Evaluating the Orange—Syracuse Football Midseason Report
The Syracuse Orange have opened to a somewhat disappointing 2-4 (0-2) record in the first half of their first season under Head Coach Doug Marrone. However, the team's improved play has left many Orange fans with a genuine feeling of hope, and perhaps even dreams of an unexpected bowl berth.
Here is a breakdown of the play on the field, the coaching, the gameday atmosphere in Syracuse's Carrier Dome, and what the rest of the schedule holds for the Orange.
Quarterbacks, Grade: C+
Coming into the season, the most intriguing story line and the biggest unknown for the Orange was the play of Duke Point Guard-turned-Syracuse Quarterback Greg Paulus. Six games into the season, many of those questions remain unanswered, due to Paulus' inconsistent play from game to game.
Paulus has decent field vision, and a definite knack for finding star wide receiver Mike Williams, and has shown enough of an arm to get the ball down field to the playmaker. Perhaps Paulus' greatest strength thus far has been his play fakes. On multiple occasions, Paulus has used play action to free up Williams for 50+ yard touchdowns.
The last two games, against South Florida and West Virginia, have exploited Paulus' main weaknesses. He tends to have "happy feet" in the pocket, leading many to question his comfort, and he forces too many throws. This resulted in five interceptions against USF, and one major one in the first drive against West Virginia which led to his benching.
Redshirt freshman Ryan Nassib has also seen time. Against Penn State, he threw a few passes out of Syracuse's "Stallion" package, their version of the "wildcat" that many teams have begun using. He came in to run the entire offense in the second half against West Virginia, and was somewhat effective, moving the ball down the field with some effectiveness. However, he is yet to really develop touch on his passes, and should continue to develop.
Running Backs, Grade: C-
Entering the season, the deepest and most talented group on the Orange looked to be the running back corps. However, the backs have mostly underachieved thus far in the season.
Junior Delone Carter leads the team with 360 yards on 100 carries, for a mediocre 3.6 yards/carry and 60 yards/game. Carter does have five touchdowns on the year, proving effective near the endzone, but the bruising back has not been able to effectively move the ball down the field behind a struggling offensive line.
Sophomore Antwon Bailey has picked up 143 yards on 29 carries for a solid 4.9 yards per carry, most of them out of the "Stallion" package. However, Bailey has not been featured much in normal formations, and the "Stallion" has been picked up with relative ease by most of the teams who've seen it in action.
Redshirt freshmen Averin Collier and Mike Jones have seen limited carries and their roles in the offense should expand as the year goes on.
Receivers, Grade: B
While the addition of Greg Paulus garnered the most attention, the most talented player that Syracuse added to its roster was undeniably receiver Mike Williams. Williams, who had been Syracuse's leading receiver two seasons ago, missed last season as he was removed from school due to academic issues. However, Williams got himself eligible to be readmitted to Syracuse, and has returned to form for the Orange. Williams leads the team with 45 catches and 712 yards, good for 15.8 yards/reception, and six touchdowns.
A legitimate secondary option has yet to emerge for the Orange. Junior Donte Davis is second on the team in both receptions (13) and yards (133), sophomore Marcus Sales has two touchdowns and is just starting to hit his stride, and true freshman Alec Lemon has shown potential. However, if Williams is to succeed during Big East play, he needs someone to prove themselves as a threat behind him.
The tight ends have had mixed results on the field. After a terrible first game full of drops and penalties, senior captain Mike Owen has hauled in eight passes for 52 yards, and sophomore Cody Catalina has 8-for-58. Sophomore Nick Provo had shown the most promise as a pass catching tight end, with four receptions for 55 yards, but he has suffered multiple injuries, the latest of which has sidelined him for the remainder of the season.
Offensive Line, Grade: D+
The biggest hole on the offense, and perhaps the team as a whole, is the Offensive Line.
While the unit has been decent at giving Paulus and Nassib some time in the pocket, allowing 14 sacks thus far, both quarterbacks have had to move to avoid the sack many times, resulting in some interceptions.
The lack of productivity in the run game is a result of a lack of push by the line. The Orange only average three yards per carry as a team, a very poor average, and need to establish the run to take pressure off of Paulus and Mike Williams, who supply most of the team's offense. Running out of the "stallion" package has proved to be more successful, but defenses have been able to adjust after a few decent runs, and the line has not allowed running back Antwon Bailey to get big yardage out of the tricky formation.
