Sam Maller | Asst. Photo EditorFootball
Syracuse defense generates constant pressure, disrupts Connecticut offense in dominant win
Durell Eskridge had flown off that edge before, barreling toward the quarterback with eyes, mind and heart intent on a debilitating sack. He’d watched as the ball was released from the quarterback’s hands prior to the moment of impact, realizing with frustration that his blitz was unsuccessful.
So this time he cheated forward, toward the line of scrimmage, hell bent on reaching Connecticut’s Chandler Whitmer to unleash a hit from the blind side — the most painful side.
He took off at the snap of a third-and-8 play that saw Whitmer lined up in the shotgun with two players flanking him. He shot into the backfield and flung himself at the quarterback, initiating a collision that turned Whitmer into a concave ragdoll with arms flailing and no control of a football that would be recovered by the Orange.
“I think it did more than juice the defense up,” said Eskridge, a sophomore safety. “It had us going crazy.”
Eskridge’s forced fumble was the highlight on a night in which relentless pressure by the Syracuse (3-4, 2-1 Big East) defense rattled Whitmer and stifled the Connecticut (3-5, 0-3 Big East) running game en route to a dominant 40-10 win inside the Carrier Dome. A team that pounded the Orange for upwards of 200 yards on the ground a year ago was held to negative rushing yards on Friday, thoroughly beaten by a defensive unit that continues to string together impressive performances.
Defensive coordinator Scott Shafer said bringing pressure off the edges was something the coaching staff identified during the week as a potential area of concern for the Huskies. The result was frequent blitzing off the weak side — the left side of UConn’s offensive line — with as many as four defenders.
And the forced fumble by Eskridge, which the SU offense turned into a touchdown on the ensuing possession, came on a play Shafer said he hadn’t called since last season.
“I was hoping that maybe we could catch them on that,” he said. “It was a nice blitz by Durell and a big play. That was a great play.”
Whitmer endured a litany of painful hits on Friday, including a weak-side blitz by linebacker Dyshawn Davis on the play immediately prior to Eskridge’s strip sack. The replays of both hits on the big screens drew consecutive gasps from the crowd, and the sophomore quarterback was pulled off the turf by one of his offensive lineman following Davis’ hit.
He was drilled again on Connecticut’s next possession, this time by defensive end Markus Pierce-Brewster, who burst through the gap between right guard and right tackle to drag Whitmer down for a loss of 12.
"We came in knowing that our defense was wonderful, and we knew that we can stop them. Period."
Durell Eskridge, Syracuse safety
That hit left Whitmer needing a moment to haul himself back up, and he favored his right shoulder slightly once he did so.
“They were flying around making plays, making big stops, getting in the quarterback’s face,” SU quarterback Ryan Nassib said of his team’s defense. “And I know from experience that it’s hard to play like that. And I was just glad that I wasn’t facing them today.”
Equally ineffective was Connecticut tailback Lyle McCombs, who returned to the field after missing last week with a wrist injury. He tormented the Orange a season ago in East Hartford, Conn., for 152 yards and a touchdown, but on Friday he managed a career-low 16 on 12 carries.
Time and again he was trumped behind the line of scrimmage, often forced to dodge SU defenders even before escaping the backfield. Each of his first three carries yielded negative yardage, and his longest run of the game was 6 yards.
Across the way, Syracuse amassed 251 yards rushing, with four plays resulting in 6 yards or more on its first possession alone.
“Nobody is going to come in our house and just do what they want,” Davis said. “From a defensive standpoint, we’re pretty tough. We’ll go up against anybody, and we’ll bring it.”
Coming into Friday’s game, Connecticut’s defense was ranked sixth in the country and tops in the Big East. All Syracuse did was rack up 502 yards of total offense while limiting the Huskies to more than 200 yards less.
And late in the fourth quarter, with the outcome long since decided, Eskridge added an exclamation point to a game in which his defense imposed its will. UConn wide receiver Michael Smith streaked across the middle deep downfield on a third-and-6 play in the fourth quarter, but there was Eskridge thrusting his right shoulder into Smith’s abdomen to prevent the catch and send one final message.
“We came in knowing that our defense was wonderful, and we knew that we can stop them,” Eskridge said, unable to contain a grin from spreading across his face.
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