Big trouble: Facing WVU’s dynamic offense, SU looks to eliminate big plays on defense

first_img Facebook Twitter Google+ Marquis Spruill can’t explain the disparity of the Syracuse defense. He hears the numbers. In a unit that has been wildly inconsistent from game to game this season, the stats are all there near the top. SU ranks 18th in the nation in total defense. Tied for a cool 19th in first downs allowed, holding opponents to just 16 first downs per game. But then there’s the big play. The red zone plays. When opponents are inside the Orange’s 20-yard line, they score 86 percent of the time. That figure is virtually the only stat that ranks SU near the bottom of college football on defense — 85th overall. It’s troubling to Spruill, a freshman linebacker. He pauses for eight seconds, thinking about why a defense that looks dominant on paper has had so much trouble in big spots. ‘(Eighty-five) in the red zone?’ Spruill said. ‘I couldn’t really — I don’t even really know.’AdvertisementThis is placeholder text As the Orange (4-2, 1-1 Big East) heads to West Virginia for a contest with the No. 20 Mountaineers (5-1, 1-0 Big East) Saturday at noon (ESPN2), keeping WVU’s middle-of-the-pack, yet dynamic, offense out of the end zone in those big-play situations could be crucial in determining the outcome of a close game. It’s a matchup SU is looking to win for the first time since 2001. In its two losses this season, Syracuse has been plagued by the big play. The backbreaker. And on Saturday, it will be especially important to correct. Because to SU head coach Doug Marrone, this West Virginia team is the best his Syracuse squad has faced thus far. A common theme this season has been Marrone preparing the Orange as if it is facing a Top 10 team every week. And this time, Marrone admitted the Mountaineers are far and away better than the Maine’s, the Colgate’s and the Akron’s. Even Pittsburgh. ‘To date, this is the best team we’ve faced, from what I’ve seen on film,’ Marrone said. ‘Coming off a big loss — a disappointing loss — to a Pitt team, the schedule doesn’t get any easier. We’re playing a West Virginia team that’s all of Pitt and probably more speed.’ The challenge for this SU defense will come in the form of a four-headed monster of weapons that are among the Big East’s leaders in their respective categories. Quarterback Geno Smith is second in the conference in passing yards per game and pass efficiency. Running back Noel Devine is a two-way threat. And wide receivers Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin are one-two in receptions per game. ‘They have the potential to be an explosive offense with the players that they have,’ Marrone said. ‘I think this is a Top 10 football team. … We’re playing a team that truly, deservedly, should be a Top 10 football team.’ And the key to stop those threats starts with stopping the big plays, the third-down conversions in the red zone that came back to haunt the Orange against Pittsburgh. Three plays, 170 yards. Those three plays — a 79-yard touchdown reception by Devin Street to start the game, a 61-yard reception by Jon Baldwin and a 30-yard touchdown reception by Mike Shanahan — are what the SU defensive coordinator pinpoints as the main perpetrators of the blowout. ‘Yeah, the big plays did kill us,’ Shafer said. ‘We missed some tackles. … You can’t take those back. You take them back, and we’re sitting here having a different conversation. So you look at where we lost leverage or where we missed a tackle or two here and there.’ One of those broken plays was a surprise — the 79-yard touchdown to start the game, when a simple bubble-screen from Pittsburgh quarterback Tino Sunseri turned into a mad dash to the end zone for Street and humbled the SU defense to start the game. Shafer credits that to the Panthers’ scheme and game plan for the Orange. They went away from their bread and butter — the power formation. Shafer said Pittsburgh ran 46 plays out of that formation in its four previous games. Against SU, he said the Panthers only lined up six or seven times in the formation. The element of surprise caught Syracuse off guard. But Shafer isn’t altering the way he prepares. He has to scheme for the percentages. ‘You have to go with the numbers,’ Shafer said. ‘You have to go with the percentages. You have to prepare for who they are and what they do well. They’re not going to change. They’re going to do what they do well.’ Spruill was the culprit in another of those plays last Saturday against the Panthers. A Dion Lewis rush for no gain and a false start on Pittsburgh had pushed the Panthers back to second-and-goal at SU’s 15-yard line. Then Spruill missed his assignment. Pitt running back Ray Graham slipped out of the backfield and found himself wide open to stroll into the end zone. It gave the Panthers a 14-7 lead, the start of a 28-point run that would put the game away. ‘I think it’s just when we get in that type of mode,’ Spruill said of red-zone situations, ‘everyone gets excited, and one person might forget their assignment. And that one blown assignment might mess up the whole thing, and they might get a big play out of it.’ So though most of his defensive stats are near the top of the charts, Shafer knows the most telling number is perhaps that glaring 85. Spruill knows the elements his defense will face. He took a trip to be amid the Mountaineer faithful last year while at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. That game was against Colorado, and the only way he described being with the crowd was ‘crazy.’ He also knows the elements the defense will face on the field, in the form of those four players very capable of turning no-gains into big plays. And he knows for the Orange to win, those recurring big plays can’t happen. ‘It’s very important,’ Spruill said. ‘We can’t let them do that, because that obviously puts us in a big hole. … It’s just something we have to work on.’ bplogiur@syr.edu Commentscenter_img Published on October 20, 2010 at 12:00 pmlast_img read more