Injuries have also hurt the line. Tackle Nick Speller, the line's best player who was able to hold South Florida star defensive end George Selvie to only two tackles and no sacks, came out during the first drive against West Virginia. Center Jim McKenzie has also missed time, and is out for the upcoming game against Akron.
Defensive Line, Grade: B
The Defensive Line came in with a lot of questions, but has performed well.
Art Jones, Syracuse's first round prospect defensive tackle, had offseason surgery after a weightroom accident, but has recovered nicely and has demanded a double team against every team he's played against. Injury has kept Art off the field more than the Orange would like, but Art has been very effective in the middle.
The rest of the defensive line rotates very quickly, in hopes to keep the entire unit fresh. True freshman Brandon Sharpe has proven to be a very solid pass rusher with two sacks, although he has missed time with injury. Redshirt freshman Chandler Jones, brother of the aforementioned Art Jones, and sophomore Mikhail Marinovich have also been able to get some pressure on the quarterback.
The line's best success, however, has come against the run, keeping the very productive linebacking corps free to make tackles, and hold opponents under three yards-per-carry. The Orange have held every opposing rusher, including Penn State's Evan Royster and West Virginia's Noel Devine, under 100 yards rushing.
Linebackers, Grade: A-
The Linebacking corps for the Orange has certainly been the highlight of the defense, and possibly the team. Syracuse has shut down the run game all year, and the linebackers have been responsible.
Junior Derrell Smith, in his first year at Middle Linebacker, has been writing his resume for All-Big East honors all season long, compiling 55 total tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries this year.
Junior running back convert Doug Hogue has also impressed in his first year on defense. Although he can be caught out of place at times, he plays very aggressively, leading to his 35 total tackles (three for loss), two sacks, and two interceptions,
The other outside linebacker spot has been filled by true freshman E.J. Carter, and sophomore Ryan Gillum. Both have been productive when on the field, although injury has kept Gillum out of a few games, and E.J. Carter is set to spend a second game on the sideline, serving out a suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Defensive Backs, Grade: D+
While the run defense for the Orange has been excellent, the pass defense has been very bad.
Syracuse currently ranks 118/120 against the pass, and has made every quarterback they've faced, whether it was against Penn State or Maine, look like an All-American.
The cornerbacks are the main culprits. Sophomore Kevyn Scott plays well, but is generally too small to effectively cover a big time receiver all game, and gets burned too often. Junior Nico Scott started the year opposite Kevyn (no relation), but after a string of poor performances, he's been replaced by converted receiver, junior Da'Mon Merkerson, who has looked solid in his two games at corner.
The safeties have been more effective. Junior Max Suter has made a litany of big plays, saving a touchdown in the back of the endzone against Minnesota's All-American candidate receiver Eric Decker, and intercepting a pass to ice the game against Northwestern, which gave Doug Marrone his first win as head coach. Suter is second on the team in tackles with 50, and has recovered a fumble.
Junior Mike Holmes has also been good, with 39 tackles (third on the team), and an interception, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. Big-hitting true freshman Shamarko Thomas has been one of the most pleasant surprises on defense, with 18 tackles.
Special Teams, Grade: B+
When Bob Casullo signed on to become Syracuse's special teams coordinator once again, it made Syracuse fans hopeful that special teams would become a weapon once again. So far, it has been heading in that direction.
Kicker was a position of much uncertainty heading into the season, but walk-on true freshman turned folk hero Ryan Lichtenstein has quelled many nerves. He is 9-10 on field goals, and 15-16 on extra points, and has become one of the most consistent kickers in the Big East.
Punter Rob Long continues to be one of the best in the nation, averaging 42.9 yards per punt, with seven over 50 yards, and 12-of-32 landing inside the 20.
Kick return has been very good for the Orange, with running back Mike Jones averaging 24.3 for return, with a long of 79 and a few that have come very close to going all the way to the endzone.
Punt returns continue to be ineffective, with the Orange only returning eight punts for an average of 5.8 yards.
Offensive Coaching, Grade: C+
While Syracuse's offense has undoubtedly been better than in year's past, head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Rob Spence have heard some criticism for their playcalling.
Before being fired at Clemson, the main knock on Spence was that he falls in love with the bubble screen, and we have seen the same thing here at Syracuse. He runs the play often, even though most of our receivers do not block it well enough.
