Football

The next day: Slow starts continue hurting Syracuse

Corey Henry | Senior Staff Photographer

Since Babers took over in 2016, Syracuse is 5-12 in November.

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In 10 FBS games this season, Syracuse’s offense has produced six scoreless first-quarters. It had two scoreless first halves, and another with just three points. 

On opening drives in 10 games, SU failed to score touchdowns on seven occasions. Three such drives have been three-and-outs.

The Orange’s most points in the first quarter (nine) came in the season-opener against Ohio, but beyond that, they haven’t put up more than one score during the first frame this year.

The diagnosis is simple — Syracuse starts slowly. 

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The Orange boast an offense that strikes quickly. It rarely comes in the form of a deep pass, but behind Sean Tucker and Garrett Shrader, the offense has made a habit of breaking loose for long runs. In fact, just under half of Syracuse’s offensive scores have come from outside the red zone. 

The problem is that it takes the Orange significant time to get going. Against the No. 25 Wolfpack on Saturday, SU put up another scoreless first quarter, one that featured just 12 yards of offense on two drives. Two roughing the passer penalties helped the Orange along on their second drive, but both first-quarter possessions still ended in punts.

Shrader missed throw after throw when there were receivers wide-open, head coach Dino Babers said. SU fell 41-17, blowing the second-consecutive chance to become bowl eligible and making next week’s matchup against No. 20 Pittsburgh into a bowl-or-die scenario. 

We’ve got to hit those shots in the throwing lane,” Babers said when asked about SU’s slow start. “People are coming out to stop the run and we’re going to still run the ball some, but you hit those shots in the throwing game, you open it up right away, and that’s the key.”

Despite the mountain of slow starts on offense this season, Syracuse hasn’t had to pay much. Their defense has bailed them out, holding six opponents scoreless in the first quarter too. 

Babers explained that the key is to “match” the opponent for each quarter. Syracuse has done that. Its defense holds things together when the offense is sputtering. The defense keeps SU in games when its offense can’t produce early on. 

“You have to match every single quarter. Somebody gets hot in a quarter, and that can swing the game,” Babers said, referencing the 28-point second quarter from NC State on Saturday.

But matching the opponent early on by scoring zero points shouldn’t be good enough for the Syracuse offense anymore. It certainly won’t be enough against No. 20 Pitt, the conference’s top scoring offense. The Orange need to do better than match a subpar offensive performance from both teams, and they know that. 

They can’t continue to waste a plethora of opening quarter opportunities, and it’s a concerning look that the offense always takes a quarter — and sometimes longer — to get anything going.

After the bye week, Syracuse had the same issue against Louisville. Babers said that it might take a few moments for SU to click and get back into rhythm after a week of no physical contact. It did, and then some.

“I feel like we started slow this week, this game, as you can see,” linebacker Marlowe Wax said after the 41-3 loss in Louisville. “In our practices, we knew that could happen… We know we can’t let that happen anymore, so that’s all it is.”

Except Syracuse made the same mistake a week later. It tried to start by throwing the ball instead of running since the Wolfpack stacked the box. But Shrader couldn’t find anyone open on the first play, so he tucked it and ran. He missed a slant over the middle to Anthony Queeley, and then took a sack. 

For the entirety of the first quarter, and much of the first half before Tucker’s explosive touchdown run, Syracuse’s offense was trying to get going. Trying to find a rhythm, trying to get back into sync. 

It did the same thing against Boston College during a scoreless first half, and against both Louisville and NC State.

If the Orange want a chance against Pittsburgh, the ninth-most explosive offense in the country last week, they’ll need to start strong on offense themselves. The Orange defense used to be good against explosive, big plays, though they’ve been slipping recently. 

SU’s defense can only bail out a stalling offense for so long, and that’s been evident throughout the season. Against Pittsburgh, offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert and his players will have to hold up its share of the bargain — early on — to keep SU in the game.

The game was won when…

Shrader set a strong block in the second quarter to spring Sean Tucker for a 55-yard score and put Syracuse on the board, but NC State responded immediately. The 97-yard kickoff return built on the Wolfpack’s existing momentum, but the touchdown right before halftime — a 14-yard throw to Christopher Toudle — sealed the deal and handed SU its second-straight road loss. Syracuse’s defense got burned by deep passes, and a 58-yard bomb over Duce Chestnut set-up Toudle’s touchdown.

