Team: Syracuse Orange
Postseason: 38-14 New Era Pinstripe Bowl win over West Virginia
Top Offensive Performer: Ryan Nassib, QB
Top Defensive Performer: Brandon Sharpe, DE
Syracuse was looking to leave the conference they founded (the Big East) on a high-note, but things didn’t appear to be going as planned when they started off the year a disappointing 2-4. But then something clicked. The Orange, at one time haunted by the ghosts of a five-game losing streak to close 2011, wrapped up 2012 by winning six of seven, including their second Pinstripe Bowl victory in two years. It was a fitting end to send their senior quarterback (and soon after, head coach, too) out in style.
At the focal point of early August’s practices was a complete revamp of the SU offense. Over the past few seasons, the team appeared to get bogged down by their inability to move the ball (24 points per game in 2011; 22 points per game in 2010), and then-offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was tasked with fixing the issue. After quickly installing a no-huddle system with spread elements, it appeared the Orange were in business early in September. While the first two games both resulted in losses, the offense appeared to be firing on all cylinders, mostly by the strength of senior QB Ryan Nassib’s arm. In those two early contests alone, Nassib would complete 75 of 132 passes for 804 yards and six scores. But then the wheels began to come off, and thus entered then-coach Doug Marrone’s “tank” package; implementing goal-line elements on various downs and distances, specifically designed for running back Adonis Ameen-Moore. Once the set took hold, it immediately balanced the Syracuse attack, and a group that was floundering by mid-September finished the year scoring 30 points per game, with the 17th-ranked offense in the country. Nassib and wideout Alec Lemon were still the stars of the show, mind you, but what they really needed to be successful was a well-planned rushing attack — something they saw from October onward, as the SU backfield would end the season ranked 40th in the FBS, racking up 187 yards per game.
On defense, the early parts of the year were admittedly a struggle, as the over-matched secondary struggled to keep up with larger, faster receivers (most notably, USC‘s Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, who scored five combined touchdowns against them). But over time, that would change. The pass-rush became more active behind veterans like Jay Bromley and Brandon Sharpe, and suddenly, the Orange had something to work with. Aside from the first two games, SU opponents managed just 21.6 points per game against them, with five different teams failing to get to 20 points. Astoundingly, Syracuse finished the year with the fourth-most tackles for loss in the country (103, which comes out to nearly eight per game). So it shouldn’t have been much of a surprise for West Virginia‘s Geno Smith when he faced enough pressure to surrender two separate safeties in the Orange’s Pinstripe Bowl win (though from the stands at Yankee Stadium, he looked awfully stunned).
For all the success and momentum 2012 seemed to represent for Syracuse, there’s a distinct possibility this offseason already washed it all away (at least for next year, anyway). Nassib, Lemon and standout offensive lineman Justin Pugh are all headed off to the NFL, and coincidentally, so is Marrone (and eight assistants) who took the same job with the Buffalo Bills. New head man Scott Shafer’s done a nice job filling in on short notice, but we’ll have to wait and see if the recruits the Orange lost as a result of the staffing changes end up finding success for their new school choices. In the meantime, SU’s headed in the right direction, with 21 wins over the past three seasons (after just 14 total victories in the previous five years). It’s that type of momentum that hopefully leads to even more success as they move on to the ACC with one last (co-) Big East title in hand.