The Robert Anae hype train was off and running after the first two games of Syracuse‚Äôs season. Blowout wins over Louisville and UConn saw Garrett Shrader become a Pro Football Focus darling after performances of 18/25 236 yards two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Cardinals and 20/23 292 yards three touchdowns and no picks against the Huskies. Sean Tucker had 313 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns. The offense had 79 combined points. Everything was great.
Then defenses adjusted. Over SU‚Äôs last two games, Shrader is a combined 35/62 for 458 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. That‚Äôs a 56% completion percentage against Purdue and Virginia compared to 79% against Louisville and UConn. Shrader‚Äôs yards per attempt dropped from 11 in the first two games to 7.4 in the last two. However, the QB‚Äôs numbers in week three and week four were still better than last year‚Äôs totals (6.2 YPA and 52.6% completion percentage).
Tucker‚Äôs numbers have taken a hit, too. The all-American has just 170 total yards on 46 touches, an average of 3.7 yards per play over his last two games compared to 5.4 in his first two. The offense as a whole has gone from averaging 39.5 points per game to 23.5.
Even with these dips in mind, Anae has without a doubt been a massive upgrade over Sterlin Gilbert. The fact that Shrader‚Äôs numbers against Purdue and Virginia are better than last year‚Äôs yet are considered disappointing tells you everything you need to know on that front. However, just how good of a hire Anae ends up being will depend on how the offensive coordinator adjusts to the defensive adjustments made against him.
Both the Boilermakers and Cavaliers decided they were not going to let Tucker beat them. They stacked the box on first down with seven, even eight defenders around the line of scrimmage. Both teams bet that the combination of Shrader and Syracuse‚Äôs receivers were not good enough to beat man coverage, so they could afford to focus on Tucker. Then, when the first down runs didn‚Äôt work, the Orange went almost exclusively to the air on second and third down, even when Purdue and Virginia dropped back into zone, which UVA did often.
The issue Anae faces is a lack of talent at receiver. Oronde Gadsden II is the only one who can consistently beat man coverage, especially when he lines up in the slot against DBs significantly smaller than him. Virginia realized this in the second half after Gadsden went for six catches and 97 yards in the first half. The Cavaliers used bracket coverage against him when they played man-to-man, with one DB responsible if he broke inside and another if he broke outside. Once that happened, SU‚Äôs passing game went dormant.
Historically, Anae‚Äôs offenses have had success against zone coverages by attacking the intermediate range between the second and third levels of defenders, but it was different against UVA. Virginia did not drop back nearly as far as Louisville did in week one because the Cavaliers were not afraid of getting beat deep by a Syracuse receiving corps that lacks speed. The 12-15 yard routes were not there this time.
So, the secret is out on how to defend the Syracuse offense. It‚Äôs up to Anae to counter. How well he does that will determine just how good of a hire he ends up being.