Three games into his first season at Syracuse, coach Dino Babers is going through the customary growing pains as he puts his stamp on the program.
The offense is grasping his fast-paced style, but the defense is depleted and has been torched for too many big plays in two blowout losses as the Orange prepare to hit the road for the first time this fall.
“I think we’re still in stages,” Babers said. “They’re still getting to know me. I think as they get to know me we’ll be more and more consistent.”
On Saturday at home in the Carrier Dome, Syracuse (1-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) built a 17-0 lead in a dominant first quarter against South Florida, outgaining the Bulls by nearly 100 yards. The other three quarters belonged to USF, which won 45-20 and again proved that statistics aren’t always a reliable barometer of what happened on the field.
The Orange outgained the Bulls 549-456, had 30 first downs to the Bulls’ 20, held the ball for nearly 38 minutes, and ended up tying the ACC record for most plays in a game with 105, a school record.
Like the previous week, a 62-28 loss to rising Louisville and quarterback Lamar Jackson, Syracuse was repeatedly hit hard and fast by the Bulls. South Florida had four scoring drives under two minutes in the second quarter against a defense missing three quarters of its starting secondary (Antwan Cordy and Juwan Dowels, who were both injured against Louisville, are out for the season with injuries, and Kielan Whitner also sat out).
On offense, the difference between the old Syracuse and the new is striking. Last year under Scott Shafer, Syracuse averaged 62.6 plays per game. In three games under Babers, Syracuse is averaging 93, or one play for every 20.8 seconds of possession time. Syracuse leads the ACC and ranks 10th nationally in passing offense (360 yards per game), sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey leads the conference and ranks fifth nationally in completions per game (30.33), and wideouts Ervin Philips (10) and Amba Etta-Tawo (9.3) rank 2-3 nationally in receptions per game.
Gaudy numbers to be sure, but when they don’t lead to victories it becomes a more difficult road for the coaching staff. Especially when most of the hometown fans — Syracuse is averaging just under 32,000 in a building that holds 49,000 — are long gone midway through the fourth quarter, as they have been the past two games.
“I’ve been down in spirit. I really have,” Babers said Monday. “The tough thing when you make a transition like this is they have no idea how close they are. All they do is, ‘Hey, we’re 1-2, when are we going to get a win?’ They look at themselves not in a good light.
“I don’t think we’re as bad as the Louisville game,” Babers said. “I see us as good as that first quarter against South Florida, but we’ve got to find a way to be consistently good, not occasionally good. We’ve got to find a way to carry that all the way through.”
The Orange travels to player former Big East rival Connecticut (2-1) on Saturday. The Huskies are 2-0 at home.
“We’re in the beginning stages because of where we started from,” said Babers, who left Bowling Green for the Orange. “I said it would be the toughest transition I’ve ever had. It’s a huge transition. As we grow together, we’ll get better and better at it.”
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