Coming off their first win of the season, Syracuse was looking to take the momentum on the road against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday. It wasn’t to be, though, as the Orange dropped to 1-3 with a 17-10 defeat.
It was a performance typical of Syracuse’s season so far. Quarterback Ryan Nassib was the key to just about anything good that happened for the Orange. He was 21-31 for 228 yards and a touchdown. He also threw two picks and lost a fumble, though. The platoon of running backs gained 122 yards, led by Jerome Smith’s 52 on nine carries. And it was clear that the Minnesota coaches did their film study, because they were able to shut down Marcus Sales, holding him to just two catches for 32 yards. He did, though, haul in Nassib’s lone TD pass, giving them a scoring play in every game so far this season. Alec Lemon was the beneficiary of the extra attention paid to Sales. He caught nine balls for 106 yards and became Syracuse’s all-time receptions leader in the process. So, kudos to him for that.
Unfortunately for the Orange and their fans, the Golden Gophers had a pretty good day too. Backup quarterback Max Shortell was 16-30 passing for 231 yards. Running back Donnell Kirkwood had 99 yards, including two short TD runs, on 28 carries. Not the most efficient running attack, but it got the job done.
Minny got it done, though, on defense, holding the Orange to only 350 yards of total offense while forcing four turnovers. They also sacked Ryan Nassib three times in the game, as many as Syracuse had given up in the first three games combined.
I’ll admit that I didn’t actually watch the game. Familial obligations prevented me from scouring various media outlets to find some sort of broadcast of the contest. Still, even just looking at the box score, it’s pretty clear that this game was a microcosm of Syracuse’s season so far; an even, winnable game that was thrown away by mistakes and sloppy play.
As usual, things didnt’ start well for Syracuse as Nassib threw a pick on the first play from scrimmage. Minnesota wasn’t able to get any points from the short field, but the tone was set. Nassib lost a fumble in the second quarter, then was intercepted at the Minnesota three yard line on a third and goal play in the third. Ashton Broyld lost the ball in the third as well. And that’s not to mention a muffed punt by Ritchy Desir (he recovered).
As we’ve seen from the Orange in every game this season, it’s almost as if they couldn’t get out of their own way. Every time it looks like they’re about to get something going, there’s a turnover or a key penalty. On Syracuse’s first third down conversion attempt of the game, the Orange were facing manageable third and five. Macky MacPherson gets flagged for a 15-yard personal foul and Nassib is sacked on the subsequent third and twenty play. The game was littered with mental mistakes that are what’s costing Syracuse games.
Meanwhile, the Syracuse defense can’t seem to get in the way of opposing offenses. 17 points isn’t exactly a scorched earth total by the Gophers, especially given how often they were on a short field. Minnesota kicker Jordan Wettstein was only 1-3 on FG attempts, which helped keep the game close. Still, between turnovers and three-and-outs, Syracuse had seven drives of four plays or fewer where the Gophers only had three such drives. It’s what we’ve seen all season from Marrone’s squad. The offense struggles to get started and the defense can’t seem to stop anybody, so the Orange end up in a hole and have to play catch up.
And, like we’ve seen all season, the offense eventually does come alive, but it’s too little too late. Down 17-3 with just over three minutes left in the game, Nassib led a beautiful nine play, 83 yard TD drive to pull within seven. The only problem was that it only left 43 seconds left for the Orange to try to recover an onside kick and drive another 60 yards or so for a tying score. Even if Syracuse had been able to recover (they didn’t) there simply wasn’t enough time. Ryan Nassib might be a great QB, but he’s not Peyton Manning.
The question now becomes, what should we be expecting out of this Orange squad. A third of the season is gone and we’ve seen a distinct and recognizable pattern through the first four games. Poor play in the early going puts the Orange in a hole and inspired play late isn’t enough to overcome the deficit (the game against Stony Brook not withstanding). I’m not going to sit here and bash the Orange, clamor for Marrone to get the boot or lobby to an early start to the post-Ryan Nassib era. They’re not a terrible team. They’ve shown flashes of really good football. The problem is, it takes more than flashes to win. It takes a whole half, three quarters, or even better, a whole game. Syracuse might be better than even the best the FCS has to offer, but they’re still not talented enough to go on a scoring blitz that can make up the kinds of deficits they’ve been facing. And it’s not just the defense letting opponents light up the scoreboard. Nassib and the offense need to do their part in holding on to the ball and putting up early points of their own.
On the one hand, this team is infuriating in how it seems to find a new way to give a game away every week. And even the bright spots; Nassib and Sale’s record-setting pace, Lemon setting records of his own, the furious comebacks, feed into that frustration because we can see what the Orange are capable of. We know that they could easily be 3-1 instead of 1-3. We know that they could be halfway to bowl eligibility instead of halfway to mathematical elimination. Many of us fans were looking for 2012 to be the season that the Orange finally break through and put up a solid season. So far, it looks like a season that will leave us yearning for what could have been.