It has been a pretty nightmarish season for Syracuse. The Orange stand at 3-4 overall and are winless not just in conference play, but against Power 5 competition.
The offensive line resembles a sieve at times, leading to Tommy DeVito getting banged around and eventually lifted in Friday night’s game against Pitt while simultaneously making a conventional running game nearly a memory.
Their defensive mates simply cannot hold up against all the weight put on their shoulders. While the unit has performed admirably in the last two weeks, they simply cannot be held responsible to do almost everything needed for the team to win.
With only five games left, the season looks lost and as the leaves continue to fall, the SU coaching staff will have to plot out a new plan. But, what tough lessons can be taken from this exceptionally tough season as it winds down?
There is no help on the way for the offensive line.
It is apparent that, while Dino Babers said after the loss to the Panthers that no one’s job is safe, the coaching staff believes that the quintet they have been employing after Sam Heckel’s injury in the season opener is the best grouping they have. After all, college players cannot be fired, but their coaches do not enjoy the same luxury.
If the season maintains its current direction, the future may end up being on display after SU has its second bye week. The Orange have no game the second week of November and three games after that. Syracuse could use that off week and the recently-changed redshirt rule that allows players to take a redshirt year and still play in four games as an opportunity to see what some of the young guys can do.
Players who have seen either no or minimal action thus far could get two weeks to prepare to get ready for a couple looks late in the year, giving them a chance to experience game action while preserving a full season of eligibility. This is not to say the Orange will roll out a starting lineup with new faces, but a couple guys who have struggled could give way to young reserves for a couple drives in a couple contests.
Clayton Welch is not the answer at quarterback.
This is not to speak ill of the redshirt senior who led the struggling SU offense to a pair of scores after relieving DeVito, but more to rein in expectations on the backup quarterback. Welch connected on just 8-of-20 passes Friday night with multiple incompletions either skipping well short of their targets or forcing diving efforts from receivers just wanting a chance at a catch.
Welch’s ability to run created issues for the Panthers, who were unprepared to see the Syracuse backup, but the offense was still choppy, at best. The drive where Andre Szmyt missed a field goal covered 55 yards, but the team needed three pass interference calls totaling 45 yards to move that far. The late touchdown drive started with a 40-yard grab by Trishton Jackson and had a sack on third-and-13 wiped out by a defensive holding flag. Just about everything else on that possession was a struggle.
Welch’s presence opened up some different parts of the Syracuse playbook, but a lot was more gimmick than offensive staple. Here’s the handoff count after Welch entered the fray: Abdul Adams – 1, Aaron Hackett – 1, Nykeim Johnson – 1, Moe Neal – 2, Sean Riley – 2. That’s three handoffs to running backs and four to wide receivers and a tight end, which does not bode well for long-term success.
With his work now on tape, Florida State and other future opponents will be well-prepared for Welch, expecting to play the run, regardless of who actually carries the ball. SU would likely have to rely even more on misdirection in those situations to create running lanes for whoever ends up with the ball.
McKinley Williams seems destined for a medical redshirt.
Williams is yet to play this season and, with only five games left on the schedule, seems like a lock to sit out the Florida State game and keep a medical redshirt a possibility. Williams has been missed on the defensive interior, allowing opponents to focus on limiting Kendall Coleman and Alton Robinson. The two defensive ends, who each had ten sacks last season, have combined for five this year as foes have been allowed to focus on stopping the SU pass rush.
With Andre Cisco and Ifeatu Melifonwu returning Friday night to both play in their fourth game of the season, redshirting is off the table for them, barring a season-ending injury in practice this week.
The young linebackers Babers wanted to get on the field to build depth are absent.
Mikel Jones and Juan Wallace saw a considerable amount of action early in the season, but as the season has moved on, Andrew Armstrong and Lakiem Williams have spent more even time on the field. This is not to short the starting linebackers, who double as the team’s leading tacklers, but Babers’ intentions to simultaneously compete this season and build for the future have been put aside.
Neither Jones nor Wallace logged a tackle in the last two games and, while Jones has 15 stops on the season, 13 of them have come in SU’s three wins against lower-level competition. Four of Wallace’s five tackles came against Holy Cross.
In fact, should the team continue its slide, look for fresh faces on the defense, as well. It is possible the season will reach a point where the coaches will look to exploit the new redshirt rule on defense, as well, and get some young players some more game action to regroup for the 2020 season.