Sam Maller | Asst. Photo EditorFootball
STATEMENT GAME: Syracuse rushing attack sets tone in blowout win over Connecticut
The film presented the answer.
Doug Marrone saw none of Connecticut’s opponents challenge its run defense this season. He decided Syracuse should be the first. The reason was twofold. Run the ball down the Huskies’ throats and challenge the front seven. The defense will start to creep up, and downfield should be wide open for quarterback Ryan Nassib to pick his spots.
In a game Syracuse had to win, Marrone’s plan played out to near-perfection. The Orange (3-4, 2-1 Big East) rode career games from running back Jerome Smith and wide receiver Alec Lemon to a 40-10 win over Connecticut (3-5, 0-3) on Friday night in front of 36,715 fans inside the Carrier Dome. It was an offensive display that had rarely shown up this season, but it came at the time when SU needed it the most.
Syracuse established the running game early. Just as the plan called for.
“For us we knew that we had to come in and we knew we had to run the ball,” Marrone said. “We challenged those guys; we challenged them up front.”
SU’s offense sputtered early. Two red-zone opportunities only amounted to field goals to give the Orange an early 6-0 lead. The struggles didn’t last long.
Syracuse finished with 273 rushing yards against a UConn defense that was only allowing 118.4 yards on the ground per game. Only Temple has approached that number against the Huskies, but it still fell 71 yards short of the Orange’s total.
On Syracuse’s first play of the game, Smith ran 20 yards through a hole beautifully created by the offensive line. He ran for 49 yards on four plays to get down to the Huskies’ 13 and set up a Ross Krautman field goal.
Smith continued to run all the way to 133-yard day, a career high and his first 100-yard day.
“Coach Marrone just finally told me it’s time to go,” Smith said. “It felt good to finally get that 100 yards. It felt good to finally get it.”
Smith provided the bulk of the gaudy rushing numbers, but he had some help. Freshman tailback Ashton Broyld, who hadn’t played since Sept. 22 against Minnesota, racked up 58 yards on the ground on 11 carries. Prince-Tyson Gulley ran for 38 yards on eight attempts.
And the more Syracuse ran, the more it could pass.
“After the first drives, we kind of knew after the running game was going, we can feed off the running game with the pass game and just keep it going. They looked tired out there so we knew we could capitalize on that.”
Alec Lemon, SU wide receiver
Connecticut features two formidable cornerbacks in Dwayne Gratz and Blidi-Wreh Wilson, who Marrone said one day will be playing on Sundays. So to counter that, the Orange lined Lemon up on the inside. While the outside routes were shut down, Lemon had a mismatch on his defender.
Since SU was pounding the ball so much, UConn had only one safety downfield for much of the night to help out on coverage. But it didn’t help.
Coming out of halftime, Syracuse continued to establish the run.
Tailback Prince-Tyson Gulley ran 13 yards on two plays to get to the Syracuse 28. On third-and-7, Nassib dropped back three steps and delivered a pinpoint pass to a wide-open Lemon near the left sideline. Lemon bolted 68 yards down field to the UConn 4.
Gulley then ran 4 yards for a touchdown, putting the Orange up 27-10 and blowing the game open.
“After the first drives, we kind of knew after the running game was going, we can feed off the running game with the pass game and just keep it going,” Lemon said. “They looked tired out there so we knew we could capitalize on that.”
Syracuse’s 53 rushing attempts were a season-high. It had to be that way against Connecticut. If the Orange was going to beat one of the league’s top defenses that boasts two of the best corners SU has seen, Syracuse had to execute a game plan few others have this season.
Left tackle Justin Pugh said Marrone challenged the line during the week to play a physical game against Connecticut. All game long, it did that and created huge holes for SU’s tailbacks to burst through.
“Why stop it? It’s working good,” Pugh said. “It worked out well for us.”
Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said the team wanted to have a balanced attack against Connecticut. That’s exactly what unfolded Friday, and Connecticut’s defense had no response.
Run first. Open up the passing game. Syracuse found the answer.
“The guys executed the game plan almost to perfection,” Hackett said. “It was awesome. All the passes, the runs, everything. All the nuances we had, I thought we did a great job.”
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