After back-to-back losses by a combined 59 points, Syracuse got back to .500 with a 31-24 win at Connecticut on Saturday. The Orange shored up its run defense and contained the Huskies’ two-headed ground attack, and relied on a record-breaking performance from one of the nation’s top receivers to move the ball.
SU (2-2) dominated the first quarter, blanking its opponent for the opening 15 minutes for the second consecutive week, but allowed UConn (2-2) back into the game in the second frame, and took a 17-14 edge to the locker rooms. In the second half, Syracuse used a pair of enormous defensive plays and a 99-yard drive to bury the Huskies.
From the opening kickoff to the final whistle, Amba Etta-Tawo was the best player on the field. The graduate transfer set a new program record with 270 receiving yards on 12 catches, the second of which went for a 57-yard touchdown less than a minute into the game. On that play, Etta-Tawo introduced himself to Jamar Summers, UConn’s best defensive player and one of the premier shutdown cornerbacks in the country. It was a sign of things to come — the first-team All-AAC junior had no chance of staying with SU’s primary receiving threat.
It would take all week to list every crazy Etta-Tawo statistic. Through four games, he has 706 receiving yards, for an average of 176.5 per game; in the past decade, no FBS receiver has averaged 150. Etta-Tawo needs just 425 yards (53.1 per game, excluding statistics in a potential bowl appearance) to break Marvin Harrison’s single-season record for a Syracuse receiver (1,131). In other words, Etta-Tawo can be 33 percent as good throughout the rest of the campaign as he’s been over the first four games, and still cruise past the program record for yards in a season.
If Etta-Tawo maintains his current level of production — which he almost certainly won’t, but it’s fun to dream — the Georgia native will shatter the national record for yards by a college receiver. Nevada’s Trevor Insley is the only player to ever crack the 2,000-yard mark, piling up 2,060 in 1999; Etta-Tawo is on pace for 2,118.
But this might be the most eye-popping figure of them all: before the season, Etta-Tawo had never recorded more than 71 yards in a single game, and his career-high for an entire season was 500.
In the understatement of the year, Syracuse head coach Dino Babers called Etta-Tawo a “pleasant surprise.”
Etta-Tawo accounted for more than 57 percent of the Orange’s offense on Saturday, and on several plays, quarterback Eric Dungey — frequently facing heavy pressure behind an offensive line that was missing three of its five usual starters — chucked the pigskin in No. 7’s general direction. More often than not, Etta-Tawo came down with it.
Dungey became the fourth player in SU history to throw for more than 400 yards in one game, but the sophomore quarterback was inaccurate, consistently underthrowing receivers and relying on Etta-Tawo to bail him out. The numbers (26-for-40, 407 yards, a pair of touchdowns, no interceptions) look phenomenal, and Dungey wasn’t awful, by any stretch — but he was slightly off-target on several of his passes. When opposing defenses begin to roll double- and triple-teams toward Etta-Tawo, forcing Dungey to look somewhere else, the signal caller will have to drop the football into tighter windows as he targets receivers who haven’t proven capable of making the type of contested catches that Etta-Tawo consistently reels in.
But on Saturday, Dungey was accurate enough, and his aerial attack carried a running game that was once again anemic. Syracuse rushed 26 times for 62 yards. Babers’ high-octane offense is supposed to use the pass to set up the run — the receiving weapons spread across the field stretch the opposing defense and open up lanes between the hashmarks — but the Orange is now averaging less than 3.2 yards per carry against FBS opponents.
Unlike the offense, the Syracuse defense fixed its run-game issues on Saturday. Entering Week 4, the Orange had allowed 8.6 yards per rush to FBS foes, by far the worst mark in the nation (the next-closest was Hawaii, at 6.8). Louisville and South Florida gashed SU for several huge, deflating gains on the ground, but Babers’ team didn’t let the Huskies rip off a single 20-yard run. For reference, Syracuse entered the contest as one of seven teams in the country that had surrendered at least 10 rushes of 20 yards or more.
UConn carried 45 times for 144 yards (3.2 YPC), and dual-threat quarterback Bryant Shirreffs picked up only 27 yards on 21 attempts. The Orange had struggled mightily to contain mobile signal-callers over the previous two weeks, and frequently used a linebacker to spy Shirreffs, who entered the game as the Huskies’ leading rusher.
Zaire Franklin anchored the SU defense. The junior linebacker racked up 12 tackles, including the most important one of the game: down by seven points with about six minutes remaining in regulation, UConn faced fourth down from Syracuse’s two-yard-line. The Huskies opted to go for it. Shirreffs kept the ball, scurried around the right side of his offensive line, and dove for the end zone. Franklin met him a few feet from the goal line and wrapped up the quarterback’s legs. Defensive end Chris Slayton finished the tackle, but if Franklin hadn’t been there, UConn would have tied the game.
That might not have been the most impressive play by an Orange defender on Saturday, though. With less than a minute left in the third quarter, Franklin laid out to tip Shirreffs’ pass down the right sideline. The ball fell into the hands of cornerback Cordell Hudson, who returned it 22 yards to the house. That pick-six broke a 17-17 tie, and gave SU a lead it never relinquished.
Hudson stepped up in the absence of Antwan Cordy and Juwan Dowels, both of whom are out for the season with injuries. The redshirt sophomore tackled extremely well, and was a huge reason why UConn couldn’t break through the second level of Syracuse’s defense.
Etta-Tawo, Franklin, and Hudson were incredible on Saturday. The Orange will need all 22 starters to bring their A-game if it’s going to knock off a ranked opponent, but against UConn, that trio was enough.