Football

Syracuse turns to bulldozing duo in revamped goal-line package

Ziniu Chen | Staff Photographer

Syracuse running back Adonis Ameen-Moore barrels past Pittsburgh linebacker Nicholas Grigsby in the Orange's 14-13 win on Friday. Ameen-Moore gave Syracuse's goal-line package a much-needed boost.

One was a linebacker by title and a special teams lifer by all remaining criteria. The other was a stingily used sophomore running back that came to college overweight and still needed to shed a few pounds this past offseason.

Until Saturday, both were basically irrelevant through the first five weeks of Syracuse’s 1-3 start. The former, Lewellyn Coker had registered a single tackle, while the latter, Adonis Ameen-Moore, had yet to step on the field in 2012.

But during the bye week, and following consecutive dismal performances in goal line situations, their numbers were called by the Syracuse coaching staff. Coker switched positions — changing sides of the ball from defense to offense to become a lead-blocking fullback. And Ameen-Moore would finally assume the role his 5-foot-10-inch, 239-pound frame was meant to play: wrecking ball.

“I said, ‘Hey, let’s put Adonis in and find a fullback. I don’t care who it is, whoever is going to knock somebody’s head off,’” Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said.

It marked the birth of a duo that can only be described as bizarre, that could have never been predicted and that proved wildly effective in Syracuse’s (2-3, 1-0 Big East) 14-13 win over Pittsburgh on Friday. Running behind Coker and a jumbo-sized left side of the offensive line, Ameen-Moore pounded home the Orange’s only offensive touchdown and ran out the final 1:36 of the fourth quarter with a hard-nosed nature unseen so far this season.

The new tight red zone package, aptly named “Tank,” erased the ugly memories of SU’s goal-line woes in a narrow win over Stony Brook and a 17-10 loss on the road at Minnesota two weeks ago. Eight times the Orange failed to punch the ball in from inside the 5 yard line against SBU, a Football Championship Subdivision team. Against Minnesota, quarterback Ryan Nassib threw a costly interception with no reliable running attack with which to feel comfortable.

“We’re this spread team, up-tempo, fast,” Hackett said. “But damn, what the hell do we do down there? And I think that was what messed us up.”

The frustration for Hackett and head coach Doug Marrone boiled over shortly after the loss to Minnesota. The following Monday and Tuesday brought sleepless nights for both men, and a commitment to improving one of the team’s most glaring weaknesses.

Trial and error ensued. Hackett said they tried one running back sets, overload formations and “a million different things” before settling on the Ameen-Moore/Coker combination.

It looked good on tape toward the end of this week — Hackett said the Tank package was practiced every single day since last Thursday — and Ameen-Moore barreled his way into the end zone on his very first attempt from the 1 yard line to give Syracuse a 7-0 lead early in the opening quarter.

“It feels great,” Ameen-Moore said. “I haven’t scored a touchdown since the 12th grade. … It felt wonderful, and I am just glad coach Marrone gave me the chance.”

He ran behind the left side of an offensive line that benefitted tremendously from the return of All-Big East left tackle Justin Pugh. The 6-foot-5-inch, 297-pound senior missed the first month of the season after having offseason shoulder surgery and returned with a fiery passion his teammates fed off.

Between Pugh, Coker, left guard Zack Chibane, tight end Beckett Wales and extra offensive lineman Nick Robinson, the Orange coaching staff gave Ameen-Moore a 1,322-pound wall to run behind that overwhelmed Pittsburgh’s defensive front. It ensured the one goal line play Hackett said they installed — the wonderfully descriptive “Run Left” — would work.

“I went f***ing crazy when Adonis scored,” Hackett said. “I was so fired up.”

The feeling resurfaced during the Orange’s final drive of the game, which began with 4:52 remaining and had the sole purpose of running out the clock to preserve a one-point win.

After Syracuse picked up three first downs to melt the clock inside two minutes, Marrone and Hackett sent the “Tank” package back on the field to finish the game with one final move of the chains. Ameen-Moore carried the ball four consecutive times behind Coker and Co. for 13 yards, sealing the victory and igniting a wild celebration on the SU sidelines that shook off a five-game Big East losing streak.

“(The coaches) were very pleased with Adonis, and he’s worked extremely hard to be in that position,” Marrone said. “Obviously it’s a very important position, so you have to have a very high level of trust.

“(Coker) did a very good job in that fullback position. I was very proud of him.”

Hackett said after the game that he apologized to Ameen-Moore during the bye week for not installing the goal-line package earlier, especially after making a promise to do so before the season even started.

But his sophomore bludgeon wasn’t angry, upset or even frustrated. Instead he met with Hackett 24 hours after the package was put in place with a “glimmer in his eyes” that showed he was embracing his moment.

Said Hackett: “When he looked at me and said, ‘I’m always ready,’ that was the best line.”

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