It is the first time the Orange and the Blue Raiders have ever meet, and it was a closer game than many thought it would be.
And, according to Dino Babers and some players, the 30-23 loss was a more emotional game than the Orange was prepared for.
Scott Shafer was a Distraction to SU
With former SU football head coach Scott Shafer back in the Carrier Dome — but on the other side of the field this time — the Syracuse player’s heads might not have been completely in the game.
“I thought about Shaf[er] more than I would like to,” Parris Bennett said in the postgame press conference. “It was just weird. … Something a lot of us haven’t experienced before.”
But it makes sense. Players can grow close to their coach. Bennett even made it sound like seeing Shafer again was a reunion with a fatherly figure.
“It was nice to actually talk to him after not seeing him for some years. He’s definitely still asking about me, how I’m doing in school and stuff like that,” Bennett said.
Syracuse Failed to Execute
The game did not get off to a quick start at all. SU didn’t record a first down until the second quarter. Believe it or not, Syracuse only had 26 yards of offense in the first quarter, and just four of them were through the air.
Middle Tennessee opened scoring in the game while it was on defense. Sterling Hofrichter dropped a first-quarter long snap in the end zone and simply ran out the back of the end zone with the ball for a safety to give the Blue Raiders a 2-0 lead.
The SU pass game never picked up. One week after Eric Dungey had a stellar game, throwing for over 300 yards, he only accumulated 180 yards. He had no passing touchdowns.
The ground game was more of a duel between QBs. Both Dungey (89 gained yards) and Brent Stockstill (67 gained yards) gained the most rushing yards for their teams. Even Mahoney got in on it for the few plays he was part of with a nine-yard run.
Dungey was sacked five times in the game. After being hit hard twice in the third quarter, he came out for the rest of the drive. Zack Mahoney filled in until Dungey reentered the game on the next possession.
Babers said much of this had to do with mental mistakes on the field. But not all of the Syracuse struggles can be attributed to the high emotions.
The Middle Tennessee defense often attacked with the blitz. The Blue Raiders were also efficient at clogging holes up the field and blocking Dungey’s vision while doing so.
Dungey said Scott Shafer’s defense threw a lot at the Orange that SU had not seen before.
“The most important thing you can learn from this is you gotta move on,” Dungey said sternly. “You gotta get better.”
Shafer had the Advantage: He Knew the Syracuse Team
Dungey did call Scott Shafer a “genius” with the ability to come up with plays Syracuse was not ready for, but, even if that is true, Shafer had another trick up his sleeve. Shafer knew the SU team from his time coaching the very players he tried to defeat tonight, and he knew it well.
“When you know a lot about the other team and you’re not guessing about them, it’s a huge advantage,” Babers said.
Babers said even he is undefeated in games where he is playing against his former team.
It’s Possible Some Penalties Weren’t Called Against MTSU
As the game progressed, it seemed (to fans and to the press) as though the referees were missing penalties that MTSU was committing.
Three times it seemed that Middle Tennessee had an extra man on the field that had not crossed over to the sideline by the time the Orange snapped the ball, yet there was no 12 men on field flag any of these times.
Also, on two separate occasions, a Middle Tennessee defensive lineman jumped forward before the ball was snapped (and then the ball actually was snapped), but neither time led to an encroachment penalty.
In the postgame press conference, Dungey said that he saw the players jump and thought he had a free play. But it wasn’t.
It Came Down to the Final Seconds
The most important drive of the game for Syracuse started with 2:49 left in the fourth quarter.
With one timeout left, SU has to go 60 yards to score a touchdown and an extra point to tie the game.
On 4th and 15 on the MTSU 38 with 33 seconds remaining, Dungey completed a pass to Steve Ishmael. It was marked one yard short of the first down.
Middle Tennessee took over in victory formation, kneeled the ball, and walked away with the upset.
“Virginia Tech took a loss like this and came back and won their side of the conference,” Babers said. “I’m looking in my men’s eyes, and I wanna know what we’re going to do with a loss like this.”
Published: David Edelstein