Wake Forest 64, Syracuse 43 from inside the Carrier Dome. No that’s not a poor showing from the SU basketball team in the middle of January, that’s the final score of SU football’s loss to Wake Forest on Saturday. Seeing that final tally, it’s plausible to come to the conclusion that Syracuse just put together a poor performance from start to finish. But, in this case, there was a solid period of time where SU looked like it was in control, like it was about to be one win away from bowl eligibility. Then the halftime break came around and things went south very quickly. So, let me sit you down for story time and tell you the Tale of Two Halves: The Story of SU’s loss to Wake Forest.
I guess this story starts where any football story begins, at the quarterback position. Out on the streets of Irving Avenue, just outside the hallowed halls of the Carrier Dome, someone spotted starting quarterback Eric Dungey walking into the Dome with a boot on his injured right foot. The pregame narrative quickly centered around if Dungey would be able to start. Signs started to point to yes when the junior headed out onto the field in full pads to warm up. He was even announced as the starter on the Dome’s video board, but then the Orange actually took the field. Dungey was nowhere to be seen. Zach Mahoney was under center.
The Orange faithful probably began to worry when they saw Dungey limping around on the sideline with a bulky brace on his right knee, but Mahoney showed that he could lead the offense throughout the first half. He was calm, cool and collected in the face of the pass rush, consistently delivering passes to a bevy of receivers. Erv Philips, Steve Ishmael and Ravian Pierce all were involved in the passing game. Mahoney was mobile, he evaded pressure, he picked up big yards when he needed them. The passes weren’t perfect, but they got where they needed to be. At times they were a bit too high and Mahoney put his receivers in danger of receiving some nasty hits. All in all though, he looked far better than anyone could have expected him to be considering the circumstances. The senior signal caller completed 63% of his first-half passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns. You couldn’t have asked for much more considering the fact that Mahoney found out he was starting 14 minutes before the game.
As for the defense, well it was a bit more of a slow start. Wake Forest came out firing on all cylinders right from the get-go. The Demon Deacons scored a touchdown on all three of their first possessions and they did it with incredible efficiency. On the first two drives of the game, Dave Clawson’s club has six plays of at least 10 yards with the majority of them coming over the middle. The linebacking corps couldn’t keep up with tight ends and the safeties, probably SU’s most depleted unit, were no match for John Wolford and company. Instead of bringing simplistic three-man rushes, defensive coordinator Brian Ward adjusted in the second quarter and dialed up blitz packages that allowed SU to get pressure on Wolford and make him uncomfortable and forced him to make the few mistakes that he did. After allowing those three touchdowns on the first three possessions, the Orange clamped down and forced four straight punts. The defense dominated the second quarter and keyed a 24-3 run that gave SU a 34-28 lead heading into the halftime locker room. It was a marathon first half from the Dome. The teams combined for 762 yards and 62 points in a first half that lasted nearly two hours. Despite battling injuries to Chris Slayton, Dontae Strickland and of course Eric Dungey, all signs pointed to the game continuing in the exact same direction and having a competitive and high-scoring finish down the stretch. Well, it did, then the halftime break hit and the whole game turned.
Whatever defensive adjustments Syracuse made in the second quarter, Wake Forest did them one better with offensive adjustments at halftime. John Wolford and company came out of the gates red hot and never looked back in the second half. Wake Forest had eight possessions in the second half. It scored on all eight: five touchdowns and three field goals. The up-the-middle domination and big-play capability we saw for much of the first quarter, well, we saw that for the entire second half. Wolford was an absolute wizard. He ran the run-pass option to absolute perfection. He sliced and diced Syracuse’s defense into submission. When all was said and done, the SU defense that had been so solid throughout the season looked tired, disinterested and swiss-cheese-like. Wolford ended the game with 499 total yards and an absolutely astounding six total touchdowns (three passing and three rushing) including a 29-yard score late in the third where he went untouched and completely carved up the SU defense.
While the defense was probably the reason that SU fell apart in the second half, the offense certainly didn’t help things. All the good Mahoney had done in the first half was erased by an abysmal showing in the second. He threw two interceptions on a pair of awful passes. It looked like he had zero vision and couldn’t see defenders that weren’t within a one-yard radius of his target. Both of the interceptions he threw, he should have never thrown the football. Both times linebackers were lurking behind receivers and simply undercut the routes. The running game was no help either. After both Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal ripped off big gainers in the first, they couldn’t get anything going in the second. The offense was simply stagnant. SU was outscored by an incredible 40-5 margin in the second half.
The only positive takeaways you could have from the second half implosion come in the form of a pair of historical moments. Cole Murphy drilled a 47-yard field goal about halfway through the third quarter for the 58th make of his career, a program record. Later in the same period, Chris Slayton swatted down a Wake Forest point after attempt that led to a 98-yard scoop and score from Scoop Bradshaw (see what I did there) for a two-point conversion. The return marked the first time in program history that SU scored a defensive two-point conversion.
Outside of those two plays, the second half was an absolute disaster and this SU team needs to figure things out before it heads down to Kentucky to take on Louisville and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. If SU gave up nearly 500 yards and six touchdowns to John Wolford, just imagine what Jackson can do to them. SU needs to win out to guarantee itself a bowl berth and it’ll need to have a tale of two complete games, not two halves if it wants to go to the postseason.