Football

Porous Syracuse defense fails to limit Cincinnati’s overpowering rushing attack

Courtesy of Phil Didion | The News Record

Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux and the Bearcats rushed for 263 yards against Syracuse's struggling run defense.

CINCINNATI — As tailback George Winn churned out yard after yard, and as three different quarterbacks tormented 11 different defenders, just how far the Syracuse defense has slipped suddenly became clear. The unit that stifled Jawan Jamison, that left Ray Graham limping, that yielded negative rushing yards to Connecticut has lost its way.

For the second straight game against the exact same scheme — the zone read — Syracuse’s once-stout defense wilted.

“They didn’t need a quarterback, man,” defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. “They ran the ball on us. And that’s just something we have to take to heart. Two weeks in a row we gave up a lot of rushing yards, and we can’t do that if we want to win.”

Last Saturday it was 369 rushing yards allowed in a narrow, come-from-behind win against South Florida. This Saturday it was 263 yards in a game where the offense couldn’t bail out the defense when its tackling was poor and its front seven was porous. And as the Bearcats (6-2, 2-1 Big East) abandoned the pass with a lead in the fourth quarter, the Orange (4-5, 3-2 Big East) still had no answer. Cincinnati kept possession for 11:02 of the final 15 minutes and secured a 35-24 win.

During the week, linebackers coach Steve Morrison said playing consecutive games against running quarterbacks was beneficial to the SU defense. It meant two straight weeks of practice against the zone read — a play where the quarterback has the option to hand the ball off or keep it himself and run — and plenty of time to tweak the game plan after the first round against South Florida.

But Saturday’s performance indicated more confusion than confidence. Less improvement and more regression.

After Jeremiah Kobena fumbled the opening kickoff to give Cincinnati the ball deep in Syracuse territory, Winn took handoffs on three of the next four plays and ran right through the middle of the Orange defense on all of them, eventually reaching the end zone for a touchdown.

“Two weeks in a row people are hitting those same gaps on us,” head coach Doug Marrone said.

It was the beginning of a 165-yard, three-touchdown day for Winn, who carried the ball on more than one-third of Cincinnati’s total offensive plays. His physical running style overpowered the Orange defenders from start to finish, and most of his runs featured at least one — if not two or three — broken tackles.

Winn seemed to grow stronger as the game wore on, bludgeoning the Syracuse defense over and over again. He accounted for all 47 yards on the last scoring drive of the game that began in the third quarter and ended with a touchdown early in the fourth, ripping off back-to-back 18-yard runs in the process. The first showcased his power, as he bowled over Shamarko Thomas — arguably the Orange’s most physical player — after bursting through the initial hole. And the second was a portrayal of speed, bouncing an inside handoff to the outside and down the sideline.

Winn finished the drive himself with a 2-yard touchdown.

“(The tackling) was a little bit better than last week, but not how we normally play,” linebacker Marquis Spruill said.

Timely and effective quarterback keepers from the zone-read play supplemented Winn’s workhouse effort. Three different quarterbacks (Munchie Legaux, Jordan Luallen and Brendon Kay) broke off runs of at least 12 yards, with Legaux and Luallen rushing for 71 yards between them.

The Bearcats attempted only 11 passes in the second half, relying on their dominant rushing attack to drain the clock and break the Orange’s will. In fact, the trio did so little throwing on Saturday that the longest pass of the game was completed by Winn on a halfback jump pass — a la Tim Tebow — that caught the Orange completely by surprise and allowed tight end Travis Kelce to walk in for a 37-yard touchdown.

“That’s a hell of a trick play,” Bromley said.

And though Syracuse kept the elusive Ralph David Abernathy IV in check for most of the game, the one long run he did manage was significant. He scampered 15 yards down the right sideline as Jeremi Wilkes and Markus Pierce-Brewster both whiffed on attempted tackles, picking up a first down on a drive that ate up enough clock to prevent the Orange from building on its three-point lead before halftime.

“Those guys have averaged over six yards per carry for a reason,” Marrone said.

Part of the reason is their talent, which has guided Cincinnati to six wins in its first eight games. But the other part is their opponents, and the Orange provided little resistance on Saturday.

For the second straight game, its defense was gashed and exploited for more yards than any point during the 2011 season. The result is a pattern that other teams can notice and exploit, which only spells trouble for a team on the verge of another bowl-less season.

“We can’t just let teams run the ball on us,” Bromley said. “Because that means the next team that watches that film is just going to be chomping at the bit to come against us.”

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