Football team continues Big East skid, falling to Cincy

After a win against West Virginia, it seemed like Syracuse could make the BCS. With their fourth straight loss, though, the Orange are now one loss away from missing the postseason.

It seems that so much time has passed since Syracuse (5-6, 1-5 Big East) dominated West Virginia in the Carrier Dome. During that 47-20 beat down, the Orange controlled all three phases of the game so completely that it didn’t seem far-fetched to have the team as the BCS representative from the Big East. Just over a month ago, the Orange completed a dream drubbing of the Mountaineers to move the team to 5-2 on the season. 

That dream, though, has turned into a nightmare. Syracuse has lost its last four games, the most recent one to Cincinnati (8-3, 4-2 Big East) on Senior Day, 30-13. This one, though, might have been the most disconcerting, especially since Cincinnati was without star quarterback Zach Collaros and the Orange were coming off of a bye week. In fact, until today, Doug Marrone was undefeated when coming off of a bye week.

“Losing four straight games is unacceptable,” head coach Doug Marrone said following the game. “We got beat in all three phases.”

Offensively, it seemed as though Syracuse just couldn’t find a rhythm. The team worked its way through certain parts of the field, but just couldn’t finish drives with touchdowns. Often, the team seemed to amass chunks of yardage before the Bearcats shut the offense down just as it began to gain momentum. The Orange had five drives end inside Cincinnati's 30 yard-line, but only converted one of them into a touchdown, settling for two field goals and turning the ball over on downs twice instead.

Even with 203 yards through the air, quarterback Ryan Nassib had some difficulties with the football. Certain passes seemed to float on the quarterback, and he made some questionable decisions under pressure. It is also important to note, though, that multiple receivers dropped impressive throws from Nassib, including two critical mistakes from Alec Lemon, one of which could have given the Orange a much-needed touchdown late in the game.

In addition, Nassib had trouble throwing against the Bearcats defense, who brought relentless pressure and sacked Nassib four times. Such defensive pressure offers another disconcerting stat of the team's four-game slide, as it seems that every team now brings more pressure against Nassib than the beginning of the year. He’s been sacked 14 times over the last four, compared to 12 times in the seven games prior.

“Teams know that we struggle against the pressure, and we get a lot of blitzes,” Nassib noted. “So it’s something we’re going to work on and I’ve just got to do a better job of getting the ball out quick.” 

One of the bright spots for the Orange today was at the running back position. Antwon Bailey, the senior who celebrated with multiple members of his family before the game, had one of the best games of his SU career. He finished with 27 carries for 135  yards, pinballing his way through defenders on carries up the middle. The back crossed the 2000 rushing yard barrier for his career, and is just two yards shy of 1000 rushing yards this season.

Nick Provo also had some flashes of brilliance. The tight end, who missed out on the finals for the John Mackey Award, continued his assault on the Syracuse record books. Provo added three catches for 47 yards to his season totals and scored a 15-yard touchdown on a catch and run from Nassib.

Don’t forget about the plays from Jonathan Fisher, either. After some rough weeks, Fisher had one of his best weeks as a punter against the Bearcats. The freshman averaged 42.8 yards per punt, and booted one 54 yards.

But these bright spots would be few and far between. Even with Fisher’s great punts, Cincinnati still managed to start drives with good field position, starting six of their 13 drives beyond their own 30-yard line. The Bearcats’ Ralph David Abernathy IV nearly returned a kickoff for a touchdown, with only a diving Ross Krautman saving the Orange from a certain touchdown.

The Syracuse defense also had trouble with the Bearcats offense. Despite the Bearcats primarily sticking to swing passes and option runs, the Syracuse defense nearly gave up three more touchdowns than they actually allowed. The defensive corp was aided, though, by multiple Cincinnati false start penalties near the goal line, including one sequence that saw the Bearcats move from 1st and goal on the one-yard line to second-and-goal from the 11-yard line.

Most of that success came from Isaiah Pead, the Bearcats highly touted running back who ran for 80 yards and caught 9 passes for 112 amount of yards, while adding both a rushing and receiving touchdown. Pead even accumulated 54 yards of punt returns, finishing the day with 246 all-purpose yards.

“He’s probably one of the best backs in the Big East,” linebacker Dan Vaughan said of Pead. “They just wanted to get him the ball, and they gave it to him in screens out in space and he was running up the middle, too. He was splitting us pretty good.”

It wasn’t just Pead, though. Jordan Luallen, the backup quarterback for the Bearcats, had some success against the defense. He rushed for 77 yards on eight carries against the Orange defense. Two of those carriers nearly resulted in touchdowns, as he was downed on the one-yard line twice.

Munchie Legaux also hurt the Orange defense, completing 13 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. Even in limited reps, he helped to lead the Bearcat offense to success.

In fact, the only fault of Cincinnati was their ability to not seize the moment early in the game. Tony Miliano, who made three other field goals on the day, missed a chip shot from 33 yards. Both of Luallen’s runs that could have resulted in touchdowns ended up as Bearcat field goals. Also, five false start penalties either ended drives or moved the Bearcats into field goal attempts. 

In the end, though, the Bearcats proved too much for the Orange to overcome. Now, with a visit to Pittsburgh, P.A. to play the Pittsburgh Panthers (5-6, 3-3 Big East) looming, the team is in a fight for its bowl eligibility. At 5-6, another loss means the Orange will miss the postseason for the second time under Doug Marrone’s tenure.

If that happens, that West Virginia stunner will seem but a mirage in a nightmarish season. 

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