The Eye in the Sky Doesn't Lie

  • By Jed Drenning
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  • December 26, 2012 08:44 AM
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MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. You can read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller

There’s an old adage in coaching circles that suggests when it comes to game film "the eye in the sky doesn’t lie."

Film study can reveal a lot about a football team, from tendencies on either side of the ball to personnel strengths and weaknesses. When studying the opposition, game tape can tip you off to things that can be exploited and it can warn you about things that should be avoided.

I popped the hood on Syracuse – West Virginia’s opponent in Saturday’s New Era Pinstripe Bowl - and have spent the last few weeks dissecting their numbers and studying video from four of their games (Northwestern, USC, Rutgers and Missouri). Here are a few of the things that stood out to me – starting with some interesting figures:

• Scoring Defense: Syracuse ranks 52nd while West Virginia is 113th. The Mountaineers have faced seven offenses ranked in the top 25 in scoring so far this year. The Orange have faced zero.

• How’s this for symmetry? The West Virginia offense has run 940 plays in 12 games this year. Syracuse has run 939 plays in 12 games.

• The Syracuse offense plays with tremendous rhythm but all year it’s lacked the game breaking “pop!” that West Virginia brings to the table. The numbers bear this out. The Orange are 24th in the country and first in the Big East with 204 plays of 10 yards or longer – not far behind WVU’s 218. These 10-plus yard gains are exactly the types of plays that serve as the life blood of a rhythmic offense, allowing a team to keep advancing downfield without disrupting its flow. When the bar gets raised to plays of 40 yards or longer, however, Syracuse doesn’t fare as well. The Mountaineers have churned out 23 such plays to rank fourth in the country while the Orange have managed just nine, ranking them 85th. Syracuse will obviously be hoping to change this against a West Virginia defense that’s allowed 13 different receivers to record a catch of 40-plus yards this season.

• Ryan Nassib has enjoyed great success against WVU (2-0 record, seven TDs, no interceptions). Nassib has a compact delivery but can also throw with accuracy on the move. He’s athletic enough to convert a mid-range third down or two with his feet. Under most circumstances, Nassib looks to get rid of the football fast and seems most comfortable when working the quick game (which Orange tight ends are a big part of). He throws on rhythm and when he does push it downfield he loves to work the seams. All of this suggests a busy day for West Virginia’s linebackers.

• Nassib is typically safe with the football (one pick every 50 pass attempts this year), but he has suffered six multi-interception games in the last two years. What do those six games have in common? Nassib was sacked at least twice in each of them. When you start reaching him with pressure, he doesn’t respond well. The quality of his decision making erodes and he has shown that – under duress - he’ll put the ball in harm’s way.

• This Syracuse receiving corps is the best it’s had since the late 90s when Kevin Johnson and Quinton Spotwood were hauling in passes for Donovan McNabb. Marcus Sales (#5) and Alec Lemon (#15) provide a level of consistency that makes the Orange offense tick. Nearly 64 percent of the 133 combined catches by Sales and Lemon have resulted in first downs (compared to 53 percent of Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin’s receptions). Each of the two have bagged five 100-yard receiving games this year, including a game-defining, 244-yard effort by Lemon at Missouri. Watch that come-from-behind win over the Tigers and it’s hard to miss the fact that every time Syracuse really needed a play, Lemon gave them one.

• Syracuse feature back Jerome Smith (1,019 yards) is a no-nonsense grinder who runs low with a great forward lean and is most comfortable plowing through contact between the tackles. His longest run is 35 yards, yet he averages more than five yards per carry. This speaks to his consistency as a downhill runner. Smith does have deceptive speed that can lure a defense into taking poor angles, sometimes helping him bounce things off the edge when you don’t expect him to.

• While some offenses tend to reserve their traditional screen game for third and long, Syracuse doesn’t like to wait. They start dialing up the single back screens almost like clockwork on second and long – and they aren’t afraid to go back to it even after you’ve seen it.

• Syracuse likes to run several packages out of a “trips bunch” set in which two receivers (both a yard off the ball) align themselves to each side of the tight end - one on his inside shoulder, the other a yard outside of him. From this formation the Orange will burst into several combinations downfield, many involving a short “option” route by the tight end at a range of five-six yards. Nassib seems to lean heavily on targeting this tight end option as a security blanket. A few of Syracuse’s passing concepts out of this “trips bunch” include the wheel route that Mountaineer fans unfortunately know so well. It was on this wheel route that Nassib connected with inside receiver Lemon from 17 yards out in the final seconds for the winning touchdown at Missouri last month.

• The Orange’s “trips bunch” also has an effect on the backside of the formation where the single receiver (typically Marcus Sales or #88 Jarrod West) is often left in man coverage. When this happens, Syracuse takes advantage by firing a steady diet of quick slants that way. If the single receiver faces soft coverage against a cornerback playing “off” – particularly in third down and intermediate situations - Nassib will almost invariably take the snap and simply connect with that receiver on a quick hitch for the easy gain. Only when the corner reacts up to challenge the single receiver before the snap will the Orange abandon this otherwise simple pitch and catch technique.

• Syracuse will also run the ball from the trips bunch. Against Northwestern, the Orange showed an option look from this formation with Nassib faking to the single back then keeping the football and attacking the perimeter to the three-receiver side. In this case, the inside slot gives ground to serve as the pitch man on the option.

• More common for SU out of this formation is a base run play in which the inside slot – Alec Lemon – bolts across the formation after the snap to act as a backside blocker. The funny part about this? It’s painfully obvious that Lemon has absolutely no interest in actually throwing a block, particularly when his target is an untouched defensive end. The bell tolls for thee, Will Clarke.

