And, even after how the Orange were lucky to escape their opener a couple weeks ago with an unlikely double overtime win against lower-division opponent Villanova, and the first of the two overtime sessions was forced by the Wildcats missing a short field goal in the waning seconds of regulation, I am sticking with this prediction.
I mean, hey, Villanova was one of those eight wins, anyway.
But, seriously, here is why.
During Scott Shafer’s five years at SU, the Orange have employed a high-risk, high-reward defense. Shafer wants playmakers and thrusts them into his ultra-aggressive scheme, looking to apply pressure and make impact plays. Pocket passers who lack mobility are more likely to get roughed up by the Orange defense.
Two of the top quarterbacks that the Orange had success against under Shafer, Geno Smith of West Virignia and Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville, were pocket passers. Smith ran for 342 yards in his college career, Bridgewater just under half of that.
Against the Orange, though, these high NFL draft picks were human, at best. Smith lost all three of his starts against SU, and his Mountaineers averaged a mere 17 points per game in those contests.
Shafer’s defense keyed a 45-26 rout of Bridgewater’s Cardinals in 2012, evening their mark against the future first-rounder at 1-1. Bridgewater threw three touchdown passes in the game, but two of them came in garbage tie with the Cards trailing by at least 25 points.
In turn, athletic quarterbacks who can keep plays alive or simply run have always been a thorn in SU’s side, even if they lacked the ability to go pro.
B.J. Daniels of South Florida created lots of problems for the Orange, logging two 100-yard rushing games against SU, including shredding them in a nightmarish homecoming game in 2011. Daniels rolled up 117 yards on the ground and 254 through the air in leading the Bulls to a rout of the Orange. In the 2012 shootout where Syracuse erased a 20-point deficit pulled out by scoring a touchdown with three seconds remaining, Daniels raced for 134 yards on 12 carries.
Villanova’s John Robertson fits the Daniels profile as an all-purpose quarterback who racked up 115 yards on the ground and another 199 through the air against the Orange. Syracuse’s aggressive defense was burned time and again as Robertson kept plays alive or scampered for gains.
While there will undoubtedly be other speedy quarterbacks coming on the SU schedule, Robertson’s success should not be that surprising, but, more importantly, should not be a warning sign for the rest of the campaign. And don’t let Villanova’s status as an FCS program fool you regarding Robertson’s abilities. Those other quarterbacks will not all be as skilled or experienced as the Wildcats’ signal-caller, who won the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS two years ago and amassed 61 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
While many believe the Orange should have won simply by being the more talented team, they faced some difficult circumstances against Villanova. The Syracuse offensive line entered the season opener without guards Nick Robinson and Omari Palmer. As a result, reserve tackle Michael Lasker was pushed into action out of position. Add this to John Miller getting his first start at center and it is easier to understand why the SU offensive line, which was expected to be a team strength heading into the season based on being comprised by four returning starters, had choppy results.
Both Robinson and Palmer have been practicing this week and are expected to be available against Central Michigan. Simply put, the offensive line should be a lot better.
In addition, the offense will not often face a team running the 3-3 defense that the Wildcats employed. A lack of familiarity with an opponent’s scheme (say, last year’s SU matchup with Georgia Tech’s unique triple option offense) can make things difficult.
SU averaged four yards per run against the Wildcats and that figure was propped up by Prince-Tyson Gulley’s 65-yard scoring burst and a 21-yard scramble by Terrel Hunt. Without those big plays, the Syracuse ground effort was punchless, collecting 50 yards on 32 tries. Better line play and seeing familiar defensive alignments will make things easier for the Orange ground attack.
Oh, there’s one other reason the SU run game should be improved – Terrel Hunt should be around for a full game to participate in it.
The odds of Hunt getting tossed from a game and replaced with a quarterback who had never taken a live snap in a college again are pretty slim, and not just because Austin Wilson has now experienced game action. Hunt has vowed to not lose his cool again and should be expected to live up to his word.
With Hunt taking the snaps, Syracuse picked up 183 yards on 28 plays, good for 6.5 yards per play. After Hunt was ejected, the Orange offense under Austin Wilson gained 136 yards in 39 plays, a mere 3.5 yards per snap.
Crude math would suggest 39 plays at the offense’s average under Hunt would translate to 254 yards, an increase of 118 yards over the team’s actual production and bringing the theoretical total for the game to 437 yards.
Making the offense look even worse for Wilson is that the offense gained 19 yards in the final 25 minutes of regulation, ten coming on a Gulley handoff on the final play of the fourth quarter. Some will point to the fact that Villanova’s sustained offense kept the ball out of the hands of the Orange late in the game, but if Syracuse had been able to move the ball and score under Wilson, the ‘Cats would have needed to run a different, more aggressive offense.
While Wilson was undoubtedly in a difficult spot, the team’s results were reminiscent of last year’s offensive struggles. Those difficulties were in large part due to inexperience at quarterback, whether it was Hunt or Drew Allen taking snaps. No Orange fan wants to go through that again this year, especially after witnessing it again in the opener.
Hunt’s experience in the offense also showed by his converting 2-of-5 third down opportunities, including tries of nine and ten yards. Wilson was successful on 3-of-9 attempts on third. Two of those conversions came on the scoring drive he engineered to open the third quarter, but after converting his initial third down on the following possession, he failed to do so the rest of the game. The last two of those failures came in “goal-to-go” situations in overtime from five and one yard, respectively. Hunt’s familiarity with the Orange offense should lead to more successes in these situations, which will lead to more sustained drives and more scores.
THE SENSE OF URGENCY:
As soon as the Syracuse football schedule was unveiled, there were complaints about how the first of the team’s two bye weeks fell after the opening game. With the Villanova game unfolding as it did and a couple injuries for SU players to overcome, it arrives at a good time.
The Orange have undoubtedly heard repeatedly about their poor performance against the Wildcats over the last two weeks. Film sessions have dissected the team’s shortcomings and strategies implemented to counteract those problems.
Most importantly, though, Syracuse now understands that they have to play their best every time out. After such a graphic example of what happens when they are not at their best, there is no doubt the Orange are aware of their situation. While they did escape with a win in their opener, they know they were fortunate to do so and simply need to be better to avoid close calls like that again.