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MLax: Lessons from the Syracuse Debacle

If it wasn't obvious before Sunday, Syracuse showed the rest of the lacrosse world that the key to beating Duke is to stop Myles Jones.

File photo
File photo
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah, that happened.

While you were (we hope) cheering for Duke women's basketball in their second-round win over Mississippi State, or getting ready to cheer for men's basketball against San Diego State, the Duke men's lacrosse team got hammered by Syracuse, 19-7. It was the Blue Devils most lopsided loss, and the most goals surrendered in a game, since 2003.

The box score makes for unpleasant reading. The Orange dominated every statistical category except ground balls. Even without the injured Randy Staats, the starting attack unit was able to shred the overworked Duke close defense for ten goals, only three of which were assisted.

It was an early knockout. After Jack Rowe won the opening faceoff, Duke turned it over, and the Blue Devils didn't get possession again for over seven minutes. By that time, it was 4-0. Syracuse's Ben Williams went 7-for-8 on face-offs in the quarter, Syracuse had a 10-3 possession advantage, and they outshot Duke 23-4. It took Duke 13:31 to get on the scoreboard, and another 25:03 would pass before Justin Guterding scored to cut the lead to 14-2.

The second half was played because the rules required it to be played, and it featured Duke's only highlight of the day, a superb ground ball and end-to-end dash to score by LSM Brian Dailey. Jack Rowe made a nice adjustment, going 5-for-6 against Williams in the second half before the Orange faceoff man was given most of the fourth quarter off.

Soooo … what can we extract from the wreckage?

First and foremost, it's critical that this loss not send the Duke season spiraling out of control. Duke has to bounce back against North Carolina on Sunday. It's a huge leadership challenge for Duke's handful of seniors, and for the coaching staff. My guess is that Monday's practice was all about making lacrosse fun again, before the serious work got started.

Second, despite the rule changes that were intended to make face-offs more equal, a dominant FOGO is still a game-changing advantage. In Duke's seven wins, Duke (mainly the Brothers Rowe) won 63.8 percent of face-offs, leading to an average possession margin of plus 6.9. Against Denver and Syracuse, Duke won 33.3 percent of face-offs, and had an aggregate possession margin of minus-23. At 58.3 percent, Jack Rowe is number two among the ACC's primary face-off specialists; a big day against North Carolina's Stephen Kelly (who comes in at 49.6 percent) could go a long way toward starving the Tar Heels' potent attack-and as Maryland showed last Saturday, starving the Carolina attack is the key to success against them.

Duke's inexperienced close defense was exposed by the Syracuse attack, but mostly because of one fundamental failure. Over and over on Sunday, the Orange scored on plays where the defender had reasonably good body position, but had his stick on the wrong side, leaving the shooter's hands free. On more than one occasion, ESPN's field microphones picked up Duke defensive coordinator Ben DeLuca shouting "get under," exhorting his guys to get proper stick position. This is on the first page of the syllabus for Defense 101, and Duke failed the midterm. The good news is that this is correctable, and I'm highly confident that any Duke player who doesn't get that right in practice this week will experience the Joy of Running.

If it wasn't obvious before Sunday, Syracuse showed the rest of the lacrosse world that the key to beating Duke is to stop Myles Jones. Syracuse's much-maligned (including by me) LSM Peter McCartney had the game of his life, and he had plenty of help as the Orange slid early and aggressively (except for an offside call on a Duke clear, all of Syracuse's penalties were for excessive-contact fouls against Jones). The lesson here for Myles is to anticipate the double and move the ball sooner (are you reading this, Jahlil Okafor?).

To sum up, yes, it was ugly, and it would be unfair to Syracuse to call it a fluke. But Syracuse bounced back from its 21-7 drubbing by Duke at Koskinen last season, and there is every reason to believe that Duke can do the same.