The Downside of Dino | Syracusefan.com

The Downside of Dino

SWC75

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- When Greg Robinson was fired, Jim Boeheim was asked for a reaction. His was one short sentence: “You’ve gotta win.” Dino got off to a good start, beating Clemson in year two and win 10 games in year three. Then we opened year four with a 24-0 win at Liberty. What followed was a competitive sinkhole. The one game I will remember most about the Dino Babers Era if I am unable to avoid thinking about it is the Maryland game of 9/7/19. We’ve never hosted ESPN Gameday, one of 6 Power Five schools that never have. It was all set up for the Clemson game of 9/14. It would have been a 6 hour informercial, (between the show and he game), for the football program, the school and the community, with recruits from all over watching. I’m guessing Jim Boeheim would be the guest picker. Would Lee Corso have dressed up as Otto? But against Maryland, a team that would win one more game the rest of the year and finish 3-9, we came out as flat as a pancake and got rolled, 20-63. It was such an embarrassment that ESPN packed up and went to Iowa for the Iowa-Iowa State game. They’ve never come back. That loss was completely, totally unforgivable.

- It was the first of many disappointments in that strange 2019 season. That Clemson game wound up 6-41 after we’d beaten them on the same field two years before and almost beaten them in their own place in 2018. There was a 10-16 loss to a 4-8 NC State team and a 17-35 loss to a 6-7 Florida State team. Then came the Boston College game where a defense that featured three future NFL defensive backs, (Andre Cisco, Trill Williams and Iffy Melifonwu), gave up a 64 yard TD pass, a 50 yard TD pass, a 51 yard TD run and a 74 yard TD run in a span of 9 plays in a 27-58 loss to another 6-7 team. Then Williams saved us from a 4-8 season by stealing the ball from a Wake Forst receiver in OT and running for a TD to finally put the season to an end.

- Then we got hit by Covid – so did everyone else but we seem to have gotten more opt-outs than anyone else. We also got hit by an amazing number of injuries, including a college career ending one sustained by Cisco when he was bumped in a pre-game warm-up. Included was the annual injury to the starting quarterback, which came early. He was replaced by a converted tight end and not-ready-for-prime time freshmen who were not adequate to the task. The result was a 1-10 record, two years after we’d won 10 games.

- The remaining three years were a struggle to get back to where we were in 2018, all promising but all, in the end, failures. In 2021, we were 5-4 with losses to Florida State, man 11-3 Wake Forest team and a 10-3 Clemson team. But we got crushed by Louisville, NC State and Pittsburgh to finish 5-7. In 2022 we started 6-0 and were ranked as high as 14th – and then lost 5 games in a row and a bowl game to finish a shallow 7-6. This year we started 4-0 and again lost 5 in a row, beat the worst Pittsburgh team in years and then lost at Georgia Tech, which resulted in this morning’s firing, a move that seemed inevitable after we came out flat, (sound familiar?) in losses to North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia Tech. Those first two were attributed to the awesomeness of the opposition but since those games all those teams have looked less that awesome, although the Noles continue to be undefeated. The Tar Heels have played 9 teams that, (by point differential) have done better than we did against them. The Seminoles have played 8 such teams and the Hokies 9. We’re a crippled team now due to injuries but we were relatively healthy going into that stretch of games. That was likely the final straw for Wildhack.
- Dino came here with a reputation for exciting offensive teams that could both pass and run at a high level- and do it quickly “Orange is the new fast”. Let’s look at some of the numbers his Eastern Illinois and Bowling Green teams had put up prior to his coming here:
In his second year at EIU, Jimmy Garoppolo completed 375 of 568 passes, (66.0%) for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns with 9 interceptions. Erik Lora had 123 catches for 1,544 yards and 19TDs. Adam Drake had 85/1305/13 and four other guys had between 21 and 51 catches. Shepard Little and Taylor Duncan both had 217 carries, Little, (an ironic name for SU fans) for 1,583 yards and 15 TDs, Duncan, (a Csonka sized guy) 1,003 yards and 10 scores. The Panthers scored 49 points a game.
In his second year at BG, Matt Johnson completed 383 of 569 passes (67.3%) for 4,946 yards and 46 touchdowns with 8 interceptions. Gehrig Dieter had 94 catches for 1,033 yards and 10TDs, Roger Lewis 85/1544/16 and Ronnie Moore 72/951/6. Travis Greene ran for 1,298 yards on 222 carries and 15TDs while Fred Coppet gained 826 yards on 146 carries and 5 TDs. The Falcons averaged 42 points a game.
I looked at those numbers and salivated about SU having those kinds of numbers. It would re-write our record books, especially the passing numbers. Dino had learned this kind of offense at Baylor, a school that had had 14 straight losing seasons until they exploded under Art Briles, beginning in 2010: 7-6 with 30.5 points per game, 10-3 with 45ppg, 8-5 with 44.5ppg, 11-2 with 52ppg, 11-2 with 48ppg and 10-3 with 48ppg. Was that the future of SU football?

