The Syracuse offense is faster, more effective under head coach Dino Babers
When it comes to first-year Syracuse head coach Dino Babers, the statistics speak volumes.
Last season, for example, the 4-8 Orange finished 117th out of 128 teams nationally in passing, averaging just 156.8 passing yards per game. Unsurprisingly, only six of those passes stretched for 40 yards or more, which ranked 93rd nationally.
That was before Babers.
In four games this fall, Syracuse and sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey rank seventh nationally in passing offense, averaging 371.8 passing yards per game. The Orange have recorded seven passes of 40 yards or more, which also ranks seventh nationally and already surpasses last season’s meager total.
In an albeit limited sample size, the spastic Syracuse offense is averaging 86.3 plays per game, nearly 24 more than it managed in 2015.
What a difference a year — and a coach — makes.
“We've got a very good opponent in Syracuse. Coach Babers runs an extremely fast offense,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on Tuesday. “They’ve got a number of talented receivers. All of them are very good players. The quarterback is one that throws out of a lot of different arm slots, can get the ball down the field. They like to push it vertically. They've got a nice, quick game, a good screen game. They’ll will run the ball effectively if you're too soft in the run game.
“Coach Babers has put his team in a position where they can put points on the board.”
Of course, Babers isn’t physically throwing and catching the football. The 55-year-old coach, who previously rejuvenated programs at Bowling Green and Eastern Illinois, has found an ideal quarterback to run his no-huddle, spread attack in Dungey. The 6-foot-3, 207-pound sophomore from Lake Oswego, Ore., a former consensus three-star recruit, has thrown for a monstrous 1,367 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions, along with running for two more scores.
“He's not afraid to throw it from any arm angle, sidearm, under hand, behind his head,” Kelly said. “He's going to get the ball out to his playmakers. He will stand in there. He will take a hit. He's fearless. He's got a strong arm, and he's really athletic.
“They haven’t asked him to run as much, and he certainly could run every down. But they need him in there because he's their best quarterback.”
But what’s a quarterback without someone to throw it to? Syracuse doesn’t have that problem. Maryland graduate transfer Amba Etta-Tawo, who has racked up 706 receiving yards (176.5 receiving yards per game) and five touchdowns in four games.
Etta-Tawo — a 6-2, 202-pound target — is the first player in the Football Bowl Subdivision to surpass 700 receiving yards in the first four games of a season since Texas Tech’s Michael Crabtree did it in 2007.
“(Dungey’s) got relationships with the entire group. It just seems like they have a great feel for each other, and based off the things that have been going on in the games, they’ve been finding ways to make things happen,” Babers said of Dungey and Etta-Tawo. “There’s no scientific (explanation) for it. It’s just something that happens.
“Thank God it did happen because right now they’re some of the key parts of our offense.”
Last week, Etta-Tawo carved up UConn and former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for 270 receiving yards and a pair of touchdowns.
It’s Kelly and defensive coordinator Greg Hudson’s job to help prevent an encore performance.
“They flat out throw it to him under all circumstances,” Kelly said. “They keep throwing it to him and throwing it to him and throwing it to him. So he's targeted all the time.
“Because they play so fast, it's difficult to run multiple coverages to him. So if you're going to play off, he's pulling it up. If you play up, he's going vertical. And they do a really good job of utilizing him in that fashion, and he's got skill. He can run over the top of and you he's also got a great catching radius. I know I talked to Bob (Diaco). They had their best corner on him, but he's 5-9. The kid was in great position. He just went up over him two or three times and took the ball from him.”
Now, consider that Notre Dame’s defense will break in a new defensive coordinator at Syracuse on Saturday, in large part due to the fact that the Irish rank 87th in pass defense (253 yards per game) and have allowed five passing plays of at least 40 yards (109th in that category).
Against an offense featuring a similar tempo in Texas, Notre Dame (1-3) was trampled to the tune of 517 total yards and 50 points.
But statistics aside, Babers expects a challenge.
“They’re wounded. They’ve got some controversy going on over there,” Babers said. “What normally happens in those situations is, just like in the cowboy movies, you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight. We’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have. I really wish they wouldn’t have done anything (with coaching changes), and I wish they would have won the game last week.
“So we’re going to get their best shot. There’s no doubt.”