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Syracuse finds balanced attack at critical time

Syracuse finds balanced attack at critical time

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) Thumb through the Syracuse media guide to the records section, and it's no surprise the first three pages are devoted to rushing. For a school steeped in a tradition of greatness at running back, the first half of the season was an anomaly.

The Orange failed to have one 100-yard rusher and fell to 2-4. Then Jerome Smith finally broke through against Connecticut on Friday night.

Smith rushed for a career-high 133 yards to pace a running game that netted 251, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and the Orange (3-4, 2-1 Big East) routed the Huskies 40-10.

Coaches always strive for balance, and Syracuse delivered against UConn with equal yardage in both phases and 20 points in each half. Ryan Nassib was 14 of 20 passing for 251 yards in an offensive performance that netted 502 yards to Connecticut's 290. UConn entered the game ranked sixth in total defense (261 ypg) and 13th against the run (99.4).

``It was a big emphasis,'' Orange coach Doug Marrone said of the run game. ``There was a lot of frustration. We knew we had to run the ball. We challenged those guys. We challenged them up front. We challenged their backs. I think we did a nice job. It shows that we can keep building and keep becoming more physical.''

Syracuse lost the first two games of the season, to Northwestern and Southern California relying on a no-huddle offense that ran an amazing 182 plays and produced 1,051 yards. The rushing attempts were there (35 per game) but the yardage wasn't (3.6 yards per carry) as Smith, Nassib and Prince-Tyson Gulley combined for the bulk of the carries.

In losing 23-15 at Rutgers 10 days ago, Syracuse managed just 62 yards rushing on 32 carries, committed four turnovers, and had a blocked kick returned for a touchdown. That came after a solid 14-13 win at home over Pittsburgh in this topsy-turvy season.

The Orange set the tone against UConn on their opening drive, playing smash-mouth football as Smith broke a 20-yard gain on the first of four straight carries that produced 49 yards and set up Ross Krautman's 22-yard field goal.

``It was execution,'' Syracuse offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. ``I mean, they just did what they were supposed to do. As simple as that sounds, it's hard to do. Nobody's coming out and dominating us. Nobody's beat us every game this season, and it's been on us.''

Just that one series seemed to have a snowball effect as the Syracuse passing game opened, even against the likes of UConn's standout cornerbacks Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson. They combined for just five tackles and failed to break up a pass. Alec Lemon was open often on slant plays and tight end Beckett Wales caught four passes for 69 yards and the first touchdown of his career.

``We showed that we are a complete team in all three phases,'' said Lemon, who caught eight passes for 166 yards, setting up three TDs and scoring once. ``The first couple of drives we were running the ball great. That brought the corners up, brought the safeties up. They were worried about the run and that opened up a lot for the pass game. We could get open up the field.''

Since its demoralizing start, Syracuse is 3-1 and might challenge for the Big East title, though the loss to Rutgers won't help.

The Orange travel to South Florida (2-5, 0-3) on Saturday, facing a team that's given Syracuse fits over the years. The Bulls have lost 11 of 12 Big East games dating to last season, but they nearly upset No. 16 Louisville last weekend before losing 27-25.

``We wanted to make a statement,'' Lemon said. ``We're capable of winning all these games. We've just got to come out there and play like we know how to play. Our goal coming into this season was to win the Big East, and I feel like we're on track to do that.''

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3 things to watch for improved Wizards vs. Cavs

3 things to watch for improved Wizards vs. Cavs

The Washington Wizards still have John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. The Cleveland Cavaliers no longer employ LeBron James. That makes Wednesday’s first meeting of the season between the Eastern Conference foes curious. The radical change for the visitors also requires a preview. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington. 

Here are three things to watch...

Sustaining the surge

Monday’s 117-109 victory over the Orlando Magic extended the Wizards’ winning streak to a season-high two. Don't knock the modest uptick after a 2-9 start. John Wall’s stat line took a big leap over the last three games: 24.0 points, 10.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 45.5 percent on 3-pointers. Beyond the numbers, the point guard appears to have knocked off the remaining rust physically. We’re used to his aggressive end-to-end pushes, but now Wall is firing up the court immediately after makes or misses, helping Washington quickly enter its offensive sets. Another strong outing from the five-time All-Star could propel the Wizards to their first three-game winning streak since Feb. 10-22.

