The stage was really set for a magical moment in this otherwise harrowing 2020 season. 5th-year senior Rex Culpepper, was orchestrating an impressive drive, down 7 points in the final minutes of the 4th quarter against a 6-3 NC State team.
He got the ball up to the nine-yard line. Culpepper, who started this game for the 4th time, was on the cusp of delivering his first victory, or at least overtime. With zero timeouts remaining, he stood in the pocket, looked off his primary targets, and began to extend the play. Nothing was there, but Culpepper didn’t take no for an answer. Instead, he made the fatal mistake; he took a sack.
It certainly looked like the final blow, as the clock ticked down hopelessly from 13 seconds, the Orange scrambling back to the line of scrimmage. Culpepper got the snap off with one second remaining. He spiked it. It was 4th down.
NC State kneeled down for a 36-29 victory.
Among the errors made on that final sequence, was the absence of timeouts remaining. Babers used his final timeout with 52 seconds remaining, after using another with 1:52. Both were a result of confusion at the line of scrimmage.
“There were some young players lined up on the wrong side of the field, Babers said. “And I have to decide if I want to let the play happen or not… I felt some of those plays at the end were important and it worked out because we had a chance at the end.”
If the timeouts had not been used, perhaps this all would have been avoided. Instead, we saw a potentially miraculous Dome finale go down in flames. A sack on 3rd down with zero timeouts remaining, and a spike on 4th.
It had been the best 59 minutes Syracuse had played since beating Georgia Tech in the 3rd game of the season. Explosive plays carried Syracuse to a first half lead. Trebor Pena scored a kick return touchdown, Nykeim Johnson caught a 60-yard bomb and Syracuse forced a safety after reaching Bailey Hockman in the end zone. The Orange led 22-14 at half.
In the second half, NC State stormed back with some unbelievable plays on the outside. Iffy Melifonwu was beat by Emeka Emezie and Garrett Williams lost a battle for the ball with Devin Carter for another touchdown. Rarely have the Syracuse cornerbacks been beat this season. It took a pair of perfect throws to some big physical receivers.
The Syracuse offense went back to it’s anemic ways in the 4th quarter. Culpepper couldn’t find an intermediate passing game, either dinking and dunking with minimal reward, or throwing low percentage down field. Taj Harris was the only connection clicking for Culpepper. He went for 146 yards and a touchdown.
It was Sean Tucker’s most ineffective game since bursting onto the scene. The freshman had just 30 yards on 16 attempts.
“I thought the passing game looked better today, the running game still needs work,” Babers said.
The Syracuse defense made some key stops, but still allowed 8-13 efficiency on third down and 313 yards through the air.
As sad as the ending of the game was for Syracuse, it pales in comparison to the scenes after the game. What is annually a special night for Syracuse seniors, who lap the field while high-fiving adoring fans, was reduced to a moment of peace and quiet on the field with each other.
Who’s cutting onions?