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Go ahead, coach, crack a smile!
Pretty much all of us -- experts and non-experts alike -- had written this game off as a Syracuse loss long before it happened. The Mountaineers came into the game hot, ranked #15/11 and having one of the most high-powered offenses in the country, while unranked Syracuse only knew the win by the slightest of margins this season and had a young and, at times, ineffective defense. It was the perfect recipe for disaster. But none of us knew that forecast of disaster would be placed at the feet of West Virginia. In one of the most well-rounded games of football execution in recent memory, the Syracuse Orange defeated the Mountaineers 49-23 in the Carrier Dome on Friday night.
Vanilla? I like it in my ice cream and in my vodka, but not in my football team. This, my friends, was not vanilla. This was a finely-tuned offensive gameplan from the very beginning: control the time of possession, pound the ball at the defense from constantly running the ball, mix in some effective pass plays, and score points. Syracuse did that as if they had an extra week to practice against a Pop Warner squad. No turnovers. No sacks. Near perfect execution. Ryan Nassib led the way for the Orange: 24 of 32 for 229 yards, four TD passes, and one he ran in himself. Nassib was so effective because: a) the offensive line worked really hard to give him time in the pocket; b) Nick Provo; and c) Antwon Bailey. Provo gets the award for "Best Opportunistic Bastard of the Night" (and, believe me, I use the term bastard in the most endearing of lights). The plays drawn up for him were perfect, and he executed them near-perfectly. The guy's got skill. Bailey's domination on the ground opened up the passing game; Bailey carried 22 times for 125 yards and a touchdown. Combine that with solid production from Jerome Smith, Adonis Ameen-Moore, and Jeremiah Kobena, and you lock down a very important and very traditional form of gameplay for the Orange. The West Virginia secondary zeroed in on the runs, which made Nassib's use of playaction not only effective but, let's admit it, sexy. Because the secondary bit on it every single time. Enter: Nick Provo. Three touchdowns. Even David Stevens got in on that action. The offense was deliberate; the offense was effective; the offense was not conservative; and the offense put up a crap-ton of points. In fact, the only thing preventing an A+ here is that they fell short of 50. Barely. And as far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing to complain about.
Chandler Jones. You think this squad missed #99? Just a little? The stats might be deceiving (408 total yards given up, including 338 in the air) but the scoreboard doesn't lie: 23 points (seven in garbage time). This defense played like it had something to prove (it did, and it did). Constant pressure on Geno Smith all night, sacks, and two very costly interceptions. The defensive line for Syracuse definitely did its job. Given the expectations coming into this game, this is a very well-earned A. It would have been an A+, but I can't give perfection to a squad whose secondary still seems rather clueless. I know, it's almost hyper-critical at this point, but it's something that's been lacking all year and in a closer game where our offense struggles, that can cost us the game.
Special Teams
Special teams has been the (a) achilles heel this season. Not Friday night. No field goals to worry about. No missed extra points (Ross Krautman was a perfect 7 of 7). Oh, and there was that whole Dorian Graham 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown thing. Yep, that happened. And between him and Jeremiah Kobena, Syracuse got 174 return yards and, with it, some great field position. Special Teams falls just short of an A+ because Krautman's kickoffs left something to be desired. They're a bit short, and West Virginia was constantly getting good starting field position from his kicks. There was the one that went completely out of bounds, which of course we all know is a penalty. Ross, please work on this. Thanks.
If there's one thing that this coaching staff does well with, it's time. Dating back to the preparation for last year's Pinstripe Bowl, it was clear that with several weeks notice, these coaches could make some good things happen. Here, the coaches just had an extra week to ready the team for the Mountaineers. But, it was plenty of time. There was a clear strategy to control the clock (SU won 35:55 to 24:05). There was a clear strategy to pound the ball down the throats of the defense. There was a clear assumption that such a ground game would open up the passing lanes. And it did. It all worked. No vanilla. Just old-school Syracuse football. And some razzle-dazzle. Kudos to the coaches, and to Doug Marrone especially.
4.0 (A)
As noted above, there were some moments of weakness and non-perfect aspects of this game for the Orange. But, why focus on those things at a time like this? This is a very important win for Coach Marrone, for these players, and for this program moving forward. Syracuse was a 14-point dog going into this game, and they won by 26 points. You don't see that very often. Especially from this team. Enjoy it. Show the report card to your parents and hope they take you out for ice cream and give you $100. It was one of those games.
A+ to the Carrier Dome crowd. The announced attendance of 45, 265 was either spot-on or low. Before the game I jokingly said "With it being parents weekend and no student section, the students will be scattered around the Dome, individually be loud, and collectively get their family/friends around them to be loud: an even more effective student section." I was right.
B- to the officiating crew. Watching on TV they seemed to have called a better game than I remember in person; but what was up with that Nick Provo incomplete pass later ruled a touchdown? That happened right in front of me and it was clear as day a completed pass and a TD. What I don't understand is how the original ruling on the field was that he caught the ball, controlled it, and lost it going out of bounds, thus, an incomplete pass. Please explain that to me. But, I'm glad they looked at the replay and got it right.
A- to the SUMB. Though the halftime show is getting a bit worn by now, they sounded great in the stands, especially with some new tunes. They were mic'd for much of the game, and came through quite well on the ESPN broadcast.
A+ to Doug Marrone for personally inviting the Phoenix High School football team to be his personal guests for the game, in light of the awful tragedy they've faced this week in losing a teammate on the field during a game. Nothing but class. This guy understands what football is and what it means to give back to a game that has given so much to him.
Odds & Ends
Syracuse was 12 of 17 on third down conversions. This, of course, was helped by the fact that most 3rd down situations were short, manageable plays. Lesson learned. Keep it up.
Always great to beat a ranked opponent. Even better when it's in front of the home crowd. And as it turns out, the last top-15 team Syracuse beat in the Dome was 2002 against #8 Virginia Tech in 3 overtimes. That was also Parents Weekend. Maybe we should always do a Parents Weekend when a ranked opponent comes to town.
How big is this for the program? Beat a ranked opponent, do it in front of a nearly-packed Carrier Dome, and do it on National Television in front of a couple million viewers. Turning point or not, this was important. If even one prospect out there becomes interested in Syracuse because of this game, then mission accomplished.
Syracuse now has five opportunities to clinch bowl eligibility. Let's hope they only need one. You're up, Louisville!


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