Quick rematch

Starters Wall, Bradley Beal, Dwight Howard and Markieff Morris had solid games against the Magic, but the Wizards’ second unit played above previous season norms. All five reserves finished with a plus-minus of plus-8 or better. Jeff Green continued his sizzling shooting, sinking 4 of 5 from beyond the arc en route to 18 points. The 6-foot-9 forward is 9 of 13 from beyond the arc overall during the last four games, and 21 of 28 overall. Backcourt partners Austin Rivers and Tomas Satoransky, slow to develop chemistry this season, showed increased comfort during the winning streak. Washington needs more from the pair to help keep minutes for Wall and Beal at reasonable levels.

Cleveland doesn’t rock

From four consecutive NBA Finals appearances to the NBA’s worst record (2-11, tied with Phoenix). Yeah, the Cavaliers miss LeBron James just a little. They also are down Kevin Love (toe surgery), leaving Jordan Clarkson (15.2) and Rodney Hood (12.9) as Cleveland’s top scorers. That’s not ideal. The Cavaliers are 27th in scoring (103.3) while giving up 113.1 points per game, which is better than Washington’s league-worst 118.5. Rookie point guard Collin Sexton, the No. 8 overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft, is filling in for the injured George Hill. Sexton is averaging 17.0 points over the last three games.

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With 2 TDs in 2 games, Josh Doctson headlines Redskins stock report

With 2 TDs in 2 games, Josh Doctson headlines Redskins stock report

After an important road win in Tampa, the Redskins stock is soaring. The team is 6-3 and two games up in the NFC East.

For individual players, Josh Doctson headlines the stock surge but a pair of defenders are moving the other way. Let's dig into the Redskins stock report.

Stock up - Josh Doctson - The third-year wide receiver has scored in two straight games and has caught seven of 10 balls thrown his way. The yardage numbers don't jump off the page, but all four catches in Tampa were important. Further, Doctson rebounded from a tough game against Atlanta where he dropped two passes and got flagged for a (wrong) taunting penalty. Most impressive with Doctson? The touchdown in Tampa came off schedule and showed that he kept working back to his QB once the play broke down. That will garner more trust from Alex Smith, and maybe more chances for big plays down the backstretch of the year.

Stock down - Danny Johnson - For an undrafted free agent out of Southern, Johnson has had a remarkable season. In Tampa, he did not have a remarkable game and got replaced on the field by Greg Stroman. Let Jay Gruden explain, "Danny had a good week of practice. He filled in for Stroman when Stroman had the hip issue last week and we thought we'd give Danny a shot to start. Danny was playing a little soft [coverage] there for a little while, so we decided to give Stroman a crack at it." Once Stroman got in, he grabbed an interception and had a nice pass breakup downfield. Johnson has a firm roster spot - the Redskins just released Josh Holsey - but looks like he fell behind Stroman on the depth chart. 

Stock up - Kapri Bibbs - With Chris Thompson on the shelf and a murky timetable for his return, Bibbs is getting more and more chances on the field. And increasingly, he's delivering when he gets looks. Against Tampa, he ran the ball three times for 28 yards and added two catches for 13 yards. He also had a huge gain just before halftime, the Redskins first big chunk play in weeks that Bibbs took after a screen pass, but it got called back on a holding flag. 

Stock down - Pernell McPhee - No player wants to be a healthy scratch, but that's just what happened to McPhee last week in Tampa. Jay Gruden explained: "Unfortunately I had to sit McPhee, not performance related, but just I had to get another body on the offensive line because we're banged up." It was mostly a work of roster construction that landed McPhee on the inactive list, but still, Cassanova McKinzy made the active roster after being on the practice squad. McKinzy showed some ability rushing the passer, and he can play special teams. This could be a situation worth monitoring. 

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