Well, we’re only a week away from kickoff for the Syracuse University football team. This time next week, we’ll be starting to get ready for game time in the Carrier Dome against the University of Rhode Island in what should be a runaway victory. Of course, we thought the same thing against Villanova last year and needed an overtime touchdown pass by Riley Dixon (!?) to knock off the upstart Wildcats.
Now granted, Villanova was one of the best teams in FCS last season, but it still set a pretty bad tone for the year. This year, things are looking rosier as we head into game week, and the schedule is set up for a strong start for the Orange. It’s not inconceivable that the Orange could open the year 5-1 or maybe even 6-1 heading into a matchup with Florida State on Halloween.
Of course, plenty of things have to break in the right direction this year for that to happen. Last year, the wheels fell off pretty quickly, and things just got worse as the year went on as the team limped to a 3-9 record. Expectations are drastically lower this season than they were prior to last year, at least among the national pundits. So what are some of the things that need to go right for the Orange to be successful this year?
Steady QB Play
This one is a no-brainer. It doesn’t matter what kind of offense you install, or what kind of weapons you have on the edge if you don’t have someone under center who can consistently deliver the ball where it needs to go. Over his two seasons as a starter, Terrel Hunt has lacked that consistency (when healthy). The senior has 11 career touchdowns and 12 career interceptions in 16 games at quarterback for the Orange, and needs to be better this year if the Orange want to get back to a bowl game.
That said, he’s healthy, and he learned at the right hand of Tim Lester up in the coaching box after his injury last season. He’s got a strong knowledge of Lester’s new offense, which will hopefully be better suited to his skills and style than George McDonald’s bubble screen-heavy offense of a year ago. Whether it’s fair or not, the success of Lester’s offense, and Syracuse in general through the ability to put points on the board, rests squarely on Hunt’s shoulders.
Red Zone Offense
In reality, the Orange need to improve on the team offense in general, and I think this is where we’ll see some addition by subtraction. McDonald’s square peg/round hole offense is gone, and Tim Lester has shaped his offense to suit the personnel, rather than trying to go the other way around. But even if the Orange are able to move the ball, they need to be able to execute in the red zone.
The Orange were abysmal in the red zone last year, scoring on just 28 of 35 trips (including field goals), with only 14 touchdowns in those 35 trips inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. That ranked Syracuse as one of the worst red zone offenses in the nation in 2014. For Syracuse to get back to, or above, .500 this season the team absolutely needs to punch it in with far greater frequency when they get that close to pay dirt. On the bright side for Syracuse fans, UConn ranked dead last in FBS in red zone offense. Silver linings.
This one is something we basically just have to cross our fingers with, because unfortunately it’s not really anything that can be controlled. Injuries happen, and in a sport like football, they happen frequently. Look around the NFL preseason and you’ll see guys like Jordy Nelson and Kelvin Benjamin tearing their ACLs in recent weeks. Bad luck happens, and it happened with unusual frequency to Syracuse last season.
This year, the Orange simply can’t afford to get bitten by the injury bug quite so much. Syracuse has some talent at most positions – they just don’t have much of it. There’s not much in terms of depth, particularly proven depth, on this Syracuse roster. Most of the third string guys and beyond simply aren’t ready to contribute at this level, so it’s imperative that everyone on the 2-deep remains upright throughout the season.
Preventing Big Plays
It feels like this has been an issue forever at Syracuse, and has become a danger in particular with the aggressive, blitzing style of Chuck Bullough’s defense. The Orange aren’t shy about sending guys after the quarterback, and that tends to leave Syracuse’s secondary to fend for itself. The Orange are young and inexperienced in the secondary this year, so don’t be surprised to see the corners and, in particular, the young safeties who are still getting their feet wet get burned from time to time. The key will be limiting just how often they get burned.
Of course, it would help an awful lot of the Orange can simply…
Pressure the Quarterback
There’s a very symbiotic relationship between the defensive line and the secondary. The faster the linemen can get to the quarterback, the less time the defensive backs have to stay in coverage and more likely they are to come away with interceptions as the QB rushes his throws. At the same time, the better a secondary is at shadowing receivers, the more time they create for the linemen to actually get to the quarterback and get sacks and forced fumbles. For the most part, a secondary is only as good as its defensive line, and vice versa.
It would be terrific news if the inexperienced defensive line can use some of the natural, albeit young talent to create some havoc in the offensive backfield to take some of the pressure off the the secondary. It’s all well and good to blitz every down, but it’d be preferable if Bullough didn’t have to be so reliant on sending this linebackers after the QB to get pressure, and was able to simply rush his front four a little more often to leave the linebackers free to help in pass coverage.
This goes for both the players and the coaches. Syracuse has a recent history of mismanaging the game clock, and making some pretty perplexing decisions when it comes to fourth downs, and play calling in general. The Orange also have to be smart and execute from a player perspective to limit penalties. These are the things that Syracuse can work on to narrow the gap between themselves and their opponents. You don’t need to have the best talent on the field to execute smart, sound football. You just need discipline and a brain in your head.
Obviously, this doesn’t begin to cover all of the things that need to go right for Syracuse to have a successful season. But if the Orange can take care of these key facets of the game, I think we’ll all be very pleasantly surprised by the on-field results.