Is This Syracuse Football Team Hard-Nosed?
There is no secret that Syracuse football head coach Scott Shafer wants the Orange to be a hard-nosed football team. Just do a search for Shafer and hard-nosed—see what you get. But after 3 games… does it really appear that this Syracuse football team is hard-nosed? Unfortunately, one can make a strong argument that it is not. And that starts at the top.
The Confidential is a huge fan of Scott Shafer. That being said, do you get the feeling that this Syracuse staff out-coaches its opponents? The Confidential does not.
The world (OK, the ESPN3world) saw Villanova completely outcoach Syracuse in Week 1, only to lose because of a missed FG chip shot and a bad QB decision (after an entire game of good ones) to not run wide when properly going for 2 in overtime. Yesterday against Maryland, the Terps always had an answer for what the Orange were doing. Maybe it is talent. But it is hard to believe that the talent gap widened so considerably in one offseason.
But what is really getting grating is the uber-conservative decision-making by Shafer. That is not hard-nosed. That is the opposite. For example, why is Syracuse punting on 4th and 2 from the Maryland 46, down by 18 points in the 3rd quarter? As the Tuesday Morning Quarterback notes repeatedly in his ESPN columns, that sends a message to your team that you are more interested in managing the final score than winning the game. In fact, going for it on 4th down and failing is often MORE beneficial to the team, as it shows that the Coach has faith in both the offense (to get the 4th down converted) and defense (to not let a failed conversion implode the team). Instead, Shafer punted… touchback… net of a mere 26 yards. TMQ would have written “Game Over” in his notebook. And he would have been right. The Confidential respectfully contends that hard-nosed coaches do not eschew the opportunity to show the world that his team can pick up 2 yards on 4th down.
Of course, part of the problem is that the offense is ill-conceived when it comes to short-yard situations. Against Villanova, the team had 4th and 1 in overtime. Inexplicably, it lined up in the pistol, handing off to the one back at about the 5 yard line, negating the advantage of being at the one yard line. Historically, teams line up under-center at the 1 yard line to force the defensive line to account for a QB sneak up the middle. By NOT doing so, and not using any misdirection, the hardnosed decision to run turned into a hardheaded decision to run the ball right into a defense that showed all day that it could match up against the Syracuse offensive line. The true hardnosed play would have been to sneak Austin Wilson straight into the end zone four times… get the touchdown… and walk away. This stuff works. Ask Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, who lined up in the shotgun on 4th and 1 in overtime… failed… and left with a loss. The fancy formation is nice, but a touchdown is nicer. Get your QB under center and score. End of story.
Shafer’s defense is a question mark. They are very eager to raise a fist when sacking the opponent down 18. But the tackling is more reminiscent of the Gregg Robinson era. Go rewatch yesterday’s game and count the number of times that a defender dove at a ball carrier. When Shafer first got to Syracuse, the goal was getting as many defenders as possible into the area of the ball carrier at the time of the tackle. That means that a defender needs to slow down the ball carrier so that the rest of the defenders can converge. A dive is futile, and often times does not even make contact with the ball carrier. On the other hand, there are a number of players that are making good plays. Not a lost cause by any stretch.
The Syracuse offense moved the ball in chunks on Saturday. They were simply unable to finish too many drives. And some very poor passes by Hunt and drops along the way did not help. But, again, passing accuracy and catching consistency are things that can be coached. That is why there is a QB coach and a WR coach. The playcalling was not too shabby, really.
But special teams? If you think this is an area that Syracuse has an advantage over its opponent, you are in the minority. We saw a punt return for TD against Villanova. Maryland schooled our players on returns. We also had a number of punts by Maryland downed inside the 10. We had Syracuse players twice almost being struck by a punt, which would be devastating. Not sure whether it is hardnosed or not, but there is not a lot of intelligence.
Shafer is a good guy and a good coach. That may not get it done, however, in an Atlantic Division with 4-0 NC State and a Boston College team that can beat Southern California. If this team is going to reach its 8-win goal–which now seems unlikely–then Syracuse fans can only hope that the coach starts being as hardnosed as he expects his players to be. If you play not to lose, you almost always will lose. That is football and always has been.