• Syracuse also runs a naked bootleg from this formation. Nassib surprised Missouri with this boot to get a critical first down in the red zone.

• Defensively, the Syracuse corners will get up in your grill and hand-check you on a regular basis. Expect on Saturday much of the same aggression that we saw last year in the Carrier Dome. It will be incumbent upon the WVU receiving corps, particularly Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods on the outside, to be savvy enough technicians to get off the ball and into the route. Converting patterns against press coverage into successful fade routes will be imperative and that’s something West Virginia failed to do with enough consistency in last year’s loss to the Orange.

• With few exceptions other than the goal line, Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer likes to dial up the pressure on second down and long (typically blitzing five or six) while dropping into coverage on third and long (generally rushing only three or for).

• Marquis Spruill is Syracuse’s all-purpose linebacker – though it’s been reported that he will miss a “significant portion of this game” as punishment following an off the field incident earlier in the month. That’s a big hit for the Orange – particularly against the run. Spruill has started on both the inside and outside and runs incredibly well but does have a strong tendency to bite up quickly on play action fakes. This penchant to “nibble on the carrot” hurt Spruill on a few big occasions in the loss to Rutgers as his preoccupation with the running game allowed crossing routes to come open behind him.

• Linebacker Dyshawn Davis (#35) is a physical tackler who plays with a suddenness that jumps out on tape. He has a nose for the ball against both the run and the pass. With the football in the air, Davis will often pounce on short routes with the velocity of a defensive back.

• Rounding out the SU linebacking corps is Siriki Diabate, a senior who uses his speed to make tackles sideline to sideline. He sheds blocks quickly and slices through the first wave of blockers and can track down ball carriers in a flash.

• It’s easy to see in watching Syracuse that this team misses the sheer force up front that Chandler Jones (first round pick in April’s NFL draft) provided in recent years as a pass rusher – but what team wouldn’t? SU might lack a single player as dynamic as Jones but the Orange do have athletes in numbers off the edge. This is a disruptive defense, particularly against the run. Nineteen different SU defenders have contributed to Syracuse’s No. 10 national ranking (No. 1 in the Big East) in tackles-for-loss. Topping that list is defensive end Brandon Sharpe (13.5 TFLs), a strong edge player who also is Syracuse’s biggest pass rushing threat. Sharpe has a great burst, he fires in under control, he doesn’t bite on play fakes and he rarely gives up containment. I wouldn’t be surprised if Geno Smith’s tip sheet this week includes the warning: “Don’t boot toward #91.”

• Strong safety Shamarko Thomas (#21) is the cornerstone of Syracuse’s secondary. He isn’t afraid to sneak up into the box area to help against the run, particularly on early downs. Thomas leads the team in tackles, he plays well in the open field and he has better ball skills than you might expect from a defensive back with such physicality.

• SU’s biggest coverage liability might be cornerback Ri-Shard Anderson (#9). He’s a serviceable tackler in space but against the pass he often loses the football in the air. This was especially apparent in the Southern Cal game as Anderson was taken to school by Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, specifically in the red zone.

• Cornerback Keon Lynn (#8), a former Mirimar High teammate of Stedman Bailey and Geno Smith, is a solid tackler in a crowd but he can be exposed in the open field. His cover skills won’t overwhelm you as much as his banter will. A year ago in the Carrier Dome, Lynn wasn’t afraid to talk plenty of trash to his old high school mates – and to anyone else who would listen. Trust me, I was on the sidelines. Expect more of the same on Saturday.

• Cornerback Brandon Reddish (#4) is a reactive athlete but seems to lack the muscle to tackle well after the catch. Reddish has the speed and agility to track you down but he is often shaken loose once he does. Watch Reddish let USC’s Xavier Grimble slip free of a sure tackle for a fourth quarter score and it’s easy to envision him ending up on the ground if he underestimates Stedman Bailey’s strength.

• Orange free safety Jeremy Wilkes (#4) is a cagey player but he is out of his element when locked up in man coverage against anything more than a sluggish tight end. This shortcoming was quickly exposed against Rutgers when he was asked (in limited instances) to walk up and cover Brandon Coleman in the slot.

This isn’t the same Syracuse team that bludgeoned West Virginia in the Carrier Dome last October. It’s a different kind of team: in some ways a better one, in other ways not quite as stout. This is an Orange football team that for 12 games has leaned – sometimes more heavily than it’s wanted to - on its senior quarterback and its two playmakers on the perimeter.

Sound familiar?

There’s always one question you have to ask, however, before you take the field after a long layoff for any bowl game. Has Syracuse spent the weeks leading up to this matchup reinventing itself – or will West Virginia be presented with more of what it has already seen on film?

My guess? More of the same.

After all, the eye in the sky doesn’t lie.

I’ll see you at the fifty.

Wednesday Morning Notes: Both teams will have workouts today in New York City. Syracuse will have a morning practice at Columbia University while West Virginia will have an early afternoon workout at Fordham. Select players and coaches will be available to the media later this evening to take part in Pinstripe Bowl Media Day festivities at Yankee Stadium ... Mountaineer fans still interested in purchasing tickets for the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl can do so by logging on to WVUGAME.com ... Syracuse coach Doug Marrone has announced more suspensions for the Pinstripe Bowl - RB Adonis Ameen-Moore and TE Max Beaulieu will not play in the game. Ameen-Moore is the more significant loss of the two because he plays a key role in Syracuse's goal line offense. Previously, Marrone announced disciplinary action against LB Marquis Spruill and Steven Rene, although Marrone said Spruill will play against the Mountaineers.

- John Antonik