Unfortunately, we have to talk about this game again
Friday games are weird. At the very least, the extra day gave me an opportunity to further digest what exactly happened between the Syracuse Orange and the Louisville Cardinals on primetime television.
I don’t exactly feel better about the game.
On the bright side, there were some good things that we saw from the Orange on Friday, believe it or not. Where will those silver linings show up in my grades? Well…
There were more noticeable mistakes from JaCobian Morgan against Louisville, but to his credit they weren’t all his fault. There were a multitude of reasons why his numbers were not great against the Cardinals. When you’ve got a true freshman starting his second game at quarterback who has spent just over a month of this season not on the scout team, you need the other pieces of the offense to help him.
I really wanted to give Morgan a C-. This wasn’t all on him. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that after seeing his final numbers: 5-for-12, 40 yards passing. Even with the other problems on offense, Morgan had some bad overthrown balls and didn’t look nearly as comfortable with his movement outside of the pocket. Andy pointed out that Morgan often escaped from the pocket to the short side of the field, giving him less time to find options.
Morgan seemed too rattled by the blitzes and pressure that the Cardinals defense brought and rushed his decision making. That’s not a problem exclusive to him among the Syracuse QBs, but it’s an issue that becomes much more apparent with limited passing opportunities. While the forced quick throws are not his fault, they could have been thrown with better accuracy.
At this point I’m just hoping that Morgan’s apparent head injury is not too severe. After what we saw from Rex Culpepper during the latter part of the game, Morgan is still clearly the best option at quarterback.
But who are we kidding? Give the people what they really want to see: Chris Elmore at quarterback.
Running Backs: C+
This grade should be so much higher. Sean Tucker wasn’t just Syracuse’s best offensive player, he’s got a great case to be named the best Orange offensive player this season. Tucker recorded yet another game where he averaged over five yards per carry, and the running concerns we had at the beginning of the season were wiped away. He was performing so well that the coaching staff looked to him later in the game on third and medium situations to get a first down.
What brings this grade down massively for me is Tucker’s pass blocking. He wasn’t used that much in the receiving game, which means the true freshman needs to help keep Morgan off the ground and in the pocket. There were multiple times early in the game where our resident former offensive lineman Steve noticed that the pressure that got to Morgan was because Tucker made a mistake in pass protection. I haven’t seen much of Tucker’s receiving game to comment on it, but his pass blocking is his biggest area that he needs to improve on heading into his sophomore year.
That does beg the question: Where was Cooper Lutz? He was only used on special teams and on the final offensive possession of the game. We’ve seen pretty much every team this year change their running backs every two or three possessions. Syracuse did that in the beginning of the year, but the coaching staff stuck with Tucker for almost the entirety of the game.
I may have recalled this incorrectly, but I remember ESPN reporting that Babers said in his halftime interview that he wanted to see third downs completed with passing plays. Throwing Lutz in for a possession would have helped massively with that, as he has shown that he’s a much better pass protector than Tucker right now. He also proved during the Wake Forest game that he can run the ball well given the opportunity.
Wide Receivers: D+
We find ourselves in the same situation that we usually find ourselves with the tight ends. When only five passes are completed, it’s hard to judge the impact that the wide receivers had on the game. However, in the few all-22 shots that we had of the game, it seemed like the wide receivers didn’t do too much to get themselves open and provide Morgan with an option when he had to scramble outside of the pocket.
A game like this should also be incredibly frustrating for Taj Harris, who hasn’t had a tremendous impact on the offense ever since he returned to the team after the snafu at the end of the Liberty game. The one interception thrown by Morgan on the day was Harris’s fault as the ball went right through his arms and into Kei’Trel Clark’s hands. Anthony Queeley led the team with three receptions, and with a defense that isn’t known as one of the better ones in the ACC, you expect someone of Harris’s caliber to have a bigger impact on the game.
Tight Ends: D
Boy that was underwhelming. Luke Benson went out on 10 receiving routes while Aaron Hackett went out on four receiving routes. There was only one target to a tight end — Hackett — during the game and it was one of the most telegraphed passes in the entire game.
I know what I’m about to talk about happened on special teams, but it bears mentioning here. Hackett badly flubbed a pooch kick during the end of the second quarter, giving the Cardinals a chance at scoring with good field position and 29 seconds on the clock. Luckily for the Orange, the drive ended with an Ifeatu Melifonwu interception.
But the talented cornerback said something interesting during the post game press conference. Melifonwu mentioned that no matter what play, he always expects the ball to come to him. Perhaps if Hackett had that same mentality on that kickoff, the lazy turnover wouldn’t have happened.
