It looked like it was going to be one of those days for Syracuse.
On the first drive of the Orange’s game at Boston College on Saturday, SU drove down to the BC 35-yard-line, and was within striking distance of the home team’s end zone. Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey used a hard count to draw a few Eagles offsides, and, with a free play, launched a bomb over the middle of the field. BC intercepted the pass, but it didn’t matter — the Orange would retain possession, and move forward five yards, thanks to the Boston College penalty.
The problem? There were no flags on the field, as SU realized during William Harris’s 60-yard return. Dungey, clearly frustrated after throwing a pick that shouldn’t have counted, laid out Eagles linebacker Matt Milano after the whistle, prompting a scrum on the Orange’s sideline. The sophomore QB was fortunate to avoid ejection — and he didn’t waste the referees’ amnesty.
The interception and late hit were the first two miscues in a game marked by mental errors and missed opportunities for Syracuse. The Orange could have had the win wrapped up by halftime, but the team left a ton of points on the board in the first 30 minutes — it didn’t end up mattering, though.
Dungey was tough, resilient, and accurate in leading Syracuse to a 28-20 win in Alumni Stadium. He completed 32 of his 38 attempts for 434 yards (the second-highest single-game total in program history) and three touchdowns, and tacked on 54 yards on 17 carries.
Over the past two weeks, Dungey has looked like a bona fide Face of the Program. These are his combined numbers against Boston College and Virginia Tech, a pair of top-five defenses: 60-for-91, 745 yards, four touchdowns through the air, and 41 carries for 160 yards and a score on the ground. Everyone’s statistics are inflated by the team’s fast-paced offensive scheme, but those figures are still incredible, especially when considering the competition. Dungey appears go get more comfortable in Dino Babers’ system with each passing game.
Dungey spread the wealth pretty evenly among his top four targets. Amba Etta-Tawo, Steve Ishmael, Brisly Estime, and Erv Philips were the only receivers to record a catch, but they were more than enough. Each wideout recorded at least five catches and 78 yards.
Etta-Tawo didn’t break loose until the fourth quarter — Boston College did a good job of keeping the graduate transfer in front of its last line of defense, and Etta-Tawo picked up just 76 yards on his first nine catches. His 10th reception, however, was the play of the game: with about 10 minutes left in regulation, Dungey lofted a pass in No. 7’s general direction (that’s been Syracuse’s best play all season). Etta-Tawo made a spectacular one-handed catch down the left sideline, tossed BC defensive back Kamrin Moore to the turf, Beast-Mode-style, and cruised to the end zone for a 68-yard touchdown. The eye-popping display of athleticism made the score 28-20, giving the Orange some breathing room down the stretch.
Etta-Tawo finished the day with 144 yards, moving his season total to 1,076. During the game, he became the fourth SU player to crack quadruple-digit receiving yards in a single campaign, and rocketed past both Rob Moore (1,064 in 1989) and Alec Lemon (1,070 in 2012) to take over second place on the program’s all-time leaderboard. Etta-Tawo now sits just 55 yards behind Marvin Harrison (1,131 in 1995) for the top spot, with four games left in the regular season — so the Georgia native needs to record only 14 yards per outing to break the record. He’ll probably shoot past the mark in the first quarter of Syracuse’s game against Clemson (more on that later).
The chemistry between Dungey and Etta-Tawo is palpable — not only on the field, but in press conferences, as well. They’re like newlyweds, and the 2016 season is their honeymoon. In the postgame presser, when a reporter asked Etta-Tawo about the most important factor in his success this year, the receiver motioned to Dungey.
“This guy right here,” said Etta-Tawo. “He always gives me the opportunity; he throws the ball down the field. You can’t ask for much more than that.”
Etta-Tawo’s touchdown might not have been the Orange’s most impressive catch of the game, though: that title could belong to Steve Ishmael, who hauled in an absurd jump ball in the corner of the end zone late in the third quarter. With SU working from the Eagles’ 11-yard-line, the 6-foot-2 wideout ran a fade route from the slot, pulled down a pass that Dungey placed in a spot where only the receiver could catch it, and miraculously tapped his left foot in-bounds. In real-time, the play seemed impossible, but the officials confirmed the touchdown call after a short review. It was one of eight receptions for Ishmael, who registered his first 100-yard game of the season.
While Syracuse’s aerial attack thrived, its run game was once again anemic. The Orange averaged 2.8 yards per carry, and Dungey was the team’s leading rusher for the second consecutive week. It’s pretty incredible that Orange struggled so mightily on the ground and still found a way to win, because Boston College ranks third in the country in defensive S&P+, an efficiency-based metric, on passing downs (2nd-and-8 or more, 3rd-and-5 or more, or 4th-and-5 or more).
The Eagles’ passing game was somehow even worse than SU’s running game. BC completed just seven (seven!) passes all day, including zero (zero!) in the first 27-plus minutes. Those struggles were due in part to the Syracuse defense — sophomore safety Daivon Ellison was fantastic, which is becoming a common theme — but Boston College typically struggles to throw the ball (it was 114th in the country in passing yards per game before today).
Parris Bennett (11 tackles) and Zaire Franklin (seven tackles) were the backbone of the Orange’s defense, as always. Although Boston College ran for 223 yards on 40 carries (5.6 YPC), the Eagles didn’t really bust out aside from QB Patrick Towles’ 75-yard scamper on the last play of the third quarter. Take out that play, and SU did a decent job of containing edge runs, which have been Syracuse’s kryptonite all season.
Another Orange weakness is mental miscues, which reared their ugly head again on Saturday. In the first half alone, SU: turned the ball over twice, dropped an easy pick-six, allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown, and lost a long touchdown when Brisly Estime ran out of bounds with nobody between him and the end zone. Syracuse also got flagged for 16 penalties, including an absurd nine false starts.
The fact that the Orange beat a decent team despite leaving so many points on the table and committing so many unforced errors should be viewed as a positive. It was a whirlwind, roller coaster of a football game, but the final score is all that matters.
“I’m not even sure who we play next,” Dino Babers said in his postgame press conference.
After a bye week, the Orange travels to Death Valley for a date with No. 4 Clemson. If Babers and company want to topple the Tigers, they can’t make the same mistakes they did against Boston College — but the team can worry about that later. For now, Syracuse should enjoy this win, and bask in the glory of being .500.