Football

Need for speed: Syracuse tries to keep up offensive tempo against Tulane

Ziniu Chen | Staff Photographer

Running back Jerome Smith and the Syracuse offense are at their best when playing at a fast pace. Head coach Scott Shafer would like the Orange to be running 80-85 plays per game.

The offense has only come in flashes for Syracuse.

It first surfaced on the opening drive of the second half in Evanston, Ill., when Drew Allen marched Syracuse down the field on nine plays for a touchdown against then-No. 19 Northwestern.

But not again until the fourth drive against Wagner. This time Terrel Hunt came on at quarterback. He strung together 12 plays lasting 4:44 for the first touchdown of what would become an offensive stampede for Syracuse.

“I heard we were going through an identity crisis,” running back Jerome Smith said.

With a new quarterback and a Football Championship Series opponent in the fold, the identity-less Orange put on an offensive clinic, pouring on 54 points in a shutout win over the Seahawks. Now, the offense finally has some momentum as it heads into Saturday’s matchup with Tulane at 12:30 p.m. in the Carrier Dome.

In the seven drives that Hunt manned the offense against Wagner, SU had a rare pace about it. In the season opener, the offense couldn’t find any semblance of a rhythm. The next week, some of the kinks were gone — but only briefly.

As Hunt replaced Allen after three possessions on Saturday, the offense did what it was supposed to.

“We all huddled up and said, ‘Hey, let’s get on the same page. Let’s go take care of business,’” Smith said.

That meant less time between snaps. Against Penn State, Syracuse ran one play every 23.7 seconds. Against the Wildcats, that number was down to 20.6.

During Hunt’s one drive against NU, the Orange snapped the ball every 14.9 seconds. His first drive against Wagner was a methodical one, but after that he was already running the offense at a similar pace as Allen was.

“It’s all about tempo and it’s knowing our assignments while moving fast, and that’s what we did,” said H-back Ashton Broyld, “so we got to continue to get better at that.”

That was the identity SU had last year, and the one it’s still trying to perfect this year. In 2012, Syracuse was one of the most up-tempo teams in the nation, ranking in the top 20 in plays per game.

It all led to one of the most prolific offenses in SU history. Having Ryan Nassib, Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales certainly helped, but it was the sum of the parts and how well the unit executed that made it elite.

In 2012, Syracuse averaged more than 80 plays per game, even after struggling for the first four weeks of the season.

This year’s Orange team isn’t far behind that mark, but the rout of Wagner skews that average up a bit to 78.6.

When SU finally hits its stride this season, head coach Scott Shafer would like this year’s version of Syracuse to be even faster — 80-to-85 plays per game is his ultimate goal.

“Once we really get this thing going,” Shafer said.

At times the Orange has shown what an efficient machine it has the potential to be. The running backs are dashing through holes. The wide receivers are running their routes and the quarterback — whoever it is — hits them in stride.

Even Allen, now the backup, executed perhaps the best drive of the season to open the second half against NU. SU scored just 2:28 seconds into the third quarter, snapping the ball every 16.4 seconds.

The Northwestern defense was caught off balance and Syracuse scored with ease.

Sets like those came all too infrequently, but Shafer is already seeing a difference. He’s seen them improve each week — it’s evident on film and on the stat sheet.

“We had a lot of new pieces and parts, a lot of new faces, a lot of new names replacing a lot of very good players that broke a lot of records here,” Shafer said. “We knew it would be a process.”

The explosion only came against an FCS foe, but it was a tuneup that the Orange should have had all along.

While most teams were starting against weaker competition, SU faced a pair of Big 10 opponents. When most of the nation was shifting to stiffer games, Syracuse was still searching for its identity.

It’s not quite firm yet, but now the Orange at least knows what it is.

“We caught a rhythm as an offense and it led into Saturday,” Broyld said. “We just got comfortable. We’re getting the hang of things.

“We’re not where we want to be. We want to just feel that we can do that every day. We have a long way to go, but we’re going to get there. Slowly but surely.”

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