Well, it’s been a bit of a rough week for Syracuse University football fans. Three straight losses, the last two coming against teams that the Orange faithful hoped (and to a degree, expected) to be wins has left a good number of the fans in a bit of turmoil. It’s an unfortunate side effect of losses, in that it illustrates the up and down nature of fandom. The Orange face another stiff test this weekend when No. 25-ranked Pittsburgh comes to town hellbent on ruining Homecoming.
Sometimes you realize that it’s probably for the best to just avoid the internet for awhile. This is especially helpful after these past two weeks, which saw the Orange fall to South Florida and Virginia in the team’s first two road games of the year. Never mind that USF and UVA were both favored to win by the experts in Las Vegas, the losses are still going to wind up stinging. And you know what? They sting the players and coaches a hell of a lot more than they sting us, the fans.
I’ve been getting so tired of the emotional rollercoaster I see from fans who love everything about the program one week, and then turn on a dime and want the whole thing blown up the next. Fandom is nothing if not ripe with knee-jerk reactions, right? The biggest gripe and most troubling constant subject of whining I’ve seen is people calling for a coaching change, which is such a short-term reaction it’s a little absurd.
I’m just going to get this out of the way: barring an absolute disaster, in which the team basically quits on this coaching staff and starts losing every game by four or five touchdowns (as in, the Greg Robinson era), it’s foolish to make a coaching change after only three seasons. Look where this team is relative to preseason expectations: pretty much right where most people thought they’d be, and they’re doing it with a different cast of characters than anyone could have anticipated. Putting together a winning program is not easy, and it’s not an overnight thing. It takes time to establish recruiting relationships, it takes time to get your own system installed, it takes time to get your own players in and ready to compete. Three years simply isn’t enough time to do all of that. I would find it incredibly disheartening if athletics director Mark Coyle decides to hit the reset button, because it would mean four coaches in the past 10 years. That is no way to build a program, especially when – let’s be honest – we’re never going to spend the money to land a big name coach, which so many people seem to think is an option. Syracuse is one of the lowest paying jobs in P5 football, yet people think we’re going to lure, for instance, Jim Tressel?
You blow this thing up now, you risk losing the young building blocks of what could become a competitive program over the next several years. When you don’t have a particularly large coaching budget, you need to assess whether the program is headed in the right direction, and much of that comes back to bringing in young talent. There’s no arguing that this Syracuse team has more young talent than veteran talent, with more on the way. You have to let these young kids grow with this coaching staff, and see what they can do. If in a year or two no progress has been made? That’s when you start to reassess. But three years simply isn’t enough time to truly see the direction a new coach is taking the program.
And that young talent will be on the field this Saturday as the Orange return to the Carrier Dome to face the upstart Pitt Panthers, who enter the game ranked No. 25 in the nation with a 5-1 record. Pitt has one of the stingiest defenses in the nation, ranking 17th in the country in yards allowed with just over 300 per game. It’ll be a tall order for offensive coordinator Tim Lester to get his young guys to put points on the board against this Panther defensive unit, particularly given the shaky way the offensive line has played combined with the fact that Pitt is third in the nation with 3.67 sacks-per-game. In other words, they get after the QB with constant pressure, and Eric Dungey will have to be smart about when he tucks it and runs, and the line will have to give him adequate time and protection to make good, accurate throws and let plays develop.
The big story on the other side of the ball is the emergence of freshman running back Qadree Ollison, in the wake of the season ending injury of James Conner. The reigning ACC Offensive Player of the Year went down in the first game of the season, and Ollison, a true freshman from upstate New York, has stepped in admirably. He’s one of the top true freshman runners in the country with 559 rushing yards and an average of 5.9 yards-per-carry, though it should be noted that more than half of those yards came in a pair of performances, with 207 against Youngstown State and 122 against Virginia Tech. In the other four games this season, he’s averaging just 3.8 yards-per-carry, though he does have a touchdown in five out of six games this year. He and the rest of the Panthers have a bit of trouble hanging onto the ball, though: Pittsburgh has fumbled 13 times this season, losing four. That’s putting it on the ground twice per game, for the mathematically challenged out there. Syracuse will need to take advantage should the ball come out.
As usual, a lot of the pressure will fall on the Syracuse secondary, as they go up against a passing attack that’s not exactly setting the world on fire. That’s not to say the Panthers can’t pass, but to put it this way: quarterback Nathan Peterman is ranked 92nd in the nation in passing yards, just behind USF quarterback Quinton Flowers. Peterman is connecting on 67% of his passes, but has a touchdown to interception ratio of 6-to-5 this season. The Panthers pass for about 177 yards per game. Nearly half of Peterman’s completions go to Tyler Boyd, who has proven himself as one of the best receivers in the nation and will be a huge test for this Syracuse secondary.
This will be an interesting game to watch, and hopefully the Orange faithful turn out in full force. Naturally, the last two games have been a bit of a downer, but a good home crowd truly can influence the outcome of a game. It’s Homecoming, it’s a young team with some exciting freshmen and sophomores, and it’s a nationally ranked traditional rival. Get to the Dome, Central New Yorkers. Don’t give up on this team, because they sure as hell aren’t going to give up.