Strong returns from offseason injury to provide boost for Syracuse early in season

first_img Published on September 6, 2012 at 2:01 am Contact Jack: jstruitt@syr.edu Hanna Strong watched from the bench as Syracuse opened its season with an overtime victory over Colgate.Strong, a sophomore midfielder, missed spring workouts leading up to this season and wasn’t quite ready to go. But in the second game of the season against Albany, she was back on the field for the Orange.“When they put me in the second game, I wanted to come out really strong and show them that I deserved to be out there,” she said.She did just that when she scored her first career goal in the 29th minute against the Great Danes. Strong and the Orange (2-2-1) take on Long Island (1-3-0) and Army (3-3-0) in West Point, N.Y., this weekend in the Black Knight Classic. Despite playing less than 200 minutes in four games, Strong has netted two goals and one assist this season for the Orange and is second on the team in points with five.Strong did not have a goal or an assist in 18 games for the Orange in 2011. This season, she recorded a point in three consecutive games before the streak was snapped against Ohio State on Sunday.AdvertisementThis is placeholder text“Last year, I was more intimidated to shoot and make a mistake,” she said. “This year, I know that if I don’t shoot, I’m not going to score.”Senior Alyscha Mottershead knew Strong would be a contributor this season after she scored her first against Albany.“She kind of comes on and changes the game,” Mottershead said.Reaching this point wasn’t easy for Strong.She injured her hip in the spring and was forced to sit out. Strong then had to work with the team trainer for months before she could begin preparing for the season.Strong knew she would have to push herself to make up for lost time, and SU head coach Phil Wheddon has been on the same page.“She didn’t play in the spring, so we’re trying to get her back to game fitness, and that’s a gradual process,” he said. “So we are on her a little bit harder.”Strong has only been back for four games, but Mottershead doesn’t see any lingering effects from her injuries. Instead, Mottershead said she has seen Strong going 100 percent.“You wouldn’t even be able to tell today that she’s had a little bit of a rough spring,” she said.But such success isn’t new to Strong, who helped lead Monson High School to the Massachusetts state finals as a sophomore and an undefeated season as a senior.Since the seventh grade, Strong played on the varsity team. So by her sophomore year of high school, she was already one of the more experienced players on the team.“I kind of had to take leadership and be the motivation on the field,” Strong said.Being such a young player on a high school varsity squad helped prepare Strong for the offseason. She has been playing for the New England Mutiny, a semi-professional team in Massachusetts, for the past couple summers, too.“It was a big change because they were all in their mid to late 20s, and I was still 17 at the time,” she said.Due to the folding of the Women’s Professional Soccer league, several professional players came down and played with the Mutiny. The experience made her a better player.So has her long offseason. It provided plenty of hurdles for Strong, but her hard work is finally starting to pay off.“It was a long recovery,” she said. “But it was worth it.” Comments Facebook Twitter Google+last_img read more