Football

The next day: Special teams’ miscues cost SU in loss to Rutgers

Lucille Messineo-Witt | Photo Editor

Syracuse has branded itself as “Special Teams U” over recent years. But against Rutgers, SU’s special teams’ errors led to its demise.

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Syracuse doesn’t have a designated special teams coordinator this season. The unit has produced NFL-caliber punters Riley Dixon, Sterling Hofrichter and Nolan Cooney, and current kicker Andre Szmyt has NFL potential, too. Syracuse has branded itself as “Special Teams U” over recent years.

But coordinator Justin Lustig departed at the end of last season for an assistant coaching job at Vanderbilt. The Orange have leaned on Blair Cavanaugh, who’s listed as the quality control staff member for special teams. SU has yet to fill Lustig’s vacancy.

Through spring and fall training camp and into the season, Syracuse has been “sharing responsibility throughout the entire staff,” said head coach Dino Babers. Punter James Williams said last week that it hasn’t been more challenging without a coordinator. The coaches understood Lustig’s position and Williams said the coaches continued where Lustig left off.

But Saturday, in the Orange’s 17-7 loss to Rutgers, their special teams performance was littered with mistakes and miscues. Szmyt missed wide left, returner Trebor Pena nearly muffed a punt, the Orange had their first punt blocked and Colby Barker shanked a punt that went eight yards to start the fourth quarter. Syracuse had three illegal formation penalties while punting, too.

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“There were numerous mistakes in the kicking game,” Babers said postgame. “I thought the kicking game cost us as much as the offense not scoring many points.”

On Syracuse’s first drive of the game, Rutgers’ Max Melton barreled unblocked toward Williams. Williams had to leap in order to secure a high snap, and by the time he picked up his head and readied himself to punt downfield, Melton was already in his face.

The defense bailed them out with a nine-yard sack from Josh Black and Caleb Okechukwu, but that was only the start. Rutgers nearly blocked another punt in the third quarter as well, with Williams punting from his own 5-yard line and multiple defenders in his face. Syracuse got flagged for interfering with the returner on that play, too.

“We hurt ourselves, turnovers, penalties hurt,” quarterback Tommy DeVito said. “We can’t make mistakes like that.”

In the second quarter, Pena backpedaled to field a long punt. He got into position and the ball hit both his hands, but he couldn’t secure it and it drifted behind him. As Rutgers’ coverage team neared, Pena turned and fell on the loose ball a split second before three Scarlet Knights players piled on top.

He let an ensuing punt go over his head instead of fielding it, allowing Rutgers to down it inside the 1-yard line.

Szmyt, who won the 2018 Lou Groza award which is given to the best collegiate kicker in the nation, hooked his only field goal attempt from 43 yards. He’s two makes away from Syracuse’s all-time made field goals record, but he couldn’t progress up the ranks on Saturday.

But there were a handful of bright spots on Saturday, mainly for Williams. After having his first punt blocked, he pinned Rutgers at the 11-yard line with a kick that drifted out of bounds. But Syracuse was called for illegal formation after what looked like a good punt from Williams, who was standing on the backline of his own endzone, so Rutgers accepted the penalty and elected for a re-kick.

That was the second of three illegal formations on punts. When asked about difficulties lining up for punts, Babers said there was one instance where SU didn’t have a player on the field and another where Rutgers was calling a play. He declined to specify, adding that he didn’t want “to get fined over something silly.”

Williams launched a 60-yard bomb on the redo which landed better than his first punt despite worse field position. Later, he hit a 49-yard punt which the Rutgers’ returner muffed. Williams’ final statline included six punts for 244 yards, two of which were inside the 20-yard line.

“We expect big things from James (Williams). And it’s going to be a little spooky at first but let’s see if he can get through those growing pains and kick the ball the way we know he can kick the ball, because that’s the reason why we got him,” Babers said before SU’s season-opener.

Syracuse also sniffed out what appeared to be a trick play when Rutgers holder Adam Korsak took off running on a field goal attempt in the first quarter. Defensive back Garrett Williams made a big tackle on a punt return in the second quarter.

