Football

The next day: Syracuse finally musters a game winning drive versus Virginia Tech

Elizabeth Billman | Senior Staff Photographer

Finally, against Virginia Tech, when Syracuse put a successful drive together, the result was euphoric.

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Syracuse can point to a plethora of reasons it suffered three consecutive losses to Florida State, Wake Forest and Clemson, ranging from missed officiating calls, poor coaching decisions and a lack of execution. But the bottom line is simple — in each game, SU had the ball, and a chance to potentially win the game. And in each, for a variety of reasons, the Orange couldn’t.

“We’re just not finishing the way we should be,” quarterback Garrett Shrader reiterated after the Wake Forest defeat.

And after the Clemson game, where the offense’s final drive stalled and Andre Szmyt missed a 48-yard field goal, multiple Syracuse players collapsed on the ground in disbelief.

In Blacksburg on Saturday afternoon, Syracuse (4-4, 1-3 Atlantic Coast) reversed the narrative by finally winning a close game. The Orange trailed by two possessions with less than three minutes remaining but closed out the game with a 45-yard touchdown drive, the defense forcing a three-and-out and one more 70-yard scoring drive. In a must-win game, SU got back to .500 on the season behind its first game-winning drive in a month. 

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“This was Christmas and birthdays, everything wrapped up in one,” head coach Dino Babers said when asked about this win’s significance. “It’s a good celebration in one.”

It started a month ago against Liberty when Cody Roscoe popped the ball out of quarterback Malik Willis’ hand. The score was tied 21-21, and when linebacker Mikel Jones fell on the loose ball, SU was looking at a 48-yard field goal if it didn’t pick up any yards. So the offense went to work. 

Sean Tucker ran for 8 yards, and then 1, and later in the drive, Shrader rushed for 8 yards before Szmyt nailed the game-winning 35-yard field goal. But that drive, where the defense’s forced fumble set up an extremely short field, was a minuscule version of what was to come for Syracuse’s offense.

The following week, Syracuse had the ball with 3:20 and the score tied 30-30. The Orange got into field goal range while chewing the clock, and the offense had a good shot at coming out of Tallahassee with a win. But Syracuse managed just one first down before Anthony Queeley slipped on his third-and-7 route that would’ve put SU on the edge of field goal range. It looked like Shrader overthrew Queeley too, and FSU went on to lead its own game-winning drive in response. 

“It’s bitter coming up short,” Shrader said after the three-point loss. 

In overtime against Wake Forest, Shrader pitched to Tucker along the sideline for a first down, but eventually, SU’s receivers couldn’t get open. Shrader pump-faked on third-and-8 and then was swallowed for a sack. SU kicked a field goal, and Wake Forest responded with a touchdown. 

Syracuse won by five against Virginia Tech after losing the past three games by 3.

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Against Clemson, it was an improvement, but still more of the same. The Orange were backed up at their own 7-yard line to start the drive, but Tucker scrambled for a first down. Damien Alford snagged a pass wide-open for another. Shrader hit Queeley on a fourth-and-7 to keep the game alive, and SU got all the way down to the Clemson 39-yard line before its luck ran out.

Shrader nearly threw a pick, and Tucker was stopped a yard shy on third down. Just like the weeks prior, SU’s drive had inevitably sputtered. It kicked, missed and lost.

It’s exciting and it’s disappointing at the same time,” Babers said after the Clemson loss. “But I like this group; I’m not going to trade them in. I’ll keep them, and we’ll put them in the oven, and when we get through baking, we’re going to have something that’s really exciting.”

So finally, against Virginia Tech, when Syracuse put a successful drive together, the result was euphoric. Shrader scrambled twice when everyone was covered, including on a fourth down, to keep the game alive. He dumped a screen off to Tucker for 13 and then made his best play of the year.

Hanging in the pocket, and knowing that he’d get drilled into the turf, Shrader let a deep ball fly toward Alford. His receiver made a contested catch, and SU had finally capped off a game-winning drive. Two straight incompletions to start the drive looked like it might be more of the same, but Syracuse turned it around to score in seven plays. 

Shrader said the losses, and failures to compile game-winning drives in prior weeks, set up SU for Saturday’s comeback win. 

“The last three weeks left a sour taste in our mouths,” he said. “Just learning how to handle ourselves in different situations … This offense is built to score points, and that’s what we did there in the end even with no timeouts and a little over a minute on the clock. … We’re trending the right way.”

The game was won when…

It looked like Virginia Tech’s 47-yard touchdown, which stretched the Hokies lead to nine points with under six minutes remaining, had sealed the game. It looked like SU’s fourth straight ACC loss.

But in the unlikeliest of scenarios, SU hit back with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Courtney Jackson, followed by a forced three-and-out from its defense. And with 0:19 left, Shrader unleashed a 45-yard bomb as he was drilled into the turf. Alford snagged his only catch of the afternoon for a touchdown. Syracuse had one last scare when Braxton Burmeister escaped pressure and unleashed a desperation pass that Ja’Had Carter didn’t bat toward the ground, but SU pulled off an impressive comeback to leave Virginia Tech with a much-needed win.

Quote of the day: Dino Babers on the fiasco before halftime

Moments before halftime, Syracuse got down to the 1-yard line via a 21-yard scramble from Shrader. Babers sprinted down the sideline and called timeout, but coming out of the break, the Orange didn’t have the right personnel on the field. Shrader tried a run and got stopped, but Virginia Tech’s premature timeout negated the Hokies’ defense stop, and Babers sent out his field goal team. Szmyt missed the 19-yard attempt off the right upright to end the half, but Babers addressed the management issue after the game.