Quote of the night: Sean Tucker on the single-season rushing record

Tucker got a call from Syracuse’s previous single-season rushing record holder before the Orange’s game on Saturday. Morris, who held the record for 42 years, congratulated the current SU running back, who was 11 yards shy heading into the NC State matchup.

It meant a lot, from a legend like him,” Tucker said of Morris’ call. “Basically he was talking, congratulating me, and talking about the history of all the running backs before me and stuff like that.”

Stat to know: 59 yards

That’s Syracuse’s average number of passing yards over the last three games. The Orange average 147.2 passing yards per game this season, a stat that ranks 124th of 130 teams in FBS. SU talked a lot about creating a balanced offense earlier in the season, one that didn’t necessarily need to be a 50/50 split between running and passing, but where the two aspects needed to complement each other. The Orange may have found that balance for a window during this season, but they don’t have that anymore. They’re not even close. With one game left, they need an answer to this passing game.

Game ball: Mikel Jones, linebacker

Jones notched a team-high 12 tackles, along with a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss. Those stats are no anomaly for the linebacker, who’s been a constant for Syracuse in the middle of the field all season. In the first quarter, when SU was still in the game, Jones made a clutch tackle to stop the Wolfpack on fourth down. He bailed out SU after the referees when they called the ball-carrier down instead of calling a fumble on a non-reviewable play. SU got burned in the secondary, but Jones and the defense held the Wolfpack to under 100 yards.

Three final points

November struggles under Babers. Since Babers took over in 2016, Syracuse is 5-12 in November. Three of those wins came during a successful 2018 season when SU won 10 games and made its last bowl game, and another was a 49-6 thrashing of bottom-tier Duke in 2019. 

Of course, conference games later in the year are harder than nonconference ones that teams open the season with, but SU’s overall win percentage under Babers is .40.8%, a mark that drops by more than 10% when compared to his November record. 

The bottom line is that the Orange haven’t finished the year strong under Babers. They haven’t won a November game since the Duke one two years ago. 

Chris Elmore’s absence: Elmore hasn’t played since SU’s win over Virginia Tech, and was spotted on the sideline of the Boston College game with his arm in a sling. The fullback and tight end adds another level to the SU rushing attack, setting lead blocks for Tucker and guiding the way. 

Babers declined to answer whether Elmore would be out for the year ahead of the NC State game. After the game, Tucker said he hoped Elmore would recover quickly. 

You can’t replace that individual,” Babers said of Elmore. “We’re doing similar plays (on offense without him), but he’s a very special individual.”

Does SU need to sprinkle in a passing quarterback? Syracuse has backup quarterbacks JaCobian Morgan and Justin Lamson at its disposal. Both have strong arms and the ability to sling the ball on the run. Lamson doesn’t have experience yet, though his 247 recruiting profile says he’s good at going through his progressions and can make short, medium and long throws on the run. 

Morgan played in three games last season, starting two of them, in place of the injured starter Tommy DeVito. In 2020, Morgan threw a perfect 7-of-7 for 57 yards and a touchdown against Wake Forest and 19-of-30 for 188 yards and a touchdown and interception against Boston College. 

Shrader seems to be struggling to throw the ball. Babers has said repeatedly that a balanced offense is important since success throwing the ball leads to success rushing, and vice-versa. And in a must-win game against Pittsburgh, if those passing struggles continue, the Orange may need to go to their bench in order to develop some kind of balance between Tucker and the passing game.

Next up: No. 20 Pittsburgh

Syracuse opened as 11-point underdogs against No. 20 Pittsburgh, and the Orange will need to pull off their biggest upset of the year to get to six wins and become bowl-eligible. The Panthers are coming off a 48-38 win over UVA, and have secured their spot as the Coastal Division champions. 

Quarterback Kenny Pickett is on the Heisman watch list, and in a year where the ACC quarterback talent has shined, he’s been on the top. Syracuse’s defense has given up 41 points in the last two games. Against Pitt, the conference’s top scoring offense, it’ll need a solution.

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