When Eric Dungey took a bone-crunching hit to the head at Clemson on Saturday, it was almost as if you could hear a collective gasp from Orange Nation. And when Syracuse’s star quarterback stayed on the ground at Memorial Stadium, head coach Dino Babers must have seen his team’s season flash before his eyes. Now, several days later, it feels like SU’s bowl chances may have been killed in Death Valley.
Dungey suffered a head injury, the third of his 1.5-year career, and spent the rest of the game in street clothes. Austin Wilson, whose name didn’t appear on the depth chart, took the offensive reins, before being replaced by Zack Mahoney (Dungey’s presumed backup) in the fourth quarter.
Dungey’s status for Saturday’s matchup against NC State is still up in the air. Dino Babers said Wednesday that Dungey was still undergoing testing, and expects to provide an update by Thursday night. There’s a case to be made that Dungey should sit out even if he’s medically cleared to play, so, let’s assume, for now, that he’ll watch the game from the sideline.
In that case, who will start in his place — Wilson or Mahoney?
Throughout the week, Babers has kept more than Dungey’s status a mystery — he’s also been coy about his preferred backup. That’s a savvy move, forcing the Wolfpack to spend time preparing for three signal-callers, but it leaves us without even the slightest inkling of who’ll take the first snap on Saturday.
It would makes sense to assume that Wilson is the team’s real second-stringer, despite what the depth chart said last week, after Babers tapped him first when Dungey went down. But the coach said the decision was based on “situation,” which could mean anything — perhaps, trailing by multiple scores in the first quarter, Wilson’s stronger and slightly more accurate arm earned him the nod in an offense that needed to air the ball out. Or, Babers could mean that he wanted to preserve his real backup QB, Mahoney, in a game that was already turning into a blowout.
Neither Wilson nor Mahoney has been very impressive when forced into action over the past few years. Against Clemson, Wilson completed a respectable 63 percent (17-of-27) of his pass attempts, but finished with only 116 yards (4.3 yards per attempt), no touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Pennsylvania native’s best attribute is his strong arm, but he didn’t showcase it on Saturday, instead relying on the short passing game to avoid a ferocious Tigers pass rush. During his three-year career, Wilson has averaged 4.9 yards per attempt (for context, every single FBS team averages at least five), and has tossed seven interceptions to go with just one touchdown.
Now, Wilson was a three-star recruit coming out of high school, and his natural arm talent is appealing in the Orange’s pass-heavy scheme. Mahoney, on the other hand, provides something that has also been a key piece of the Syracuse offense: a mobile quarterback.
Dungey leads the team in both carries and rushing touchdowns, despite Babers’ preseason claim that he wanted his signal-caller to run less this season, and the sophomore’s legs have carried his team’s ground attack all year. Ironically, SU’s quarterback has been the only player capable of providing some run-pass balance.
Mahoney does a pretty good Dungey impression when he tucks the ball and takes off. Last season, he led Syracuse to 10-point losses against LSU and Clemson; in those games — which should be viewed as moral victories — Mahoney tallied a combined 17 carries for 116 yards and two touchdowns. And his career passing statistics (5.0 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns, two interceptions) are actually better than Wilson’s, although that’s like saying bleach tastes better than anti-freeze.
On the other hand, Mahoney arrived in Central New York as a walk-on (the junior received a scholarship before this season), and was brutally inaccurate in those tilts against the two powerhouse teams nicknamed the Tigers, completing less than 41 percent of his passes.
If Dungey can’t go, the most likely outcome is a committee, with Wilson and Mahoney each seeing the field against NC State. Hopefully, though, Dungey is healthy enough to make this entire discussion moot.