If you had told me that Syracuse would cover the spread by half against, USC, I would have been happy. If you had told me the Orange would only be down 14-3 (should have been 14-7) at halftime, I would have been giddy. If you had told me that they’d be tied at nil after the first quarter, I would have simply called bullshit.
Yet all those things happened on Saturday and, despite a lopsided score, this Syracuse team showed what it’s made of.
Let’s make no mistake. The Trojans were clearly the more talented team and it showed. Matt Barkley, Robert Woods, Marqise Lee and Penn State transfer Silas Redd gouged and gashed the Syracuse defense, especially in the second half. Four of Barkley’s school record tying six touchdown came in the final two quarters and while Syracuse was able to keep things close-ish, the Trojans couldn’t be stopped.
But enough Trojan slurping.
The good and the bad of the Orange’s performance. Obviously, the good is that they kept the game closer than the 25+ point blowout everyone was expecting. USC was never able to pull away, as it were. While Matt Barkley throwing TDs will-nilly like certainly kept the Trojans comfortable, Syracuse always came back with an answer. Even after a failed onside kick attempt allowed USC to extend the leat to 42-22, essentially ending the game, Syracuse still got back on the horse and tallied another TD. I tend to share the opinion of my high school basketball coach in that I believe there are no such things as moral victories. Yet, still, any coach in any sport will tell you that you can learn more about your team in a loss than you can in a win. Syracuse might be 0-2, but we’ve learned that they have the fight to make a game of just about any contest, even when they’re clearly outmatched.
But enough of the touchy-feely, “best 0-2 team in the country” crap. What about the numbers? Ryan Nassib has to have the first mention. If he hadn’t completed 45 passes last week, Nassib’s 30/45 performance would have been a record breaker. Combine that with 322 yards passing and three TDs (two in the air, one on the ground) and that’s a pretty solid game, even with two interceptions thrown in the mix. Much like the end of last season, whatever problems the Orange have in securing W’s has little or nothing do with number 12.
The other player in need of mentioning is Marcus Sales. He had another top-notch performance on Saturday, hauling in eight balls for 104 yards and both of Nassib’s TD tosses. It’s great to see Sales performing like he did in the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl win over Kansas State. Many, myself included, thought that Syracuse’s biggest hole last season was lack of a go-to receiver. A player like USC has in Woods who Nassib can just throw the ball up to and they’ll come down with it. Sales is the closest thing Syracuse has to that and it’s critical that he keep performing like it until Nassib can develop a rapport with the rest of the receiving corps.
And the team overall compared well to USC statistically. It wasn’t the total domination that the Men of Troy needed for the “pretty win” they were going after. The Trojans dominated the ball in the first half, but the Orange were able to equal out the time of possession in the second. Nassib nearly doubled the yardage output of Heisman front-runner Barkley. Syracuse had more total yards and converted more thirds and fourth downs. And after killing themselves with penalties in the opener, the Orange only drew five flags on Saturday. Coach Marrone said in the lead up to the game that he felt that this team was better than the one that travelled to the Coliseum last fall. Overall, it looks like he was right, though they still weren’t quite good enough.
Despite their stellar overall play, though, both Nassib and Sales serve as prime examples of Syracuse’s key shortcoming; execution. Any sports fan will tell you that when upsets occur, it’s always because the underdog out-executed the favorite. We saw it last season in Syracuse’s beatdown of West Virginia in the Dome. The Orange not only had the perfect game plan, but executed it flawlessly.
The same can be said about the USC game. The game plan was a good one. A scoreless tie after twelve minutes of play is an in-game victory for the Orange. So, whatever the plan was, it was working. After that, though, it all began to unravel and lack of execution was the primary culprit. Silas Redd ran through gaping holes, free to into the secondary. Tackles were missed. Assignments were blown. And it wasn’t just the defense. Late in the second quarter, Sales dropped a key third down pass. Granted, it was a difficult catch since Nassib threw it low and away. But Sale was double covered, so it was the only place Nassib could have thrown it. Nassib made his share of mistakes as well. In the waning seconds before halftime, Jeremiah Kobena abused his defender and had nothing but clear field in front of him. Nassib, though, under threw the ball instead of leading Kobena into the end zone, allowing the USC corner to break up the pass. So instead of heading into halftime down only seven, the Orange settle for a field goal.
It’s those types of little things that are going to be the difference for this year’s Orange team. We saw it against Northwestern. Despite bad turnovers and atrocious special teams play, they only drop the game by one point. Against the Trojans, maybe a TD instead of a FG at the end of the half doesn’t really make a difference in the final outcome. It’s simply the principle of taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented. Those chances are going to be few and far between this season, so they need to be seized.
Looking at the schedule for the rest of the season, there aren’t many (if any) teams left that are going to simply out-talent the Orange the way USC did. Louisville is the only ranked team left on the docket, but each and every opponent is in that slightly worse-slightly better range that requires Syracuse to be on their game in order to secure a W. The Orange have the talent to win them all. They have the coaching. It’s just up to Nassib and crew to turn make hits out of the near-misses and the wins will take care of themselves.