Football Column

Syracuse needs to get Ervin Philips the ball

Todd Michalek | Contributing Photographer

Ervin Philips has shown flashes of his potential, including this pylon dive in the season opener.

UPDATED: Sept. 12, 2017 at 1:23 a.m.

Ervin Philips ran off the field toward the sideline as freshman fullback Chris Elmore came on to replace Syracuse’s speedy slot receiver. The Orange, at that point, faced a third-and-two midway through the second quarter and struggling on offense.

The tactic worked on that particular play, because Eric Dungey called for the ball while Middle Tennessee State was trying to counter SU’s switch and drew an illegal substitution penalty.

But that play aside, the Syracuse (1-1) offense was not effective in Saturday’s 30-23 loss to MTSU (1-1). The pressure brought on by former SU head coach Scott Shafer’s MTSU defense clearly disrupted whatever Syracuse was trying to do. But the most concerning aspect from Saturday is Philips’s lack of involvement in the game. Philips was making the plays, but his number just wasn’t called enough.

The senior finished with seven catches for 36 yards and a pair of rushes for 15 yards. SU had five possessions in the first quarter and, while one ended in a field goal, it lost yardage on each one. Philips was not targeted once during the period. Yet for the Orange to succeed moving forward, it will need to ensure that its primary playmaker is more involved.

“We were just trying to do some other things,” head coach Dino Babers said about Philips’ lack of early looks. “Obviously if you watch some of the plays we were doing earlier, we had some of those plays there. We just weren’t making the plays.”

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Todd Michalek | Contributing Photographer

Philips faced several double-teams early, which forced SU to look elsewhere, Babers said. Philips noted that through two games, he has noticed a difference in the way he’s being guarded.

Last year, when the Orange almost exclusively ran four-wide receiver sets, Philips said he would regularly get matched up with a linebacker. This year, he has faced more coverage from nickel cornerbacks. Still, he rightfully isn’t using that as an excuse, saying that the plays are still there to be made, and that he has to work harder to make them. He also attributed his slow start to game flow.

“Whatever the coaches see out there. They call out the play whatever they see,” Philips said. “So it just happened that I wasn’t really in the mix until so far in the game.”

It was clear, though, that Syracuse’s offense was most effective when Philips was in the mix. His first target and catch, which came third-and-three in the second quarter, went for 11 yards.

Philips also turned out to be the Orange’s most effective rushing threat, while the traditional running game struggled mightily for the second straight week. Moe Neal and Dontae Strickland struggled to find many running lanes, combining for 42 yards on 17 carries, good for a paltry 2.5 yards per carry. Junior quarterback Eric Dungey has found success running, but he was also battered for much of the game and left one series after taking a shot to the head that was ruled targeting.

Although Philips was officially credited with the seven catches, most of them weren’t typical receptions. Three of them — two with Dungey and one with backup quarterback Zack Mahoney — were quasi-handoffs in which Philips would run a sweep play from his position in the slot. The quarterback took the snap and underhand shoveled it to Philips, who cut across the field looking for blockers. Those passing plays were basically runs, and they proved effective as Philips racked up 19 yards on the three attempts.

“When Erv has his number called, he makes the most out of his plays,” senior wide receiver Steve Ishmael said. “You don’t really get caught up into who’s getting the ball. It’s just whenever your number is called, you’ve got to make the play.”

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Andy Mendes | Digital Design Editor Photo

Remove those three sweep plays and Philips ended the day with only four catches. This isn’t to say that SU should stop getting creative with Philips and letting him run the ball, but he needs to get more opportunities overall.

The Orange ran 93 plays on Saturday. Dungey dropped back to pass 42 times, 40 minus the two times he pitched the ball to Philips. And Philips, who did have one drop, was targeted only five times outside of sweep plays. That’s simply not enough.

In fairness, Philips accounted for only 16 yards on four catches. Credit should be given to the Blue Raiders defense, but without a consistent deep threat to take the cover off the defense, Philips is Syracuse’s most dynamic playmaker. He will need to be the one making plays to keep this offense moving.

“He’s one of those guys you always want to try to get the ball to,” Babers said Saturday.

SU needs to get the ball in Philips’ hands more. It’s not a matter of trying.

Tomer Langer is an asst. digital editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at tdlanger@syr.edu or @tomer_langer.

This story has been updated with appropriate style.

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