We’re four games into the Syracuse football season and breakout graduate transfer wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo’s blistering start is garnering national attention. Junior slot receiver Erv Philips is also flourishing in the Orange’s new hurry up spread attack. Meanwhile, one offensive weapon in the arsenal is mostly collecting dust: junior receiver Steve Ishmael.
Going into the season, Ishmael was regarded as the top returning SU receiver and a lock to be a focal point of the offense after a solid 2015 campaign in which he had 39 catches and 7 touchdowns. With another offseason to improve, Ishmael would surely light up the scoreboard and continue to show outstanding chemistry with quarterback Eric Dungey. Right?
Well, through four games, Ishmael has been targeted almost two and half fewer times than Etta-Tawo and Philips and has yet to sniff the end zone.
Is all of this a problem? Not really. In fact, it could ultimately be a very good thing. Dungey is sixth in the country in yards passing, mostly due to his chemistry with Etta-Tawo, who has effortlessly strolled into his new surroundings and leads the nation in receiving yards. The offense has not yet clicked on all cylinders but with a defense that will likely continue to struggle, an Ish injection could only help this team win more games.
Teams are well aware of Etta-Tawo’s prowess. A stat line of 40 catches for 706 yards and 5 touchdowns through four games tends to get a spotlight. So what happens when opposing defensive coordinators decide to make someone else beat them, other than E-T? Yes, Erv would continue to be productive (he has 36 receptions for 289 yards and 2 touchdowns), but what about the guy who’s been lost in the shuffle, Ishmael?
The Orange offense has been reliant on quick hitters and deep balls. Bubble screens and bombs. Partly because of a dearth of pass catching tight ends and partly by offensive design, Dungey has largely ignored the middle of the field. As teams try to jump those bubble screens and take away Etta-Tawo deep with double teams, that’s where Ishmael could be a huge factor. With reliable hands and outstanding route-running ability, Ishmael is custom made for slant passes. This would solve a few things: utilize the middle of the field, make teams pay for focusing on Etta-Tawo, and get Ishmael the football where he can elevate this offense. Ishmael is not a burner but he can still do plenty of damage after the catch, especially with a safety shading towards Etta-Tawo.
This Saturday, Syracuse heads to MetLife Stadium for a “home game” against a beleaguered 1-3 Notre Dame team who just axed defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder earlier this week. Fighting Irish defensive analyst Greg Hudson was installed as coordinator, and inherits a defense that ranks 111th nationally in pass efficiency, 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense, and has one measly sack. They will look across the field at a Syracuse offense featuring the 7th ranked passing attack in the country. Oh yeah: there’s also that Etta-Tawo guy, whom they are no doubt sick of answering questions about all week.
Hudson and firebrand head coach Brian Kelly will have their defense lathered up after they were embarrassed a week ago by a three touchdown underdog Duke team that was relying on a backup quarterback. They will try to slow down the Orange and the guy in their crosshairs will be Etta-Tawo. The mantra will be, “stop number 7. Don’t let number 7 beat us.” That philosophy by ND and other defenses this season will open the door to more chances for Ishmael, and he knows it.
“(Head coach Dino Babers) told me my turn’s gonna come,” a patient and unselfish Ishmael told reporters Tuesday. “But I’m just really going with the flow of things. I’m so glad that Amba’s been making a lot of plays. 270 yards last game, when the other teams see that, and they do go and double him, it’s going to open up everything for everybody.”
Maybe even for Ishmael.
Prediction time: Notre Dame will double team Etta-Tawo a lot on Saturday but he will still put up good numbers against a porous Irish secondary. Ishmael will have his breakout game and the offense will score plenty of points.
Now…about that Orange defense…
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