We did have some eye-popping receiving numbers in the early years: Amba Etta-Tao had 94/1482/14 in his one big year. Erv Phillips had 90/822/6 and then 89/904/4. Steve Ismael had 105/1347/7. Since then our receiving leaders have been Sean Riley 64/756/3 and Jalam Custis 51/906/6; Trishton Jackson 66/1023/11; Taj Harris 58/733/5; Courtney Jackson 37/389/3; Oronde Gadsden 61/975/6 and, to date, LeQuint Allen 35/197/1 and Damien Alford 25/401/1

I assumed Ryan Nassib’s name would disappear from our all time quarterback stats. He’s still there. Ryan, (see the Media Guide, page 201: 2023 Football Media Guide - Syracuse University Athletics )
has attempted more passes in a game, a season and career than any other SU quarterback. He’s completed more passes in a game, season and career than anyone. He’s thrown for more yards in a game and season. Eric Dungy, because he started so early, nipped him for a career. He also has the most TD passes in a game, (tied) and a season. Donovan McNabb topped him for a career. Here are the numbers we’ve had each year of the Babers Era:
2016: Eric Dungey 230/355 (64.8%) 2,679 yards 15TD 7int
2017: Eric Dungey 225/377 (59.7%) 2,495 yards 14TD 9int
2018: Eric Dungey 226/371 (60.9%) 2,868 yards 18TD 9int
2019: Tommy DeVito 213/337 (63.2%) 2,360 yards 19TD 5int
2020: Rex Culpepper 94/190 (49.5%) 1,028 yards 9TD 8int
2021: Garrett Shrader 123/234 (52.6%) 1,445 yards 9TD int
2022: Garrett Shrader 205/317 (64.7%) 2,640 yards 17TD 7int
2023: Garrett Shrader 124/189 (62.3%) 1,513 yards 10TD 5 int
Eric, Tommy and Garret have not been terrible by any means but they also have not been nearly as prolific as Jimmy or Matt had been for EIU or Bowling Green.

We’ve had some pretty good running backs here in Dino’s time. Prior to the really excellent Sean Tucker and LeQuint Allen two guys would alternate: Dontae Strickland 162/566/4 and Moe Neal 68/357/2, (whatever happened to Jordan Fredericks?); Strickland 128/482/4 and Neal 92/488/1; Neal 155/869/5 and Strickland 121/588/6; Neal 170/846/7, Abdul Adams 87/336/3 and Jarveon Howard 76/337/3; Tucker 137/626/4; Tucker 246/1496/12; Tucker 206/1060/11; Allen 193/918/9 with 1-2 games to go. Those are good numbers and Tucker’s best year is as good as anyone’s. But nothing matches those amazing numbers Dino’s guys had at EIU or even at BG. Part of the ‘problem is that, although Dino declared a preference for quarterbacks who stayed in the pocket when he came here, he’s had to use his quarterbacks as running backs. Which brings back my ancient argument: you really need two running threats unless you have a powerful line to create some uncertainty on the defensive side as to who they have to tackle. If you have only one ‘official’ running back, your quarterback will have to the other running threat. Dungey and Shrader have been superb in this role, although they have gotten beaten up doing it:
Dungey: 125/293/6; 143/595/9; 184/754/15
Shrader: 173/781/14; 150/444/9; 107/424/7
On the last Dino Babers Show, Sean Edinger was interviewed and said “You get 30-40 car crashes a game. A player has to survive collisions of 12, 13, 14 even 16 G’s.” Eric and Garrett have survived a lot of car crashes.

“But Dino put those numbers up in FCS and the MAC. You shouldn’t have expected those numbers at SU”. This is modern football. I didn’t really expect 53 or 46 touchdown passes. I did expect 30. 35 would be nice. Here are some totals that have bene achieved in this league since we joined it: Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh 42, DeSaun Watson, Clemson 41, Jamis Winston Florida State 40, Sam Hartman, Wake Forest 39, Sam Howell and Drake Maye North Carolina 38, Sam Hartman, Wake Forest 38, Trevor Lawrence, Clemson 36, DeShaun Watson, Clemson 35, Teddy Bridgewater, Louisville, 31, Brennan Armstrong, Virginia 31, Lamar Jackson, Louisville 30, Trevor Lawrence Clemson 30. Some of those were great players. Some played for powerhouse teams. Some of them weren’t and did not. We haven’t been close to any of them. We haven’t had a year in the Dino Era where our starting quarterback threw even 20 touchdown passes – in eight years!

- I recall when Hawaii has a series of prolific quarterbacks, (Timmy Chang, Colt Brennan) and there was a debate on the board about whether they were any good. Somebody said they were ‘system quarterbacks, where they accumulated big numbers because of the system they were playing in but they really weren’t all that good. I responded. “Could we please get a ‘system’?” That got more likes and laughs than any post I ever made. I fully agree with bud Poliquin that when the Dome first opened, they should have taken one look at it and decided it was the perfect place to pass the ball. We should have been Brigham Young. We should have been Houston. We should have been Texas Tech. Instead we were running the option. We could have bene Oregon or Baylor, where they combined those concepts. We did that, sort of, for a while in the McPherson/Graves/McNabb years. But we weren’t much like the Ducks or the Bears. I remember one year, (1994, I believe), when there were only 3-4 teams in the country who passed less and they were all wishbone teams. We had Marvin Harrison and he caught 36 passes in 11 games for us. That’s 3 a game.

