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Why the running game is the most important part of SU football’s offense

For the past two seasons, we have been told and promised over and over again that SU football’s offense is going to move fast. We’ve been told that it’s going to be one of the most productive and frenetically-paced offenses in the country. For the most part, that promise has come to fruition.

Despite finishing last season at just 4-8, the Orange still ranked 23rd in the country in total offense and 18th in the nation in passing. What’s concerning, however, is the fact that it always feels like there’s something missing. That something missing is a productive and efficient running game that doesn’t come from the legs of Eric Dungey.

Syracuse finished 2017 ranked 70th in the country in rushing offense, but while that doesn’t seem all that bad considering its record, the picture becomes a bit scarier when you dive a bit deeper. Dungey led the team in rushing last season with nearly 600 yards on the ground. That’s more than any SU running back and, keep in mind, Dungey only played nine of the team’s 12 games a season ago.

I know everybody’s sick of hearing about how bad the running game is, but what I want to point out is that in this Dino Babers up-tempo, high-octane offense that is supposedly so predicated and reliant on the passing game and the wide receivers, Dungey and his wideouts aren’t the part of the offense that is most important to its success. For Dino Babers’s system to work, the running game is the key cog in the machine.

It’s been pretty well-documented that the “Orange is the New Fast” offense is a descendant of the offense Baylor ran under former head coach Art Briles. They want to spread the defense out, create man-coverage situations that speedy skill position players can take advantage of and then hit you with a deep shot when you least expect it. Unlike the Briles version, however, SU doesn’t have a reliable running back option like former Baylor star Shock Linwood.

Because of that lack of a running game, SU doesn’t really have the ability to keep defenses honest and make them honor their ability to run the ball effectively. This allows opposing defenses to embrace the more dangerous part of the Orange attack and commit most of their personnel to the receivers and other skill position players in the spread sets.

A lot of team’s have used a 3-3-5 look with three down linemen, three linebackers and a nickel set for the defensive backs. This kind of defensive scheme leaves the tackle box depleted and essentially begs the Orange to beat its opponents up the middle with the run. However, because SU has shown an inability to the run the ball with any sort of consistency, the 3-3-5 look lets the defense play the numbers game and drop a lot of defenders into coverage and take away Dungey’s arm and his receivers’ talents.

If SU could run the ball more effectively and rip off big chunks of yardage on designed run plays and not just when Eric Dungey is simply running for his life, defenses would have to adjust and commit more guys to the box and more guys to stopping the run. In turn, that would take defenders away from the dangerous quick-hit passing attack that Babers loves and give SU more opportunities to be creative in the passing game.

In the end, because SU wants to spread you out, but can’t run the ball effectively against what is essentially a weaker defensive set simply based on numbers, the defense is easily able to take away the most electric and effective part of the SU attack simply by dropping one or two extra guys into coverage.

The way it stands now, the innovative and exciting offense that SU wants so desperately to be a strength is actually crippling the team. Because the passing attack is so dangerous, it highlights just how bad the running game is. That’s like setting a flashing billboard to defenses saying, “Hey we are going to pass the ball on almost every single down, so there’s no need to try to stop the run.”

However, if somehow, some way SU figures out the running game, that dangerous passing attack becomes absolutely lethal. When the defense loads the box to stop the run, SU will find itself with favorable matchups on the outside which Dungey and his receivers have the talent, ability and system to exploit. Not to mention the fact that it would also open up play-action opportunities to confuse defenses and really make this offense, “the New Fast”.

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