Syracuse Orange WMQB: Rhode Island Recap and USC Preview
First Wake Forrest, then Rhode Island and now USC. The first two games of Syracuse's schedule provided last minute drama that unveiled both resiliency and weakness for the Orange.
Syracuse came into this year with relatively high expectations from the fanbase (at least high by the standards of a rebuilding program). While the Orange are 2-0, the two wins were ugly; however, this week's past win may have been the ugliest.
Rhode Island, a middle of the pack FBS team, gave Syracuse a scare. The Orange should have been fine without three defensive starters, right? The Orange should be able to just run the ball down the throats of the Rams, right?
Wrong and wrong.
The Orange had to rely on Ryan Nassib's career day and the Rams' inability to cover a screen pass in order to move the ball down the field and win the game. The Orange needed two key sacks from Marquis Spurill to stop Steve Probst's Ben Roethlisberger impression.
This week, the Orange prepare for their most difficult opponent: USC. Some would argue that the travel, environment and unfamiliarity makes this game the most difficult on the schedule (a view I agree with).
This match-up is an intriguing contrast of a once proud program on the decline due to scandal versus the rejuvenation of another under an old school approach. The game presents Syracuse with an opportunity to obtain national recognition and respect for the Big East if they can upset USC.
But first, there were some issues that needed to be addressed from the Rhode Island game.
The Great: Ryan Nassib
Nassib had a career day when the Rams defense made Syracuse a one-dimensional team.
While he did not go down the field too often, a 62-yard reception to Van Chew scared the Rams enough that bubble screens to Alec Lemon yielded consistent results as the game went on.
What made Nassib look so impressive was that he was not even playing a full deck so to speak. The running game sputtered, Nick Provo was not a safe target, the offense line struggled to protect and early on, it looked as if Nassib and his receiving core were not even on the same page.
Nassib overcame it all for 318 yards and three touchdowns, only proving that he deserves to be in the conversation when elite Big East quarterbacks are discussed, even though all he got this week was a helmet sticker.
The Good: 2-0
Donovan McNabb was never 2-0.
No Syracuse team this century has been 2-0. It has been all the way since 1999 that a Syracuse team has won their opening couplet of games, something that only highlights the frustration under the Greg Robinson regime.
As Doug Marrone said in his press conference, the team needs to celebrate and take pride in all wins, no matter how ugly.
Syracuse was dominating the statistical game but could never convert yards into points, so unlike Wake Forrest, this game was not a game many felt lucky to win; it was simply an ugly win.
The good news?
USC is in the same boat, winning their opening game against Big 10 basement dweller 19-17 and Utah 17-14 (the score was later changed to 23-14 when the PAC-12 ruled that Torin Haris’ touchdown on a blocked kick at the end of a game did in fact count).
The Bad: Missed Opportunities
Statistically, this game shows the struggles Syracuse had with Rhode Island.
Syracuse out gained Rhode Island 354-266, but they had almost double penalty yards and had five minutes less possession than the Rams.
Syracuse only started one drive in Rhode Island territory, and that drive ended with a turnover on downs. Furthermore, Syracuse was in Rhode Island territory on six possessions, two of which ended with punts.
The reason I mention this was because the Orange needed to capitalize on these opportunities due to their offensive struggles. Out of 12 Syracuse drives, four netted less than 10 yards, and one of the two remaining drives ended with the miscommunication of Nassib, Marrone and center Macky MacPherson.
Essentially, Syracuse should have scored six times against such an inferior opponent, yet only managed three touchdowns on drives that started deep in their own territory.
USC won't give Syracuse many scoring chances, and if the Orange wants to win, they will have to take advantage and score at every possible opportunity.
The Ugly: Offensive Line
This was bad.
In last week’s WMQB, I said the offensive line was not a concern because Rhode Island’s defensive front should not pose any problems for Syracuse’s physically superior group.
I was dead wrong.
Nassib was able to mitigate the pressure with bubble screens, but the only long play of the game (Nassib to Chew for 62) came off a fake double sweep that froze Rhode Island long enough to get a play off.
It is obvious that this area of the Orange needs to be fixed the most if the Orange are going to have any chance against the USC Trojans. With that, the three Orange keys are…
As Jake Moskowitz reported, the linebackers were some of the best players against Rhode Island last week. Against USC, they’re going to need to be stellar.
With news breaking that defensive end Chandler Jones and safety Olando Fischer will both be out for a second straight game, it is up to the linebackers to step up and fill the void.
Against the Rams, both freshman Dyshawn Davis and sophomore Marquis Spurill played with maturity and composure reserved for upperclassmen.
USC has always had tremendous depth at the running back position and is famous for breaking quick passes over the middle for touchdowns. If the linebackers can limit the damage done in these areas, the Syracuse offense will have a chance to match blows with USC.
2. Pressure Matt Barkley
This may be the most obvious yet difficult part of the game.
As mentioned earlier, Syracuse is missing a playmaker on the defensive line and secondary.
With this in mind, the Orange must pressure Matt Barkley if they are to have any success against USC. Barkley and the Trojans have a minus-two turnover margin for the year against subpar Minnesota and Utah.
Pressuring Barkly early and often will keep USC conservative, allowing Syracuse to stay with them throughout the game. If Syracuse can run a successful zone blitz scheme to confuse Barkley, watch for USC to keep the ball on the ground, a far less dangerous threat against the Syracuse defense.
3. Aggressive Play Early
You know the last time Syracuse was 3-0 at any point in the season? 1993, when they started 3-0-1.
The last time Syracuse started a season with three wins? 1991.
Syracuse, Marrone, Nassib, Davis, Thomas and the rest of the playmakers have to come out ready to win and want to win.
Against Rhode Island, Marrone went for a couple of fourth downs early and was very aggressive with his blitz schemes. Syracuse then played for more conservatively as the game progressed, even once the Rams had tied the game.
When I watched Nebraska stroll into USC back during the Callahan days (dad loves the Huskers), Nebraska failed to even attempt to play aggressive and got burned for it.
Syracuse knows it has a program revitalizing chance on Saturday if they can win. They just need to play like a team who wants this more than any other team.
Bonus: GUS JOHNSON FACTOR
As much as I love to hear his crazy antics in person as opposed to the same “GOIN UP TOP” 500 times on Madden, he has been a thorn in the side of the Orange for awhile now.
So here is to hoping that the streak continues: Whenever Gus Johnson and Syracuse collide, the underdog always wins.