Andrew Renneisen | Staff PhotographerFootball
Turbulent skies: Halfway home, SU stands at 2-4 and looks for happier ending
Offensive line: Syracuse’s offensive line has been one of the strongest parts of the team despite allowing 11 sacks. That’s especially true now that left tackle Justin Pugh has returned after recovering from shoulder surgery. Having Pugh back on the line meant his fill-in, Sean Hickey, could slide over to the right side and take over for struggling tackle Lou Alexander. The line has given Ryan Nassib plenty of time in the pocket, which allowed him to throw for at least 300 yards in the Orange’s first three games.
Linebackers: Siriki Diabate, Dyshawn Davis and Marquis Spruill have combined to form a reliable unit in the middle of the SU defense. The linebackers have played a large role in containing opposing running backs and adding pressure to the quarterbacks along with the Orange’s stout defensive line. Diabate has made the seamless transition into a starting middle linebacker spot this year, pacing SU with 44 tackles, and serving as a leader and voice in the unit. His 13 tackles against Rutgers were a team- and season-high.
Wide receiver: This would be a situation where giving a separate grade for Marcus Sales seems more fair than grading this unit collectively. Through six games, Sales has hauled in 37 passes for 545 yards and five touchdowns. That’s four more touchdowns than teammates Alec Lemon and Jarrod West combined, and 45 percent of the team’s receiving touchdowns in total. But while Sales has thrived, the rest of the bunch effuses mediocrity. Lemon has yet to score in 2012, and West has one touchdown. Sophomore Jeremiah Kobena showed promise with two trips to the end zone against Northwestern, but he injured his hand and missed the last four games following surgery. Overall, this bunch needs someone else to step up and take pressure off Sales.
Defensive line: The defensive line posted another strong performance in Saturday’s loss to Rutgers, as Jay Bromley and Deon Goggins anchored the middle with nine tackles and 11 tackles, respectively, to help limit the Scarlet Knights to 85 yards on the ground. Aside from those two anchors in the middle, who were expected to lead the unit coming into the season, the defensive end spot has been inconsistent. Markus Pierce-Brewster has flashed glimpses, but failed to register a sack thus far. And four of Brandon Sharpe’s 5.5 sacks on the season came in one game. But overall the unit is doing well, and Syracuse ranks in the Top 50 in the country against the run.
Secondary: The Orange’s secondary has had an up-and-down season. The group has had games where it’s played well but the athleticism of the opposing wide receivers was simply too much to handle, especially against Robert Woods and Marqise Lee of Southern California. Far too many times, though, SU’s secondary has simply been burned. Against Rutgers on Saturday, Scarlet Knights quarterback Gary Nova found Brandon Coleman down the right sideline for a 43-yard pass, and Brandon Reddish and Jeremi Wilkes never had a chance. It was a scene that’s occurred frequently this season as the secondary has largely been a question mark.
Quarterback: Ryan Nassib came out firing this season, setting program records in completions, attempts and yards in a thrilling opener against Northwestern. The Orange revealed a no-huddle, spread offense and scored 41 points as Nassib threw for 482 yards, four touchdowns and 45 completions. He remained among the nation’s leaders in passing and threw for nine touchdowns compared to three interceptions through three games. But the high-scoring attack disappeared in the team’s last three games, managing just 39 combined points. In the new offense, it all goes back to Nassib, who has struggled, throwing just two touchdowns compared to five interceptions during the stretch. For Syracuse to win games in the second half, Nassib will need to find the rhythm he had early in the season.
Tight end: Syracuse lost its top tight end from 2011 to graduation in Nick Provo. Provo left SU as the all-time leader in receptions at his position with 92. He was among Nassib’s favorite targets, but in the Orange’s new spread offense, the tight end’s role has been diminished. Beckett Wales leads the way with 16 catches for 138 yards, and David Stevens stepped up with a career game against Rutgers last Saturday. But neither has hauled in any of Nassib’s 11 touchdown passes.
Coaching: Doug Marrone has spent the entire first half of the season painfully admitting he needs to do a better job leading the program. He’s said SU hasn’t won enough games during his four years at the helm and that his team hasn’t been prepared well enough. Marrone knows each loss reflects on him and a disappointing start to this season has been frustrating for him. Still, the mistakes he aims to fix each week continue to happen, and he hasn’t been pleased with his personal performance. The special teams issues, steady stream of turnovers, and inconsistent offense and play-calling have all been concerns through six games. They’ll all need to improve if Syracuse wants to finish out the season strong against a tough slate.
Running back: All through training camp, Doug Marrone said none of the tailbacks separated themselves from the rest of the group. Six games into the season, it’s easy to see why. The Orange is seventh in the Big East in rushing yardage, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry. Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley have gotten the majority of carries, though of the two, only Gulley has scored a touchdown. Ashton Broyld, who was expected to be a dynamic back, has gotten only 20 carries for 96 yards and hasn’t played in three weeks. Overall, the Orange’s tailbacks have been largely a disappointment.
