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What Do You Get When Syracuse And The Yankees Play On The Same Night?

September 2, 2011 - John Whittaker
What does the rubber game of a three-game set between the Yankees and Red Sox and the opener of the Syracuse football season happening on the same September night get you?

Your first blog post in a month or so.

You're welcome.

Let's start with Syracuse, if only because I haven't written about the Orange in a while.

I spent the first three quarters of last night's season opener with Wake Forest wondering if Syracuse had actually been practicing since the players had returned to campus. Missed tackles, blown blocking assignments, upper classmen playing like freshmen. It was an ugly first 45 minutes to the season. I'll be honest, by a little after 11 p.m., when Antwon Bailey fumbled to set up the last Wake Forest field goal, I had turned the game off and headed to bed. It's an early morning for the Whitless Wonder, you know?

It wasn't until I had seen Mariano Rivera close out the Red Sox and flipped to ESPN for an update on the Cuse that I saw the game was suddenly tied, 29-29 ... and that I now had something else to swear about. I know better than that. I see bigger comebacks than that every season — but if you watched the game last night, did you really see anything from Syracuse for the first 48 minutes of that game that told you a comeback was imminent?

Reading the stories online this morning, the Syracuse sportswriters took the easy way out by saying the game turned on Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price's knee injury on the play before Wake's field goal to make the score 29-14. That's too easy, if only because it wasn't just the Wake Forest offense that had really hurt Syracuse up to that point of the game. In fact, the Wake defense, which was supposed to be the team's biggest weakness, apparently has morphed into the New York Jets defense. Wake's nose tackle, Nikita Whitlock, wreaked absolute havoc with Syracuse's offensive line. For three quarters, Syracuse couldn't run the ball at all. Wake absolutely dominated the line of scrimmage. I don't buy that the quarterback's injury meant the Wake Forest defense suddenly crumbled. That makes no sense. We all knew Syracuse would have to score points last night to win the game. The story of last night was Wake's defense running out of steam in the fourth quarter — just like Syracuse would have about three years ago.

Instead, let's give credit to Cuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who scrapped his game plan at halftime and injected some life in the offense. And, let's give credit to the offensive line and wide receivers for finally playing with a pair and clearing some running room for Antwon Bailey, whose 53-yard sweep for a touchdown brought the Orange within two points. Let's give some credit to Van Chew for making two absolutely ridiculous diving catches that took replays to uphold. And, I'll give some credit to Ryan Nassib, who looked lost and hurried for the first three quarters before settling in for the fourth quarter. The blocking wasn't the best, and the receivers bailed him out a lot, but he did what he had to for the win.

Thursday's game was one Syracuse would have lost in any of the last five seasons. It's telling that, even though Wake Forest is supposed to be near the bottom of the ACC, that Syracuse hadn't beaten an ACC team in the Carrier Dome in eight seasons, and was 1-19 against the ACC in their last 20 games before Thursday. To compete for Big East championships, you have to start beating someone other than Akron and the University of Buffalo in your nonconference schedule. Wake Forest might not be Alabama, but it's a name opponent from a name conference.

Coach Doug Marrone has plenty to work on before Syracuse plays Rhode Island next Saturday. A whole lot. The secondary, with a bunch of potential NFL players I've been reading about all fall, bit on play action worse than Madden defenses. It took the defensive line, with another possible NFL player in Chandler Jones, three quarters to get consistent pressure. I have no clue what the offensuive line was doing, but the nose tackle is probably the first guy who should get blocked, isn't it? And, holy moly, the stupid penalties — Dorian Graham absolutely drilling a defenseless kick returned on a fair catch was hillarious but potentially costly — that were inexecusable for a team that expects to win a conference championship this year.

USC's coming up in two weeks, and Matt Barkley, the USC quarterback, has to be licking his chops after seeing Wake Forest throw for 326 yards, with a 13.6 yard per catch average. Chew on this — a running team ended up with 326 of its 406 total yards through the air, and converting 14 of its 23 first downs on passes. Barkley might win the Heisman against Syracuse at that rate.

But, it's always nice to fix things with a season-opening win under your belt. Those BCS bowl dreams might be a little much this year, but I think Cuse fans should be looking for maybe 8 or 9 wins from this bunch. Given where they were five years ago, I think we'll take that.

Now, on to the Yankees.

I've been saying all year it doesn't matter who the Yankees beat if they're not beating the Red Sox. With a $200 million payroll and all-stars peppering the lineup, it shouldn't take an act of Congress to beat the Baltimores, Kansas Citys, Oaklands, Chicagos and Seattles of the world. Those are series the Yankees should win. I didn't want to hear about how great the pitching was if they were getting shelled by the Red Sox. Right now, the Red Sox are the league's measuring stick — and the Yankees spent much of the season coming up short.

I'm encouraged, then, that the Yanks represented themselves well the last two series with Boston. They only won once in the early August series with Boston, but one of those games was a blown save by Mariano Rivera during Mo's annual "It's August, I'm 41, bite me" slump. It happens every year, just like clockwork. He closed out wins Tuesday and Thursday against Boston, though. Looking at the bigger picture, the Yankees outplayed Boston in four of their last six games, and that counts for something.

More encouraging than taking two of three games from Boston is the fact that they had to beat either Josh Beckett or John Lackey to do it. I'd have taken a little less stock out of beating the Red Sox if it came from knocking John Lackey around and then beating Erik Bedard or Tim Wakefield. Red Sox fans do the same thing beating Phil Hughes. It just means a little less beating a pitcher that won't be in the postseason rotation — and yes, I'm saying Hughes is in the bullpen come October.

Frankly, the Yankees could have swept this series. Any time you hang five runs on Josh Beckett, you should win that game. It's not the offense's fault that Hughes couldn't hold the lead Wednesday night. With that epic pitching fail Wednesday, Hughes finds himself in the bullpen because, in a complete and utterly unseen development, A.J. Burnett turned in a useful start on Thursday, in Boston, in a game he really had to win to remain in the rotation. That 5.1 innings of decent pitching was the only thing keeping Burnett from being buried a Big Dig tunnel Jimmy Hoffa-style ... by Brian Cashman.

I won't say I expect that out of Burnett every start, since such things are blasphemous. What are the odds, though, that Burnett would pick Boston to throw his first major-league level game in two months? I've seen Little League pitchers in the last two months with more command and mound presence. He's the fourth starter in the playoffs, but I think he's a better option than Phil Hughes right now.

This is the most comfortable I've felt about the Yankees in months. I'm not printing World Series tickets. The rotation still worries me. The Yanks will need some breaks to beat Boston or Texas in a short series. C.C. Sabathia will have to win at least twice in those series, with the Yankees relying on Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Ivan Nova to cobble together two more wins.

Still, this series is something to build on.


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