Saturday’s 37-20 win over Georgia Tech was a lot of things for the Syracuse football team. It was a relief just to get in the win column, a chance at redemption for the offense, an opportunity for the defense to face an athletic quarterback who presented a challenge on the ground that the new 3-3-5 alignment had not previously seen, and a showcase for the team’s playmaking defensive backs. The win was good, but how good?
1. The passing offense was better, but…
Much maligned after last week’s struggle against Pitt where he was benched, Tommy DeVito bounced back with a pretty good performance against the Yellow Jackets. The highlights, of course, were nearly identical touchdown passes to Taj Harris and Nykeim Johnson streaking down the numbers on the right side. Harris was able to maintain his balance to reach the end zone on his 46-yard grab that was just out in front of him while the 43-yard throw to Johnson was worthy of a painting.
The problem, though, is those two passes accounted for 89 of DeVito’s 194 yards through the air as the quarterback connected on just over half his passes (13-of-24) in the game. There were a couple of plays where DeVito airmailed the ball just to get it away and one early drop by Johnson that cost the team a first down, at a minimum, but the team still needs more from its signal-caller. DeVito was under more duress than the one sack he took would suggest (the Jackets were also credited with two quarterback hits and DeVito scrambled on multiple occasions), but this team needs more.
2. Some of that more came in the form of a ground attack powered by Sean Tucker.
Tucker, the freshman running back with four carries against Pitt on his resume, entered the game on SU’s second drive and was an immediate factor. Carrying the air of the unknown, Tucker dominated from that first drive. He carried the ball on each of the first three plays he was on the field, gaining four yards on each of his first two attempts before exploding for a 38-yard score. Tucker would total 100 yards on 15 carries in the half, adding another touchdown before the opening quarter was over.
The second half was a different story for Tucker, who had four carries for six yards in the third quarter, then needed five carries for a same amount of production in the fourth. Just as the Orange attack needs greater production out of its quarterback, it also needs consistent production on the ground. Tucker has clearly been the most successful back to this point, averaging 4.8 yards per carry while neither Jawhar Jordan or Markenzy Pierre is averaging over 2.5 yards per attempt, so it suggests he will have a larger role as the schedule continues. If SU is going to get more victories, its freshman back will need to be able to produce, including when trying to beat the clock along with their opponents late in games.
3. The defense also has some questions in the run game.
Just as Georgia Tech figured out how to snuff out the Orange ground attack, SU’s 3-3-5 defense has to be able to get consistent stops against their opponents’ rushing attack. In their two scoring drives in the second quarter, the Jackets had an easy time running the ball, turning four attempts into 24 yards and seven rushes for 65 yards, with the latter number made less impressive by needing two carries for the final three yards. Penalties stopped their last drive in the quarter, which still featured gains of 24, five, and five on the ground. Tech added 93 yards in the third quarter before the Syracuse defense stiffened.
With only three lineman and three linebackers on the field, SU will perpetually be at a size disadvantage when their foes run the ball. Coordinator Tony White will need to use the bye week to figure out what is ailing his run defense, as well as potential solutions.
4. Special teams have not been quite that, or at least not quite what has become customary for the SU kicking game.
Syracuse has been spoiled by great kicking performances over the last several years. Andre Szmyt was an All-American as a freshman and his sophomore season results were almost as good, so the extra point that was blocked and the 53-yard field goal he left short were concerning. The field goal was just one yard shy of his career long, but the low, line drive kick never had a chance with no mention of it being deflected by a Yellow Jacket.
Similarly, Nolan Cooney has been blasting punts all season, averaging a hair over 47 yards per kick. Unfortunately, he has often outkicked his teammates on coverage, as evidenced by 12 of his punts being returned for 129 yards, an average of 10.8 yards per return that brings his net average down to 36.3 yards per punt. Last season, Sterling Hofrichter averaged 43.9 yards per punt, but forced 36 fair catches on 69 punts and only 10 of his punts were returned for a total 19 yards, making his net average 43.6 yards.
It sounds like a nitpick, but with the Orange having shown that they are an unfinished product in all three phases, special teams needs to go back to living up to its name.