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By The Numbers: How SU Let Clemson Slip Away, 27-21

Credit Eakin Howard/Getty Images

Syracuse lost a game yesterday that (depending on who you ask) ranks as another ho-hum SU collapse or as an all-time lost opportunity for the program. Whichever you believe, it’s time to take a look at some of the factors that led to ‘Cuse’s defeat with this week’s edition of By The Numbers.

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One of the larger talking points after yesterday’s game was that Syracuse blew its opportunities to capitalize on Clemson mistakes. The Tigers weren’t sharp to start and eventually turned the ball over four times. SU turned it over once on a final drive gut-punch interception, but still lost the game despite finishing +3 in the takeaway column. The contest marked the third time under Dino Babers that the Orange have forced four or more takeaways and still lost.

The first such occurrence came back in 2016 in Babers’ first season, when a bad 4-8 SU squad got overwhelmed by Dalvin Cook’s Florida State Seminoles and allowed 654 total yards in a blowout loss. SU wouldn’t put up another game like it until 2020. During SU’s 1-10 nadir, SU forced four takeaways in a Week 5 matchup against Duke at home, but still lost 38-24.

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A big reason Syracuse couldn’t capitalize on its takeaways and chances against Clemson was because it littered the field with flags. As it has for most of the year and nearly the entire tenure of Babers’ time as head coach, Syracuse crippled itself with penalties – this time, 10 for 88 yards in front of a frenzied Death Valley crowd. Saturday marked the 19th time under Babers that SU has racked up 10 or more penalties in a game.

Zooming out the lens, Syracuse is currently the most-penalized team in the ACC this year with nearly 10 per game. For reference, Boston College finished with the fewest penalties in-conference in 2021 with just over five per game. SU didn’t do as well in that department last season, and never has under Babers.

YearNo. of PenaltiesACC Rank (14 teams)
2022671st*
2021845th
2020778th**
20191073rd
2018994th
2017745th
2016961st
* – as of this writing, ** – several teams played abbreviated seasons

Babers’ team being in position to finish as poorly in penalties in Year 7 as it did during his first season is extraordinary. Over the same timeframe, Babers’ teams have drawn eight or more penalties 39 times in his 79 games, or nearly half of all games he’s coached. For reference, Dave Doeren’s NC State squads have drawn eight-plus flags fewer times (37) in nine years, or around four per season. Dabo Swinney’s Tigers have had it happen just 30 times since he took over in 2009, or around twice per year. Longtime ACC contemporaries do not face the same problem. Babers surely knows that flags dearly cost Syracuse against Clemson yesterday and, for the first time this year, directly affected an outcome. 

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Volume of penalties is one thing, but their timing is another. Syracuse’s flags came at devastating points in the game yesterday, and it reflects in ESPN’s Win Probability metric. By percentages, the most important penalty was SU defensive lineman Elijah Fuentes-Cundiff’s personal foul on a 3rd and 25 with 1:33 remaining in the third quarter. Instead of a Clemson punt, the Tigers stayed alive, and SU’s odds of winning dropped 10% on one brutal mistake. Fuentes-Cundiff’s blunder did not lose the game, but stands as the biggest single-play percentage swing of the contest.

Other plays that similarly mattered in the second half were Devaughn Cooper’s 3rd and 9 drop with 7:33 to go in the third quarter (-1.7% win probability) and Chris Bleich’s hold on a 3rd and 4, 19-yard completion to Oronde Gadsden on ‘Cuse’s ensuing drive (-6.0%). As late as the third quarter, Syracuse owned an 85.4% chance to win, but saw its odds trickle down as the team began to wilt.

It’s worth mentioning that metrics can’t tell us how much Dino Babers’ hesitance to use a timeout cost SU after a 3rd down, in-bounds completion on Clemson’s final drive wasted 25 seconds. Instead, SU found itself behind the eight-ball on its potential game-winning drive and cost itself three to four plays with the delay. Even for a numbers article, there are some things we can’t explain.

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Speaking of the inexplicable, Sean Tucker’s absence throughout Saturday’s game fit the bill. SU’s star back totaled just 10 touches on the day and two carries in the entire second half. Tucker looked fresh, suffered no apparent injury, and still averaged 10.8 yards-per-carry when he got the ball. Instead, SU seemed content to hammer Garrett Shrader into Clemson’s defensive front for short gains, and the Tigers quickly adjusted at halftime. Shrader finished with 21 carries and left Tucker with just five on the day – his fewest since his Syracuse debut in 2020 against Pitt (4 carries, 23 yards).

Babers’ explanation for Tucker’s vanishing act and offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s bizarre gameplan was that SU was running “read handoffs”, and that Clemson kept forcing Shrader to keep the ball by focusing on Tucker. While it’s true Syracuse had success with its option game early on, it’s worth wondering why simple non-read handoffs to Tucker weren’t incorporated more. It’s a mystery that only Babers and Anae can solve and hopefully do before Notre Dame comes to the Dome this Saturday.

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The Fizz is owned, edited and operated by Damon Amendolara. D.A. is an ’01 Syracuse graduate from the Newhouse School with a degree in Broadcast Journalism.

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