Special teams: This one is particularly embarrassing because Doug Marrone took over as special teams coach for the 2012 season. Kicker Ross Krautman, an All-American two seasons ago, is a pitiful four-of-nine on field goals with one attempt blocked and returned 75 yards for a touchdown. Punt returner Steve Rene’s longest run back of the season is 5 yards, and he continues to make foolish decisions week after week that almost always result in verbal lashings from Marrone. He also cost SU seven points with his fumble against Rutgers on Saturday. Overall, the Orange ranks 117th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in punt return average with a ghastly 1.62 yards per kick. And kick returns have been nearly as bad, with Syracuse ranking 96th in the country.
Offensive MVP: Marcus Sales
Without Marcus Sales, Syracuse’s offense would be struggling far more than it already is. The unit’s been inconsistent as a whole, but Sales has been a steady receiver. Despite a couple dropped passes, he went right back into his role of being Ryan Nassib’s primary target, just as he was at the end of 2010. Teams have started to take him out of the game by double-teaming him, and that’s limited his receptions. Still, when he’s able to, the connection of Sales and Nassib is arguably the team’s most effective way to march down the field. On one drive against Rutgers, Sales picked up 77 of his 100 total yards on the day. He’s been the primary reason SU’s offense has been able to recover from its inconsistency.
Defensive MVP: Shamarko Thomas
Let’s face it, without Shamarko Thomas the Syracuse secondary is atrocious. Keon Lyn and Ri’Shard Anderson have appeared lost in coverage all year, especially Anderson, who was burned for three touchdowns against Southern California alone. But Thomas gives the secondary credibility. He is the heart and soul of the unit, whose full-throttle mentality and vicious hits make him an imposing figure out on the field. Thomas has 24 tackles, including three tackles for loss and a crucial strip sack against Northwestern. He also picked off Matt Barkley in the second half of the game against USC to give the Orange a chance. Without Thomas, this secondary is pedestrian at best.
Biggest disappointment: Syracuse’s red-zone offense
Syracuse has been in the red zone 24 times, but has only scored 13 touchdowns in those opportunities. The Orange’s goal-line offense has been especially abysmal. Even after implementing the “tank” package, which puts Lewellyn Coker at fullback and Adonis Ameen-Moore at running back, this is still one of SU’s biggest weaknesses. Time after time, Syracuse leaves points on the board because of its inability to score from the red zone. For a struggling team, that ineffectiveness has been costly.
Biggest surprise: Defensive ends
This position was a question mark entering the season. Syracuse had to replace two starters in Mikhail Marinovich and NFL first-round pick Chandler Jones. But this group, led by Brandon Sharpe and JUCO transfer Markus Pierce-Brewster, has arguably been better. The SU defensive line has been one of the team’s few bright spots, and the emergence of Sharpe and Pierce-Brewster as capable playmakers is a big reason why. Both have displayed the ability to collapse the pocket and make stops against the run, helping hold dynamic Big East tailbacks Ray Graham and Jawan Jamison in check. And Sharpe showed he can dominate a game in the Orange’s 14-13 win over Pittsburgh, racking up four sacks and six tackles for loss.
Biggest problem: Special teams
This one isn’t even close. Ross Krautman seems to be a liability from anything beyond 40 yards this season — 37 is his longest in 2012 — which puts a heavy burden on quarterback Ryan Nassib and the offense to move the ball deep into an opponent’s territory if they have any hope of putting points on the board. Similarly, the Orange has zero threats in the kick-return and punt-return game, ensuring mediocre field position barring a strong defensive stand or a turnover. Imagine what Nassib and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett could do if they faced short fields once in a while. Having to go 65-plus yards following nearly every kickoff or punt for a touchdown is a lot to ask. In 2012, SU’s specialists are anything but.
Best game: Southern California
Yes, Syracuse lost to the Trojans, but there is really no other choice here. Against the No. 2 team in the country in what was essentially a road game — more red than orange in MetLife Stadium that day — the Orange hung tough and were within five of USC in the fourth quarter. The Syracuse defense frustrated Matt Barkley, while Ryan Nassib continuously moved the ball downfield and scored 28 points in the second half. It could have been a landmark victory for the Orange, but instead it was only a moral victory. And the team has never looked as crisp again.
Worst game: Rutgers
Syracuse’s most recent loss was the toughest to swallow. The Orange held Jawan Jamison, the conference’s leading rusher, to a measly 64 yards on 28 carries. Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova only threw for 157 yards. But four turnovers and a blocked kick derailed any chance for an SU upset on the road. The same problem areas head coach Doug Marrone has pinpointed all season haunted the Orange again, resulting in the team’s fourth loss of the season.
What happened to … Ashton Broyld
The freshman threat was supposed to add a new element to Syracuse’s offense, but he hasn’t played in the last two games. The Orange coaching staff said it would ease Broyld into his new role so he wasn’t thrown too much at once. There was hype about the possibility of packages utilizing his athleticism and speed, but that hasn’t happened. For an offense that’s been looking for the big play, Broyld’s role for the future is still undefined.
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