While the rankings we assign to teams during each week of the college football season are so subjective and arbitrary that there are calls to abolish them, they do, in many cases indicate the relative strengths of the teams on the field. So, when something like UL-Monroe 34, #8 Arkansas 31 happens, it’s still a shock. But it also requires something special to happen. Something so whacky and unexpected that the collective consciousness of college football fans is drawn to the game and immediately dons the cap of the Cinderella story. So when Warhawks QB Kolton Browning completes a 23-yard TD pass on fourth down to tie the game, and then later runs for a 16-yard touchdown to seal the victory in OT, that’s when lightning strikes and huge upsets happen. When it doesn’t? Well, that’s when you see USC beat Syracuse by 13.
SU coach Doug Marrone wanted his team to believe they could knock off the second-ranked team in the land on Saturday, and for the most part they did believe it was possible. On the ride down from Central New York, in the locker room and in pre-game warm-ups, there’s a good chance that message still permeated through the minds of every Orange player. But then the proverbial glass slipper was forcibly removed the second the game started. Why? Conservative play-calling.
With his NFL coaching background, it’s understandable why Marrone wouldn’t take many risks. At the professional level, you take very calculated risks to help ensure victory because of the money at stake for you, your players and your franchise. It’s not fun to lose in the NFL, but if you do, there are no rankings to watch out for the next day, no bowl game to position for. At the end of the day, your only job is to make the playoffs, and then see what happens next. Marrone allows himself to forget this at times – see last season’s 49-23 upset of a ranked West Virginia team and the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl victory as prime examples – but for some reason, he wouldn’t against USC.
Take a look at the box scores for the USC/Syracuse game, and the UL-Monroe/Arkansas game, respectively. What do you notice? Both Syracuse and UL-Monroe won the yardage and first down battles, while the turnover margin was just one in either direction (ULM +1 over Arkansas, USC +1 over SU). But the glaring difference, and it’s one attributable to the final results in each game, is the amount of fourth-down attempts. The Warhawks were well aware they’d need to catch lightning in a bottle, and did so in part because they took significant risks. They converted six of seven fourth down attempts! Including both the game-tying score, and the game-winning score. Syracuse, on the other hand, tried and converted just twice on fourth-down. Which reminds me…
The moment Syracuse lost the game (in my mind) was on a fourth-down call. Just 30 seconds into the fourth quarter, down 12, the Orange had advanced the ball to the USC 49 and still had the momentum advantage. On a fourth-and-two, Marrone (who handles Orange special teams play-calling) elected to punt the ball. After the Syracuse offense dragged the team back into the game. And research (albeit of the NFL variety) says this was the wrong decision (graph via AdvancedNFLStats.com; H/T to SBNation user Rocket Ship Science):
Firmly in the “go for it” portion of the graph, SU stood a great chance to continue their momentum, especially given how well they were already moving the ball. Adding insult to injury, the punt went for a touchback, and then Robert Woods gained 76 yards on the next play.
Not saying that Syracuse would have certainly won the game had they gone for it early in the fourth quarter. However, as you can see by the results of the ULM-Arkansas game, you have to take risks to beat a team significantly more talented than you are. On defense, the Orange did that with a great package of blitzes and consistent pressure (despite the fact that it was eventually exploited). But as far as the offensive play-calling goes, running the “Wildcat” doesn’t count as ingenuous. Look at the jobs done by other “giant-killers” in past seasons, and you’ll likely see the same risk assessment as ULM, rather than Syracuse. From Boise State, to Utah and so on, it’s been understood that winning the typical wars are not enough. You need something special. Unfortunately, Syracuse just didn’t realize its moment on Saturday. Who knows when they’ll get another chance.