That’s not good; that needs to stop today,” Babers said. “That wasn’t so much on the players, (but on the coaches). I’m responsible for everything, so it’s on me. My hands are on it.”

Stat to know: 12 touchdowns

The conversation about Syracuse’s rushing game frequently centers on Tucker, and rightfully so, but Shrader’s legs have been extremely efficient for the Orange in the red zone this season. The SU quarterback is tied for fourth in the nation with 12 rushing touchdowns this season, just one behind the NCAA’s leader. 

Saturday afternoon in Blacksburg, the quarterback said there were only a handful of designed run plays for him. Shrader called himself a “complement” to Tucker because of the way the defense trying to take away the running back opens up opportunities for Shrader. 

Shrader scrambled for three touchdowns, the first of which he faked a handoff to Tucker and then cut left for a 9-yard score. The second came on a 21-yard rush, and the third on a 3-yard one.

“I think we’re getting a lot better,” Shrader said of SU in the red zone. “I thought we did a better job pushing the ball down the field, making plays, making catches but we gotta keep getting better and being more efficient.”

Game ball: Garrett Shrader

Garrett Shrader is tied for 2nd in the nation in rushing touchdowns this season.

Lucy Qu | Design Editor

Shrader still completed less than 50% of his passes, a clip he’s only passed once since he became the starter (at Florida State). But the quarterback threw for 236 passing yards, 2 yards short of his career-high against LSU in 2019 when he played at Mississippi State. Shrader added 174 yards on 22 rushing attempts and three touchdowns, totaling five scores for the Orange.

He showed incredible poise to hang in the pocket and take that hit as he unloaded the deep shot to Alford and showed precision with connections to Jackson. The Orange averaged 13.5 yards per completion on third downs, and Shrader found success by scrambling and throwing the ball on the move after getting bottled up against Clemson a week prior.

Four final points

Even with injuries, the offensive line has held up. Last season, offensive line injuries plagued the Orange and made the unit one of the worst in the country. This year, SU is currently without Chris Bleich and lost Carlos Vettorello during the VT game. True freshman Kalan Ellis and freshman Josh Ilaoa filled in. 

The Orange still had four false start penalties on the offensive line as a result of the crowd noise, but compared to last year, the results have been drastically different. SU rushed for 314 yards and added another 236 over the air. Babers sarcastically mentioned how the unit was “so tired of all the positive articles they got last year.”

“Those guys, my heart goes out to them,” Babers said. “They don’t care; it’s next man up, next man up.”

Special teams issues continue. Syracuse is one of seven Power Five teams without a designated special teams coordinator. Babers and specialists Szmyt and James Williams have all previously emphasized that SU’s lack of a designated coordinator doesn’t hurt the team. The coaching staff splits up the responsibility, Babers has explained, though he’s denied to further specify the logistics of how that works.

But SU had an extra point blocked and ran back for two points, a missed 19-yard field goal before the half and a 29-yard punt that sailed out of bounds. Virginia Tech’s Tayvion Robinson ran back a punt for 40 yards, though SU returner Trebor Pena matched that with a 51-yard return of his own. 

Freshman Damien Alford had the game winning catch against Virginia Tech and has begun to carve his role onto the team.

Lucy Qu | Design Editor

Clearly, SU’s special teams’ problem hasn’t gone away. They very easily could’ve cost the Orange a win on Saturday. The unit posed problems early in the year against Rutgers, and still does after week 8 against VT. When asked previously how much he knows about special teams, Babers cited his past as a long-snapper, holder and kicker, as well as his 35 years of coaching experience. 

I think that we’ve been OK,” Babers said of SU’s special teams on Monday before the game. “Each coach has their individual deal, but there’s no doubt that if I had the perfect world, in a theater coming to you soon, that we’ll get back to the traditional way of doing things.

Alford’s clutch grab. The wide receiver made his first — and only — catch of the afternoon to secure Syracuse’s come-from-behind victory. He caught his first collegiate pass on a 73-yard bomb from Tommy DeVito against UAlbany just over a month prior and has developed significantly since the departure of No. 1 receiver Taj Harris.

I think I’ve improved a lot. Getting off the press, my blocks, catching the ball more aggressively,” Alford said. 

Alford, the 6-foot-6 receiver, secured the game-winning jump ball. The play called for a deep route, and Alford said he stepped inside to mislead the cornerback and then went up for the ball. The fact that Shrader hung in the pocket and “sacrificed his body” by taking that hit showed how much he trusted his receivers, Alford said.

He’s got those big-body ball skills,” Shrader said of his receiver afterward.

Babers was aggressive on fourth down. He deserves credit for that. Syracuse finished 4-of-4 on fourth down. Shrader completed a 9-yard pass to Devaughn Cooper on one, Tucker picked up another in a crucial fourth-quarter situation, and Shrader scrambled for a 6-yard pickup on SU’s game-winning drive. 

Babers has been historically conservative with his fourth-down play calling. He elected not to go for it on fourth-and-1 with seconds remaining in the first half and justified the decision by saying he thought the 19-yard field goal attempt was a guaranteed score. He knew SU would get the ball back to start the second half. That call didn’t pay off in hindsight, but Babers’ aggressive decision-making on fourth down was far better than previous weeks.

Next up: Boston College

Phil Jurkovec started 10 games last year and notched 2,558 passing yards, the most by any BC quarterback through their first 10 starts. The Eagles had stability with him returning but lost that when he suffered a likely season-ending hand injury in September and was replaced by redshirt senior Dennis Grosel. The Eagles have the third-worst offense in the conference (averaging 370.6 yards per game). They enter their matchup with SU coming off three straight losses to Clemson, NC State and Louisville, only one of which was a one-score game.

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