Syracuse offensive line struggles to hold off overpowering Minnesota defense
MINNEAPOLIS — Three times, Ryan Nassib dropped back and scanned the field for a split second. All three times, the collapse quickly closed in on the Syracuse quarterback.
It was the Orange’s second drive of the game, less than three minutes into the first quarter, and Nassib was already forced to turn to his legs to survive.
“Ryan made a lot of plays with his legs; that’s what he does great,” wide receiver Alec Lemon said. “He stood back there and made some throws, took some hits — he’s out there being a leader.”
In Syracuse’s first three games this season, Nassib was at his best when he had time in the pocket. But in the Orange’s 17-10 loss to Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday night, Nassib rarely looked comfortable as the Golden Gophers dominated Syracuse in the trenches. Nassib, who had thrown for more than 300 yards in the first three games and ranked second in the nation in passing yards, finished 21-of-31 for 228 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in the game.
He was sacked three times and flushed out of the pocket throughout the game as his offensive line repeatedly failed him. The SU line also committed costly false-start penalties to stunt drives.
“We can’t make any excuses,” head coach Doug Marrone said. “Some guys got beat and we got to do a better job, and they got them off the spot.”
The first sack concluded Nassib’s sequence on that second drive. After a penalty on center Macky MacPherson backed SU up to third-and-20, Minnesota defensive end D.L. Wilhite blew off the outside and threw right tackle Lou Alexander aside in the backfield before taking down Nassib hard.
Wilhite then confidently walked to the sideline, pumping up his teammates and the crowd.
“They did a good job of getting pressure,” Nassib said. “They ran a lot of blind stunts and games, and they have some good talented players over there making some plays.”
Wilhite’s sack served as a catalyst for Minnesota’s first scoring drive, as the Gophers capitalized on good field position, needing just five plays to cover 58 yards for the touchdown.
The defensive pressure disrupted the Syracuse offense throughout the game. Nassib was constantly shuffling his feet in the pocket and looked indecisive at times as he braced for hits.
The inexperience of Alexander finally revealed itself in a game, and the struggles trickled down the entire line. And the troubles with protection hurt the entire offense’s ability to find a rhythm.
“They’re going to come with pressure,” Lemon said. “Sacks happen.”
Alexander was left watching helpless again on Syracuse’s first drive of the fourth quarter. Minnesota defensive end Michael Amaefula blew by Alexander, who turned and watched as he brought down Nassib for a 4-yard loss.
Third-and-12 became third-and-17 on the next play when a rattled Alexander jumped out of position when the Gophers defense moved along the line. A 13-yard completion to Lemon wasn’t enough, and the Orange punted away an opportunity to cut into Minnesota’s 11-point lead.
Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said he would have to watch the film of the game before assessing the line’s performance. But the play of the linemen and the penalties they committed weren’t glaring issues for Hackett after the game.
Hackett said he felt Nassib got the ball off plenty of times and that the offense moved the ball before turnovers prevented scoring chances.
“He got some good completions and he hung in there, and he’s always going to have to hang in there,” Hackett said. “And the line stuff, we’ll have to take a look at it and get a feel there.”
While Marrone said the linemen did a nice job at times, he also admitted Minnesota bested them throughout the game.
From the second drive, Nassib was racing out of the pocket just to get rid of the ball. And in the final period, Minnesota dropped him for the third sack, part of another three-play sequence in which he was pressured before he could settle in to make a play.
“Credit to Minnesota, I mean, they got a pretty good front,” Marrone said. “Those guys can get after it out there.”
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