The Syracuse Orange are in a rut that makes the Grand Canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk.
The offense has yet to eclipse the total number of points they scored against West Virginia in their three losses. The defense has been shredded against the run when the concerns all year were in the secondary. The special teams unit looks like class-A high school football with their 10-yard punts and kickoffs landing at the 20.
Long and short of it, this team went from BCS contender to Big East bottom-feeder.
So what happened? While it is true West Virginia came out flat against the Orange, who had Geno Smith game-planned to his bathroom breaks, no team can go from that good to this bad, while West Virginia possess too much raw talent to be decimated by a horrible team even on their worst day.
The offense is struggling. No doubt about it. They are frustrated, out of sync, and play calling is anything but sound.
So, how can this be fixed? First, it's time for a leader on the unit (Ryan Nassib, Alec Lemon and Antwon Bailey are the "leaders" with Bailey as captain) to call the classic players-only meeting to flesh out the issues of trust and frustration.
Secondly, they need to start taking risks in the game. Ryan Nassib's or Nate Hackett's logic with the ball is that even down 20, short, effective passes are the best option. Syracuse isn't winning with this plan, so why not just air it out downfield and see what happens? With the way special teams are playing, an interception on third down 50 yards downfield will probably be better than an attempted punt.
Finally, the running game needs to get more creative. Bailey is great at grabbing the dirty yards, but running at the same hole over and over again only works for so long. Use the running game to keep the defense off balance in a passing-oriented attack. In situations like those, Bailey always seems to get to the second level where he finds space and speed to gain huge chunks of yards and keep the defense off balance.
For the defense, the issue is simple: stop the run. The defensive secondary is not to the level of LSU, but they have drastically improved with man coverage, while the two Thomas safeties anchor the unit with suburb play, even moving up to stack the box. But you know there are issues when three straight opponents defeat Syracuse on the ground.
Start specifically with the spread attack. Syracuse has yet to really replicate the success they had against Geno Smith in West Virginia's spread. Louisville outplayed them physically on the line, UConn was able to keep Syracuse off balance and South Florida used B.J. Daniels' ability to fake handoffs perfectly to get the Orange out of position, opening up passing and running lanes.
While Cincinnati may not have the personnel to run this kind of attack, there is no doubt they will run the ball early to test the Syracuse defense. The defense needs to stay disciplined and secure tackles within the linebackers and backs in order to ensure option lanes stay closed while simultaneously mixing up formations to force the quarterback to think instead of run. The line has to assert their will on Cincinnati and force extra protection.
All of this is easier said than done, but the Orange can achieve all of this during their bye week because they have accomplished it before.
There was a time when the Orange offense was a machine led by Nassib and Bailey. The defense was once dominant at the line, even without Chandler Jones. The question is, can they do it again before this season goes down as a disappointment?
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