Syracuse is the program that can see Sarah Palin from their campus, but you wouldn't know it from the game called yesterday, and last week's contest against UConn. Rutgers under Kyle Flood and offensive coordinator Dave Brock is showing a penchant for conservative play calling that would probably bring a smile to Woody Hayes's face, but cannot be rightly seen as a sustainable strategy for victory. It's not correct to say as Syracuse diehards are today that they gave the game away with unforced errors. Er, you don't block a kick, sack a quarterback, force fumbles, and intercept passes by magic. There's definitely luck in recovering fumbles, and to some extent with catch rate on interceptions, but Rutgers forced those turnovers. If anyone was trying to give this game away, it was Rutgers who did by consistently refusing to put their foot on the pedal and play aggressively. You want unforced errors? Try Mark Harrison dropping an easy touchdown, or Lorenzo Waters foolishly going for a pick six instead of batting away a ball, and surrendering a touchdown as a result.
Look, the team is winning, and that's wonderful. In fact, if you asked the Rutgers coaching staff today, they would probably justify their strategy by pointing out that Syracuse's team essentially acted like a hyperventilating child in this game. They ran themselves ragged, and Rutgers was just content to sit back and wait for the inevitable implosion, so the yardage was somewhat misleading in that a lot of it was empty calories. That's all well and good, but having seen what this offense was capable of against USF and Arkansas, they could be capable of so much more. Is there a law on the books preventing New Jersey residents from calling crossing routes and slants, or really, any play besides runs inside, screens, and deep bombs? A first down isn't twenty yards, or two; it's ten. For the second week in a row, Tim Wright was practically invisible in the game. That's inexcusable after how he kept getting open in those two road games and moving the chains.
Yes, there's a purpose to what they did, and it sometimes worked (thanks Brandon Coleman), but not consistently enough. When Syracuse wasn't screwing up, they were killing Rutgers over the middle time and again for huge chunks of yardage, which made RU's lack of those sorts of completions that more galling. The Orange were able to hang around for far longer than you would have reasonably be able to expect given some of their critical turnovers and awful special teams play in this one, and the reason was because Rutgers remained content to sit back and run out the clock instead of flirting with even a modicum of risk. This is definitely a common criticism of any football fan, and normally I think this complaint is rubbish (e.g., the popular refrain against the prevent defense), but it's starting to look more and more valid in this case. It would be one thing if you have the run game going, but the blocking was in short order yesterday. Thank goodness that was not to the detriment of the pass protection.
The defensive side of the ball saw more of a bend-but-don't break affair, with Rutgers defending a no huddle spread-ish attack, and content to trade yards for big plays. Obviously you'll take 15 points and a score every week, but that sieve over the middle has to be closed. It's hard to forget Cobi Hamilton running wild in that very same area a few weeks back. Khaseem Greene continued his strong senior campaign with a bevy of big plays to key the victory. It was absolutely one of those games where a player was locked in and unwilling to lose under any circumstances. Greene was admonished by a referee for a ticky-tack retaliation call (as usual, there were a lot of screwups on both sides. There was a bad DPI on RU as well, while SU might have had a case on some of the fumbles, but there was no good video evidence to overturn.) Those were critical, and the biggest turning point was a blocked field goal from Jamal Merrell that was returned by Duron Harmon for a touchdown. Syracuse had been driving, and this play let to a ten point swing and big momentum shift.
- For all the good on special teams, there were some critical mistakes. Rutgers lost some of its early momentum through two punts leading to touchbacks and in Mason Robinson calling a fair catch on a punt return that it looked like he had a fair bit of room on. That was about fifty yards in total leading up to their score later in the second quarter, which compounded with RU's conservatism to give a big scare.
- Nick Borgese missed one extra point on a bad snap. Anthony DiPaula was up and down on kickoffs. Justin Doerner was a lot better on punts this week, but the special teams needed to do a better job of preventing touchbacks.
- Besides the FG block, Rutgers didn't really try to go after any punt blocks, which is uncommon.
- At least penalties weren't as much of an issue.
- Sorry Met fans, but besides Kyle Flood over Doug Marrone, Queens shouldn't really ever beat The Bronx in anything. Had to say it. Today saw a stark contrast between the loose Flood and a beaten down Marrone who seemed ready to have his team run suicides down River Road. His team played tight. We saw that with Rutgers the past few years. Sometimes you need a hardass to do the heavy lifting, and the skills for that task are different than what is needed to get to the next level.
- Yep, attendance was an issue again, although that's relative given what every Big East team not named Rutgers and Louisville are drawing. Syracuse, Temple, UConn, and Cincinnati have all struggled badly in this year. Part of it is the home schedule. Not only are the non-UL teams not appealing, but they don't bring in much of a visiting crowd. Another big factor are the noon starts. As good as the student support is, you get more of that and more bandwagon fans at 3:30. I don't even see what the point is if the game is just going to be on SNY and ESPN3.
- Give Syracuse credit for one thing: they're a lot better than UConn, and should comfortably beat the Huskies.