Syracuse’s defense didn’t allow any touchdowns against Ohio, and in the first half against Rutgers, the Orange looked as if they were going to repeat the end zone shutout. Mistakes from the offense left SU with a short field to guard on most drives, but its 3-3-5 defense held a Scarlet Knights squad that scored 61 points in week one to only 17 in the Carrier Dome.
Linebacker Mikel Jones said he still expected a shutout in the second half, despite Syracuse’s strong defense beginning to fold. But head coach Dino Babers said the offense and special teams were the real issues, giving credit to his defense’s performance against the Big Ten team.
“It bothers me that we can play that well on defense and we can’t help them,” Babers said. “It frustrates me, and I don’t get frustrated very easily.”
These are the key defensive plays that kept Syracuse in the game, despite its 17-7 loss against Rutgers:
Twist and turns
Sixth-year senior Josh Black said it took SU’s defense the first three quarters of last season before it was comfortable in the 3-3-5 defensive set. This offseason, the Orange added a variety of complexities to the system, Babers said, including changing up the looks at the defensive line.
Against Rutgers, the Orange frequently brought more than three defensive linemen to the line of scrimmage, mostly bringing up linebackers like Jones, who was ACC Linebacker of the Week. On this play Syracuse brought Marlowe Wax, anchoring him on the right side of the line.
At the line of scrimmage, Syracuse has its defensive linemen on the left side of the ball in a play called the “twist,” meaning that one player goes inside while the other goes outside. This ensures both gaps are still contained, but the lineman covering those gaps switched spots.
McKinley Williams starts just left of Rutgers’ center, but he darts behind Caleb Okechukwu with the “twist,” placing himself directly in front of the right tackle, Hollin Pierce. Okechukwu’s move inside shifts Pierce, leaving Williams with an easy route to Scarlet Knights quarterback Noah Vedral. Williams bowed to the Carrier Dome crowd after he dropped Vedral 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
After Rutgers was stuck on its own side for the majority of the first half, the Scarlet Knights picked up the ball inside Syracuse’s 50-yard line. Rutgers worked itself to a third-and-1, placing a tight end, Jovani Haskins, adjacent to its left tackle.
Before the snap, Bo Melton motioned to the other side of the field, trying to cause a shift in the Orange’s defense. This shift would have provided Rutgers running back Isaih Pacheco with a better route down the right side of the line.
But none of Syracuse’s six defenders on the line caught the bait — they were too busy focusing on winning their one-on-one battles with Rutgers’ six players in front of them. Black and linebacker Geoff Cantin-Arku won their battles, swarming Pacheco at the line of scrimmage.
On fourth down, Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano kept his offense on the field, having them run the same exact play that got stuffed on third down. He did move one tight end to the right, bringing an additional run blocker from his bench.
The Orange did exactly what helped them on third down — match how many players the opposition had at the line of scrimmage. Ja’Had Carter anchored the left side of the defensive line, face-to-face with the extra tight end Schiano brought in.
Melton motioned again and again, Syracuse didn’t budge.With two tight ends on the right side of the Rutgers’ offense, the Orange knew the Scarlet Knights were going to try and hit the same gap again.
Jones was on the other side of the line, hoping to stop Pacheco before he got to his desired spot. Adjacent to Rutgers center, Jones shot up vertically, getting past the line of scrimmage unblocked. He wrapped up Pacheco 3 yards behind the line, dragging him back for a turnover on downs.
Jones’ play sparked Syracuse’s longest drive to that point in the game. But Mississippi State transfer Garrett Shrader fumbled out of bounds trying to avoid the rush on third down. Andre Szmyt took to the field for a 41-yard field goal attempt but missed.
The first bend
After a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called against Babers in the third quarter, Rutgers’ offense was granted its first opportunity in the red zone.The Scarlet Knights went into their heavy set, adding two tight ends to the left side of the ball. This was similar to what they did earlier in the game on the opposite side, when Jones made his fourth down stop.
But Jones wasn’t at the defensive line — he stayed at his normal spot with just one other linebacker at the second level. If the Scarlet Knights drove past Syracuse’s six defensive linemen, they would have an easy path to the end zone, as the Orange only had five players in the secondary.
Rutgers ran its ensuing play to perfection, having three offensive lineman pull to the left, all acting as lead blockers for running back Kyle Monangai. He waltzed into the end zone, only touched with two hands by safety Jason Simmons, which came too late.
But Monangai wouldn’t have had a free lane if a defender had been guarding that right sideline, which was true freshman cornerback Duce Chestnut’s responsibility. After a strong debut with eight tackles and one interception last week, Rutgers was able to confuse Chestnut by having Melton move closer inside before the snap. Chestnut followed Melton, giving up the outside leverage that he had earlier, and Melton was able to block him out of the play.
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