If there is something most Syracuse football fans have grown weary of this season, it is the team’s offense. Or lack of offense. Or making puns revolving around the word “offensive” when SU has the ball.
In 21 games under head coach Scott Shafer, the Orange football team has had, in order, an offensive coordinator, an offensive coordinator with the quarterback coach next to him in the booth to assist while calling plays, the original offensive coordinator again, and said quarterback coach taking over the offensive coordinator spot. This multitude of moves has not resulted in any definitive improvement (and 21 games is a small sample size, like pretty much anything is in football), but that may suggest a different culprit that has ailed the SU football program for a long time.
While both the recruiting rankings and the on-field results suggest an improvement in the talent level at Syracuse over the last half-decade, there still is a lack of elite playmakers on the Orange roster.
When most people talk about “elite playmakers” in football, they’re talking about running backs and wide receivers with breakaway speed, the kind that turns a toss sweep from a routine gain of three into turning the corner for a 50-yard streak down the sideline or transforms a quick slant from a five-yard pick-up to a slipped tackle and an 80-yard touchdown sprint.
In SU’s case, though, a good starting point would be skill position players turning three yards into seven or six yards into nine. And that’s where A.J. Long and Tim Lester come in.
No, the true freshman quarterback is not going to be an elusive scrambler who electrifies the Carrier Dome with lengthy scrambles or an aerial long-ball assault. And Lester, the recently promoted offensive coordinator, does not want to sling the ball all over the field.
Rather, Long is an efficient passer who hits receivers in stride so they can seamlessly catch and tuck away the ball, enabling them to pick up extra yards. Lester simply understands the passing game, having thrown for over 11,000 yards and 87 touchdowns at Western Michigan, then spending seven years as an offensive coordinator before his promotion with SU.
This combination will help overcome the raw talent shortcomings the Orange often deal with.
Last year, Lester moved to the booth to help with playcalling for the team’s last five contests. In that stretch, four ACC contests and the Texas Bowl against Minnesota, Terrel Hunt connected 91-of-142 passes, good for a 64.1 percent completion rate. In seven other 2013 appearances, Hunt was 76-of-131, a 58 percent success rate.
However, when you limit his stats to games against “Power 5” opponents in that seven-game span, Hunt’s stats last season look even worse. He connected on 45-of-92 passes in that time.
Of course, it is to be expected that Hunt improved over the course of the season as he gained experience and became more comfortable on the field. So, naturally, Hunt’s completion rate should have picked up as the season went on.
But, this season, Hunt completed 83-of-145 passes for a 57.2 percent success rate. And of that mark, against “Power 5” competition this year, the accuracy drops again, this time to 53-of-98, a 54.1 percent completion mark.
The raw numbers also do not account for passes that are completed, but the receiver has to slow down, stop, leap up, reach down, and so on.
Long’s accuracy in his three appearances against conference foes is 58.1 percent, which is higher than Hunt’s mark against all opponents. It also enables receivers to catch passes in stride and make bigger gains.
While struggling through his worst performance at Clemson, Long still showed a hint of what he can do. Without great arm strength, Long zipped a slant pass on the money to Ashton Broyld, who converted it into a 23-yard gain, the longest gain of a frustrating offensive performance.
One result of that accuracy is that it aids an offense lacking top-end playmakers to overcome offensive mistakes. During the 21 games under Shafer, Syracuse has scored on a grand total of 31 drives where the offense either lost two or more yards on a play or committed an offensive penalty.
Even more embarrassing is that nine of those 31 scores came in two matchups with FCS opponents – Wagner last season and Villanova this year. That means that in 19 games against other FBS teams, the Orange have mustered 22 scores on drives where they have had a bad offensive play or committed a penalty.
The good news for SU, though, is that in the three games where Long has been taking snaps, they have scored nine times on drives with a loss of two or more yards or an offensive penalty. All four scoring drives against Florida State had either a loss of two or more yards or offensive penalty. All four offensive scores the Orange mustered against Wake Forest? Same thing.
Is Long the answer to everything that ails the Syracuse offense? No. Austin Wilson could have cashed in a drive with both a loss of yards and a penalty against the Seminoles, but could not convert a fourth-and-goal. Despite the numbers listed above, the offensive numbers under Hunt look worse due to an erratic kicking game.
Long has also shown some inexperience, throwing a foolish interception against Florida State and eating the ball four times against Clemson when he cited the need to get rid of the ball quickly leading up to the game.
The change in offensive coordinator from George McDonald to Tim Lester undoubtedly has some effect on the Orange offense on the whole. But, would McDonald use Long the same way if he was still calling plays? Would Lester call the same plays with Hunt taking snaps?
For now, though, the combination of Long and Lester is getting the most out of the team’s offense. And with the four remaining teams on the Orange schedule posting a combined record of 8-10 against “Power 5” foes, (and two of those wins coming in head-to-head matchups where one team had to win), maybe that will be enough to get Syracuse back to a bowl game.