- I felt sure Dino was going to be the first coach who would use the Dome the way it always should have been used – to fill the air with footballs, stretch the defense both horizontally and vertically, opening things up for the running game and for short and medium passes over the middle. Instead what we got was long passes down the sideline, where the space for the QB to throw to would have been the size of a postage stamp with a defender just on the other side of the receiver from the out-of-bounds line. We also had slants and those awful bubble screens, easily completed to guys who, with their single blocker, were always outnumbered by the defense. The entire football world was making a living by throwing to the tight end but we never did so, (Oronde Gadsden is not a tight end). Nassib thrived hitting guys 15-20 yards downfield and over the middle. Other teams thrived doing the same thing to us but we kept chuckin’ it to the sidelines. Coach P and Deleone used to seemingly run the option just to draw the defense to one side of the field so they could occasionally run a play to the other side. Some of those plays worked but it was hard to keep drives going when you’re trying to set up plays rather than making each play a success. Dino’s offense seemed to be doing the same thing – drawing the defense to the sideline to open up holes in the middle. But too often those holes weren’t there. I always thought the best plan was to use all your weapons and the whole field. Make the defense cover everything which no defense can do.

Eventually even that offensive concept disappeared as we became more of a running team with the quarterback and running back playing a two man game. That worked to an extent – until the quarterback got to beat up or injured he could no longer be effective. The Babers tenure, which began as “Orange is the New Fast”, ended with a tight end and a running back running the wildcat and the receivers blocking for them -sometimes.

- An oft-repeated stat is that no Syracuse quarterback has gotten through a season since Nassib in 2012 without missing time. That surely necessitates having an adequate back-up quarterback, (or two). We’ve had some fine back-up QBs over the years. Tood Philcox, Mark McDonald, Keith Downing, Troy Nunes, (when he came in for RJ), Cam Dantley, Nassib, (behind Paulus) and Zack Mahoney, who Dino inherited from Scott Shafer. But somehow Dino never seemed to prioritize back-up quarterbacks, saying that it takes too much practice time to develop them. The result was Rex Culpepper, Jacobian Morgan, Clayton Welch, Carlos Del Rio Wilson, Braden Davis and Luke McPhail. The one good one he developed was Tommy DeVito who was Dino’s chosen boy to succeed Dungey.

- Depth as a whole was an issue every year as we couldn’t replace injured players and other had to play hurt. We couldn’t alternate players as much as other teams did and had to play starters on special teams. Over a 12 game season in a Power Five conference, we got worn down. But that was also a problem in the Scott Shafer era, the Doug Marone Era, the G-Rob Era and probably the next era, as well.

- But the key deficiency was the offensive line. People think they can reinvent the sport such that what happens along the line of scrimmage is less important but they can’t. Having a great passing game requires a line to protect the quarterback. Having a great running game with one running back requires the same. Dino was unable to do that as we never had a really good line and usually, especially after injuries, a below average one. Tommy DeVito was the most sacked quarterback in America when he was here. Dungey and Shrader had to become running backs. We had trouble sustaining and finishing drives. We became really good at punting. The really good teams tended to overwhelm our offenses. I think Dino switched to the 3-3-5 in part because he couldn’t recruit enough good defensive linemen to man a 4-3.

- Then there was team discipline. His players didn’t have an unusual number or severity of off-the-field incidents but on the field there were far too many penalties. They came at the wrong time. Many were concentration problems. Many were from a loss of poise. Regardless of whether they decided the game, the penalties gave the team a bad look.

- Dino’s in-game decision-making has been controversial for years. He seemed to grow more and more conservative as he went along. We’ve played so many close games where those decisions and the penalties had a strong impact on who won those games. If we’d been a truly strong program, we could have overcome these problems but we weren’t and we didn’t.

- Dino was very personable but if he didn’t want you to know something, he wouldn’t answer questions. He wouldn’t lie but he would either come out and say he wasn’t answering the question but he would deflect them, (like NASA vs. an incoming asteroid). His technique was to begin telling you a story or make a movie reference. Once I asked a question, the premise of which cut off some of his escape routes, (I’ve forgotten what it was), and he paused and said “Wow, you’re playing three dimensional chess.” That’s what it was to Dino – a chess game. Local reporters often complained about a lack of information or access to players and coaches. Dino didn’t want to give any useful information to the opposition. I get that but I didn’t get why the availability of an offensive tackle would change the strategy of the other team. Still, coaches are not famously forthcoming with information and the next one probably won’t be, either.
 
Amazing and encyclopedic. I liked the upside better, but can’t disagree with your observations.

I would add — the one basic of college football is recruiting. Dino (and his predecessors) had us in the 55th or so range. He found some gems, but not enough. Unless that can change, we will see much the same under a new head coach.
 

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