Football

So far, Syracuse’s running game has gone backward

Colin Davy | Staff Photographer

Syracuse has struggled to establish a run game early this season, as SU ranks only 109th with 3.1 yards per carry.

If preseason desires meant anything, Syracuse was going to run the football effectively this season. Just about every party involved with SU’s offense knew it had to improve upon a 3.2 yards per carry mark that finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2016.

“We need to be able to run the football on offense and be balanced and take some of the pressure off our defense,” Babers said on Aug. 12.

“I feel like we’ve improved on running the ball,” senior right tackle Jamar McGloster said on Aug. 15. “I mean, it’s been a big emphasis this year and I feel like we’ve been doing it all camp and I feel like we’re going to do it a lot this year.”

“We don’t want to be one-dimensional this year,” running back Moe Neal said on Aug. 23, “we want to be able to run the ball.”

Yet two games into the season, Syracuse’s rushing stats have worsened compared to last year’s final averages. Of the 129 FBS teams, the Orange’s 3.1 yards per carry ranks 109th and its 140.5 rushing yards per game is tied for 86th. And it won’t get easier. Of SU’s 10 remaining opponents, four rank in the top 22 rushing defenses in terms of total yards allowed. The average rank is 47. No.12 Louisiana State and No.14 Louisville are the nation’s best.

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Colin Davy | Staff Photographer

Starting running back Dontae Strickland entered his junior year with the hope of being the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Jerome Smith in 2012. He has 62 yards on 22 carries and not one attempt has gone for more than 10 yards. If he were to keep up the same workload of 11 carries per game — as long as SU doesn’t extend its season to play in the ACC championship or a bowl game — he would need to run for slightly more than 8.5 yards per carry the rest of the way to eclipse 1,000.

“(I’m) not frustrated at all,” Strickland said after SU’s opener against Central Connecticut State. “As long as we got the win, we come back next week and see if we can do it again.”

Neal’s output has been similar, just with a smaller sample size. The sophomore has 14 carries for 35 yards, good for an average of 2.5 yards per touch. His longest carry is five yards.

In the one place Syracuse wanted to see less of the run — the quarterback position — SU has seen more. Junior Eric Dungey, whose stated goal was to be smarter with his scrambling and stay in the pocket more, leads the team in every rushing stat: carries (28), yards (104), yards per attempt (3.7, minimum 10 carries), longest run (29 yards) and touchdowns (three).

Granted, some of Dungey’s attempts were designed runs, such as his 29-yard game-tying touchdown up the gut in the fourth quarter last weekend against Middle Tennessee State. But defenders hit him with the same intensity whether the play was intentional or improvised.

In Week 2, SU went with some unconventional tactics to try to jump start its efforts. Senior receiver Ervin Philips got 15 yards out of two sweeps. Ravian Pierce and Chris Elmore, who are both listed as tight ends but act as fullbacks at times, appeared in various heavy packages mostly in the red zone. One stacked the two of them, along with a halfback, behind Dungey in the shotgun.

Elmore’s contributions might be the best so far from any freshman on the team. His 6-foot, 274-pound stature makes for a thick lead blocker, something clear from the get-go of the season opener against CCSU. And as a ball-carrier, Elmore trucked through a few MTSU defenders on Saturday and finished the game with 28 yards on eight carries. Only Dungey had more yards on the ground for SU.

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Andy Mendes | Digital Design Editor

“For Chris Elmore to be in his first collegiate game and have perfect ball security, that’s really big,” Babers said.

The offensive line, with an interior that features two redshirt freshmen in left guard Sam Heckel and center Airon Servais, factors into the struggling running game. The duo has played in just two collegiate games, a fact Babers stressed in his weekly press conference Monday.

“The only thing great about freshmen is next year they’re sophomores,” Babers said Monday. “…Those guys will grow up, and when they grow up we’ll be fine.”

But will they grow up soon enough to get this running game going in 2017?

Replied Babers: “I don’t have a crystal ball.”

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