Offensive Line: F-
The less said about these guys, the better. I’ll let Steve eviscerate the line later this week, but in short, the offensive line was the reason why Syracuse lost this game. They never gave Morgan any time to throw, and Airon Servais’s mistake towards the end of the third quarter forced the quarterback out of the game.
That was abysmal and disappointing. Yes, the offensive line hasn’t been good all season, but the unit was slowly improving in the middle of the season. It felt like this was a massive step backwards for the offensive line, and it probably couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Defensive Line: D+
There were a couple of TFLs from these guys, but once again the main pressure on the ball carriers didn’t come from the defensive line. Again, they don’t need to always fill the stat sheet, but it’s always nice when they do. What brings this grade down is our recurring segment: bad run defense.
Somehow in the TNIAAM Slack chat, we had an idea on why the run defense hasn’t been great from Syracuse this year. The angles that some of the defensive linemen took to Louisville ball carriers were less than ideal. Those angles of attack are what’s allowing opposing running backs to gain a few more yards after contact.
Keep in mind this isn’t a problem exclusive to the defensive line, but they’re still the first line of defense against the run.. Their performance still isn’t ideal.
The backfield pressure that the linebackers are so good at returned against the Cardinals. Early in the game the linebackers found great penetration to running backs and each linebacker had his moment to force Malik Cunningham into a mistake. That kind of chaos is what made the linebackers so scary at the beginning of the season, and it’s nice to see that return.
There are still some issues with the group. Much like the defensive linemen, the linebacker angles to ball carriers once they get to the line of scrimmage isn’t ideal. Tony White still uses the linebackers in coverage as well, and they need to improve in covering pass catchers in order for Syracuse frequent use of zone coverage in the middle of the field to succeed.
I’m making an executive decision to split the defensive backs to cornerbacks and safeties. At this point of the season it’s warranted, and I’ll consider continuing this split for the rest of the season and the future. Ifeatu Melifonwu and Garrett Williams need more national attention, as I talked about earlier this season. Williams had one of the best picks of this season in college football, not just in Syracuse. Melifonwu also finally got another deserved interception.
What we’re seeing from opposing offenses is that there are only one or two opportunities for quarterbacks to find a gap in the SU cornerback duo’s coverage. It’s such a shame that Syracuse doesn’t have a better record, as more and more people would be aware of the talent that the Orange has at cornerback.
It’s so tough for these guys to perform up to the level that Andre Cisco, Trill Williams, and Eric Coley set at the beginning of the season. What the young freshmen have going for them is that opponents need an extremely talented wide receivers to expose their youth. We saw in the past weeks that the wide receivers to do the most damage against Syracuse were Zay Flowers and Tutu Atwell: two guys who are candidates for All-ACC consideration.
However, there are still two main issues. The safeties still need to shoulder some of the blame for the zone coverage issues this year. It’s become too easy for receivers to sit in the middle of the zone to gain easy first downs. When it comes to run defense, the safeties have a hard time getting around blockers on screen plays, which allows ball carriers on screens to gain a lot of yards.
The reason I bring up these two issues is that both zone coverage and screen plays allowed the Cardinals to generate enough offensive tempo to stay on the field and get first downs. These are issues that have developed throughout the season as the freshmen came into the starting lineup, and the issues haven’t faded.
Special Teams: D
Poor Andre Szmyt. He probably feels like a talented closer on a really bad baseball team. Szmyt doesn’t get any opportunity to showcase his skills because his team can’t put themselves in a position to use him.
Nolan Cooney is doing all he can as well. His punts continue to be excellent and he’s done a great job at flipping the field with his leg. ESPN play-by-play announcer Anish Shroff’s statement that punter has become a glamour position still rings true with Cooney’s performance this season.
But good lord, the last place you can turn the ball over is on special teams. The fumbles from Nykeim Johnson and Aaron Hackett were back breakers and momentum killers for Syracuse. That just can’t happen.
Play Calling: D
Let’s look at two areas of play calling: receiver routes and third downs. First of all, the routes that receivers are running don’t seem to give much of an opportunity for Morgan to get rid of the ball quickly, which he needs to do most of the time. Not using players like Hackett, Benson, and Lutz on routes more often as well is not helping Syracuse’s cause.
The third down play calling is abysmal also. There were multiple times where Syracuse turned to Sean Tucker to try and generate something on third and medium to long scenarios, which just didn’t seem well advised. There also didn’t seem to be many options available to Morgan on passing plays on third down for a checkdown.
Now it’s your turn. What grades would you give Syracuse against Louisville? Comment down below.