The tandem also tend to be more conservative than most Orange fans expected, taking few risks on fourth down, and refusing to extend the field. Unfortunately, this has hurt the Orange, especially on third down where the offense converts a disappointing 25 percent.
Defensive Coaching, Grade: B
While the offense has been somewhat timid, defensive coordinator Scott Shafer has his unit playing very aggressively. The front seven has looked very good, attacking the line of scrimmage and shutting down the running game. This has left the less talented corners on islands with their receivers, but Shafer has always been one to take risks and try to force turnovers and have his players make plays, and they are doing that.
The defense has kept the team in games, even when it gets no help in terms of field position from the offense, and that is in large part a credit to Shafer's system.
The combination of a new head coach in Doug Marrone, and an intriguing new quarterback like Greg Paulus, sparked the interest of Syracuse fans, bringing many who had stayed home during the Robinson era, back to the Dome for the opener against Minnesota. The win against Northwestern also had a solid crowd, but since that game, attendance has plummeted.
Though the announced attendance has averaged around 41k per game, much better than the 34k for Robinson's final season last year, the actual numbers are much smaller. Fans are entering the Dome very late, in some instances half way through the first quarter, and in the last few games they've been leaving midway through the third. The student section has been particularly poor, only filling about half of the main section and very little of the spill-over section behind the endzone, leaving a glaring amount of silver on the television.
Many things contribute to the lack of students coming out to support the team, even when the team has performed much better on the field. Syracuse student season tickets are much more expensive than at most schools, and with the poor economy, it is not viable for many to pay to see a losing team. Performance is the main issue, however. Syracuse students and fans will show up for a winner, as the nation's leading basketball attendance will show. If Doug Marrone can get this program back to where it once was, the fans will come back, and the Carrier Dome will be the Loud House once again.
In order to become bowl eligible, the Orange need to win four of their last six games, a tall order for a team which is battling many injuries and has struggled as of late. However, it is in no way impossible. Here is how Syracuse finishes the season:
10/24 vs. Akron
This looks to be the most winnable game left on Syracuse's schedule. Last year, the Orange lost to the Zips in the Carrier Dome, all but sealing the fate of head coach Greg Robinson. Both teams are much different this season, with Syracuse playing at a much higher level while Akron has struggled. The removal of quarterback Chris Jacquemain from the Zips gives Syracuse a decided advantage in this game. The Orange should win handily.
10/31 vs. Cincinnati
After the easiest game on the schedule, the Orange face the No. 5 Bearcats in what may be their toughest test of the season. Cincinnati is the worst matchup the Orange will face all year. Dark horse Heisman candidate Tony Pike has torn apart every defense he has faced, and the Orange are sitting two spots from the absolute basement in college football, in terms of pass defense. This is going to be hard for Syracuse to pull out, and to do so, they'll need to control the ball and win in a shootout.
11/7 @ Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh has been carried by true freshman superstar back Dion Lewis all season, and this could play into the hands of the Orange. Much maligned quarterback Bill Stull will need to lead Pitt to victory in this game, as the Orange have shown that they will not let a running back win a game for the opposition, whether it is Noel Devine from West Virginia, or Evan Royster from Penn State. If the Orange continue to perform like they have against the run, and can stop Bill Stull from beating them, they can pull this one out.
11/14 @ Louisville
The Orange have had the Cardinals' number for the past few season, with a victory in the Carrier Dome last season and a monumental upset of Brian Brohm-led Louisville squad on the road two seasons ago. Louisville has struggled thus far this season, and may be the worst team in the Big East. Sophomore rusher Victor Anderson is the only proven weapon in the 'Ville's arsenal, and if Syracuse stops him, they will win their third straight against the Cardinals.
11/21 vs. Rutgers
Syracuse's final home game is against a team that has thrived on the recent downturn in the Orange football program, Rutgers. Rutgers came into the season with gaudy expectations, but struggled mightily in the opener against Cincinnati, and after a string of wins against weak opponents, but have major question marks at quarterback with true freshman Tom Savage and the passing game.
11/28 @ Connecticut
Connecticut plays a lot like Pittsburgh, in that their offense is almost completely predicated on the run game, and the Huskies might not have the same threat through the air that the Panthers do. Again, the the Orange stop the run, they can win this matchup.