0 Comments Published on 9.02.2013 by John Brennan
|Dejected Orangemen still gather for the post-game Alma Mater|
When the Doug Marrone Era began in Syracuse, orange T-shirts were being sold with "IT STARTS NOW" printed on the back. If "now" was that game, the "it" meant "losing the game." Of course, we all know that Douggie turned things around, ended his era with a .500 record, and took Syracuse to two Pinstripe Bowl victories.
But on Saturday, it was no longer the Doug Marrone Era. It was the first game of the Scott Shafer Era. Shafer -- the fiery former defensive coordinator for the Orange -- was brought in to replace the departing Marrone and keep continuity in the program for the players who loved him. Shafer had no easy task for his initiation into the head coaching ranks: play Penn State at a "neutral" site filled 10-1 with Nittany Lions fans, start a quarterback who has never started and is new to your program, and hope something works out. We'll take you through the ups and downs of it, but Syracuse lost a close one that was still undecided late in the fourth quarter, 23-17.
Orange Nation learned a few minutes before the game began what Shafer had known for about ten days: that transfer Drew Allen would start at quarterback for the Orange. He evidently had pulled away in the two-horse race with Terrell Hunt for the starting nod, so he took nearly all of the first-team snaps in all the closed practices leading up to Saturday's game. Allen has a heck of an arm -- so it was no surprise that he won the job. He was forced to use that arm quite a bit, as the trademark SU running attack didn't have much going for it. 37 rush attempts netted only 1.9 yards per carry for the Orange. Veterans Jerome Smith and Prince Tyson-Gulley just couldn't find open lanes, something the offensive line will need to improve upon quickly before this season spins out of control. Going back to Allen: he finished the day 16-37 for 189 yards, two interceptions, and no touchdowns in the air. My biggest takeaway from the passing game (other than conservative play calling, which we'll get to later) is that the timing often seemed off. I suppose that can be expected first the first game, especially with a QB brand new to the program. But he better develop some chemistry with his receiving corps fast, because 189 yards just isn't going to win football games.
This is Scott Shafer's baby, after all, and even though he wasn't calling the plays anymore, you knew the D would be out to get some tackles for loss and create good field position for the offense to take over. For the most part they did a great job here: the unit gave up only 57 net rushing yards, sacked the QB twice for 17 yards, and -- here's the big stat to stick out -- held Penn State to 1 of 16 on third down conversions. 1 of 16! Time and again, the SU defense stalled a PSU drive near midfield and forced a punt, taking away potential scoring opportunities. A few big plays, particularly in the air, led to Nittany Lions points and their eventual victory, so this is an area that needs improvement.
Some good and some bad here. The return team had a decent day, with two kickoff returns for 70 yards and two punt returns for 16 yards. Syracuse's seven punts traveled 295 yards for an average of 42.1 yards per punt. Three of those punts landed inside the 20, and none resulted in touchbacks. Ross Krautman was 2-2 on PAT kicks, but 1-2 on field goals, with the miss really playing a big role in the momentum of the game and ultimately with the strategy down the stretch, being down by six instead of three.
Coaching gets the worst grade of the game, not because I didn't think Shafer did a good job, but because of the whole staff being mediocre with how this game was handled. First off, I don't think Syracuse gained anything by not announcing the starting QB until gametime. If you're going to keep it secret, and hope to catch the defense off guard, then you better have some tricks up your sleeve -- and that means, don't call a conservative offensive game. That, unfortunately, was what we saw on Saturday: so many predictable play calls, so many comments of "when is Syracuse gonna take a shot downfield?" You've had all summer to prepare for this game, and at least the last ten days knowing Drew Allen would be taking the snaps, so why not be a little creative out there? In a game where the first quarter saw no scoring, a halftime score of 6-3 favoring the Lions, and no real big plays until the third quarter, the coaches really needed to step up and make something happen for this team, and they didn't. But the staff still deserves some credit for keeping the team in the game until its last possession, so no failing grade here.
I've seen it widely mentioned in postgame interviews and commentaries that this was not a "moral victory" for this team. That they expected to win, and they didn't, so this is a loss no matter how you look at it. And in the standings, it sure is. But it's a loss in a game where Syracuse still had a chance to win it on its last possession late in the fourth quarter. It's a loss in a game where you look at a few things that could have gone differently, and maybe you see a win instead. So while it's not a moral victory, I certainly see it as a learning experience. It was a hard fought battle where either team could have won; it was not a blowout. So you have to feel decent about this team moving forward. Well, there's that huge challenge against Northwestern on Saturday, but that's a discussion for another day.
Just a few final thoughts here, since I attended this game down at MetLife Stadium. Let me say this: that game was not a home game, it was not a neutral site game, it was an away game. Plain and simple. I'm pretty ashamed at the turnout of Syracuse fans. Most media reports I saw described it as about 70-30 in favor of PSU fans, but it was better than 90-10. Look, guys, this NYC-area game is basically going to be an annual thing for Syracuse, so we need to start showing up. Penn State travels well? OK. So does Notre Dame, who we'll see there next year. South Bend is 697 miles -- a ten and a half hour drive -- to MetLife Stadium. Syracuse is 242 miles, which can be driven in under four hours. I'm just saying. You wanna say having that home field advantage doesn't matter? Ask the players on the field, who had communications problems the entire game because PSU fans were so loud. Ask any Syracuse fan who was there, who felt like being the only guy at a Lilith Fair concert. Makes you wonder whether the communication issues wouldn't have been so bad if more Orange fans were there, and whether the execution of plays on the field would have been better without the communications problems, and... well, I'm going down a slippery slope here, but, think about it...
Up next, the 0-1 Syracuse Orange travels to Evanston, Illinois to take on #22 Northwestern (1-0) this Saturday at 6:00pm EDT. Look for more on this game from Orange::44 as the week rolls on. Otherwise, enjoy whatever's left of your Labor Day weekend!