A STEP BACK: Syracuse reverts to sloppy play in loss to Cincinnati to end 2-game winning streak

Cincinnati 35, Syracuse 24

CINCINNATI — The fumble marked the breaking point.

For nearly three full quarters, Syracuse battled. It fought through penalties, dismal tackling and a turnover on the very first play of the game to surge into halftime with a lead. On the road. Halfway to being just a game away from bowl eligibility.

Even as the third quarter wound down, the Orange found itself holding a four-point lead.

But then came the weak-side blitz, the vicious hit on Ryan Nassib, the fumble and the Cincinnati touchdown on a tight-end throwback. It was a sequence that rolled a turnover-riddled loss against Rutgers and an embarrassing blown coverage against Connecticut into one.

It felt like the same old story.

“Something like that I guess,” linebacker Marquis Spruill said. “It’s just the way the game goes.”

And this game went like several others during the 2012 season, with Syracuse flashing glimpses of greatness before collapsing on itself only to be left with a queasy feeling in the end. On Saturday, the Orange (4-5, 3-2 Big East) fell short against Cincinnati (6-2, 2-1 Big East) in a 35-24 defeat marred with penalties and self-inflicted wounds before a crowd of 26,180 at Nippert Stadium. With the loss, Syracuse must win two of its next three games to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.

The game began inauspiciously for Syracuse, with Jeremiah Kobena fumbling the opening kickoff and the Bearcats capitalizing for seven points before two minutes had expired. It set the tone for a performance pockmarked by untimely mistakes and penalties — oh, the penalties. Syracuse was flagged 12 times on Saturday for 104 yards and scored only three points in total on drives that featured a penalty.

They derailed momentum, destroyed continuity and forced the Orange into third-and-long situations that invited blitzes.

“That’s a huge factor,” defensive tackle Jay Bromley said. “You’ve got to play disciplined. You can’t expect to come out here and beat a good team, shoot yourself in the foot and give them 100 yards.”

The penalties ranged from bizarre — three false starts on wide receivers — to progress-halting, like two holds by Zack Chibane that wiped out a 17-yard completion to Alec Lemon and a 19-yard completion to Marcus Sales.

But the most devastating mistake was wide receiver Jarrod West’s false start on a second-and-6 play in the final five minutes of the third quarter. As Syracuse clung to a 24-21 lead, West’s error put the Orange behind the chains. Nassib was hurried on the next play, an incomplete pass to Prince-Tyson Gulley, and what happened after that permanently altered the complexion of the game.

Cincinnati cornerback Chris Williams appeared to drop back in coverage on a third-and-11, only to surge forward toward Nassib’s blind side. Gulley missed the block, one that Marrone said the team worked on all week in practice, only to watch Williams hammer Nassib from behind and knock the ball loose.

The Bearcats recovered and scored three plays later on a throw-back play to the tight end from third-string quarterback Brendon Kay.

“I really just was going and God just gave me the strength to stay on my point on the quarterback and get there and bring some violence when I came,” Williams said.

The touchdown pass from Kay to tight end Travis Kelce, who also scored on a jump-pass earlier in the game, gave the Bearcats a lead they would never relinquish. Two possessions later, after a steady drizzle had begun to fall inside Nippert Stadium, Syracuse kicker Ross Krautman missed a 42-yard field goal wide left that forced Marrone to bend over at the waist and bury his head in his hands.

Earlier, Krautman had a kick blocked for the second time in four games. This time the protection broke down left of center, instead of the right side as it did at Rutgers, and Brandon Mills burst through the line to get his right hand on the football.

This most recent slew of errors saddles Syracuse with an uphill challenge over the final three weeks of the season. Undefeated Louisville is next on the schedule, followed by trips to Missouri and Temple to close out the year. And after another frustrating effort bereft of any sort of consistency, it’s difficult to see this bunch rallying against a team on the verge of a Bowl Championship Series berth and another that plays in the toughest conference in the country.

The losses play like a broken record, with each one — Northwestern, Minnesota, Rutgers and now Cincinnati — repeating verses that are incredibly predictable.

“Like coach says, it’s the turnovers and penalties and stuff that hurts ourselves,” Nassib said. “That’s really the most frustrating part, and that’s why we lose games.”


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