But to cap it all off, right after Rutgers ended the third quarter by taking the lead with a touchdown, Barker came onto the field for his first career punt at Syracuse. The Ohio State transfer used to play lacrosse and walked on at SU this summer.

With the ball spotted at Syracuse’s own 23-yard line, Barker shanked the kick eight yards past the line of scrimmage. A five-yard penalty for illegal formation didn’t help, and Rutgers took over at the 26-yard line.

“Our second punter was better than our first punter in that situation,” Babers said postgame. “He didn’t do so well.”

The game was won when…

The fans in the Carrier Dome headed for the exit when Babers and the Orange punted on 4th-and-10 halfway through the fourth quarter when SU was down 10 points. Syracuse did get a stop and the ball back, but it was after Rutgers had burned 4:21 off the game clock.

In a two-possession game, Babers said the decision to punt was “a 50/50 call” because the Orange had three timeouts and the potential for better field position with the defense playing well. But in hindsight, the decision dissolved SU’s slim chances at a comeback by allowing the Scarlet Knights to eat up the clock when the Orange needed the ball back quickly.

Quote of the night: Taj Harris on the 10-point loss

“We beat ourselves by far. No doubt, Rutgers has a very good football team, but we beat ourselves.”

Stat to know: 8

That’s how many penalties the Orange had in their 17-7 loss to the Scarlet Knights, good for 55 yards and two Rutgers first downs. Last season, the Orange averaged 67 penalty yards per game and seven penalties, the latter of which ranked 103rd of 127 FBS teams. Saturday, the penalties started when DeVito’s second throw of the afternoon led to an intentional grounding penalty. It continued in the second quarter with back-to-back illegal formation calls, first on third down with quarterback Garrett Shrader and the second following a punt. SU had another illegal formation on a third-quarter punt, too.

And at the most inopportune time in the third quarter, Babers was called for unsportsmanlike conduct which gifted the Scarlet Knights a first down on 3rd-and-long. Mikel Jones was called for a personal foul on the play, and Babers with his ensuing argument with the referee. Rutgers scored the first touchdown of the game on the ensuing play as a result.

Game ball: Mikel Jones

Jones recorded a team-high 11 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss. He burst through a hole at the end of the first half and blew up Rutgers’ running back to force a turnover on downs. Jones helped lead a defensive unit that continually rescued a stagnant SU offense.

“It made us feel good, it gave us confirmation that we are what we think we are — a great defense,” Jones said.

Three final points

What we learned about the O-line: Last week’s performance against Ohio was a strong outing for the offensive line and the run game. But against Rutgers, Syracuse finished with 67 total rushing yards. Rutgers sacked Tommy DeVito and Garrett Shrader a combined five times. Syracuse will face much better teams than Rutgers later in the season, and they’ll need to repair its offensive line in order to improve the run and pass game.

Third down defense: Time and time again, Syracuse’s defense bailed out a sputtering offense. Rutgers finished the game 3-of-15 on third down. A big sack from Caleb Okechukwu and Josh Black turned a routine field goal into a long one for Rutgers that missed in the first quarter. The defense did everything right in the first half, and continued to play well in the second half despite the departure of cornerback Garrett Williams.

Is this the true Syracuse? The Orange looked good against Ohio, a Mid-American Conference team, but Saturday’s loss to Rutgers was more telling of what we should expect from the Orange this season. Rutgers is a Big Ten school that went 3-6 last year, yet Syracuse looked disjointed on offense and special teams. The sample size is still very small two games into the season, but Syracuse has a lot to work on if it wants to prove that last year’s 1-10 season is truly a thing of the past.

“We’re not going to do this again this year,” Babers said, referring to last season. “As coaches we need to be better and as players we need to be better. That’s the bottom line.”

Next up: Albany

Syracuse stays at home for the next two weeks with games, the first of which will be against Albany. The Great Danes didn’t play last fall, instead playing a shortened, four-game schedule during the spring that included losses to Maine, Rhode Island and Stony Brook.

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