Syracuse football’s 2021 season ended with a disappointing clang last night. The Orange were underdogs against a talented Pitt team and couldn’t keep up after holding an early 7-0 lead. SU ends its season at 5-7 and finishes four games better than it did last year – but with the same record it had in 2019.
With the whole season behind us, it’s time to dive into this year’s final edition of By The Numbers and examine how last night’s game unfolded.
Far and away the biggest reason Syracuse couldn’t hang against Pitt or provide a notably sparse crowd with some excitement was that running back Sean Tucker simply never got going. The freshman back finished his record-breaking season with a whimper, carrying 13 times for only 29 yards and no touchdowns. Pitt’s dominant rush defense – ranked 5th best in Division I – deserves a ton of the credit here, but it showed to any remaining doubters that Syracuse only went as far as Tucker could take them. To his credit, Tucker took the Orange a lot further than most people thought possible. The freshman finished his season with 246 carries for 1,496 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Tucker’s silence last night marked just the third time all year he was held under 100 yards. Rutgers contained Tucker to just 54 yards back in September during an all-around bad offensive day for the Orange, and Louisville barely pulled off the feat by “holding” Tucker to 95 yards a few weeks ago. Last night’s total of 29 yards marked the third lowest total of Tucker’s entire Syracuse career. Only NC State in 2020 (16 carries, 18 yards) and his career debut against Pitt that same year (4 carries, 23 yards) saw the Maryland native tally lower totals.
Tucker has said he’ll be back for next season, but 2022 could be his final year in Orange before potentially choosing to head to the NFL. With Dino Babers’ job security also being questioned, it seems like next year may be a critical year for both Babers and his star back. The Fizz will have more on that potential dilemma on Monday.
A nagging problem for Syracuse last night and a main reason it was prohibited from making a bigger game out of things was its third down offense. The Orange finished 3-12 on third downs last night to cap a year that saw persistent frustration in those situations. For the entire year, Syracuse’s 3rd down efficiency ranked dead last in the ACC at 33.1%.
That figure would be less discouraging if the Orange also didn’t finish last in the same category in 2020 with a 26.1% mark. Go back a year further, and SU wasn’t particularly good in 2019, either – they ranked 9th in the conference at 38.0%. Ever since the improvisationally-skilled Eric Dungey departed SU, Dino Babers’ offense has consistently struggled during conversion situations. After all, this offense wasn’t branded as “Orange is the New Clutch”.
242 and 91
The third down problems mentioned above are just one aspect of what has been an inconsistent offense under Babers for several years. This year, the Orange morphed identities from an up-tempo spread outfit into a more deliberate, ground-heavy attack. The results were all over the board. The Orange scored 41 points against a good Virginia Tech defense, but put up only three against a much weaker Louisville front.
SU wasn’t expected to do much last night against a sneaky dominant Pitt defense, but ‘Cuse’s 242 total yards marked the fourth time in 12 games that they finished with under 300 offensive yards in a game. If you include the 2020 season, Syracuse has finished a game under 300 yards in 11 of its last 23 games. All of those games have occurred on second-year offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert’s watch.
As it sits right now, Syracuse ranks 91st in the FBS in points scored. They were 118th last year, 69th in 2019, 11th in 2018, 75th in 2017, and 90th in 2016 during Dino Babers’ first year. Save for 2018’s magic, the rankings show that Babers’ offense has succeeded more in marketing itself than it has producing points. It’s also easy to forget that this year’s ground-and-pound shift was at least the third tangible identity change for Babers’ offense. In its 2016 debut, “OITNF” actually looked more like an Air Raid offense that threw the ball over 40 times a game. By 2018, it had transitioned into a Veer-and-Shoot style to fit Eric Dungey’s option skillset before the famously immobile Tommy DeVito threw sand in the point-producing gears for several seasons. Babers and SU have tried quite a bit to get this offense off the ground, but five years later it still appears to be one that struggles with basic consistency and production.