It took just one week and another devastating injury for SU to go from new heights back down to where it usually resides: in a position of instability.
I was in attendance for Notre Dame’s 41-24 beatdown of Syracuse inside the JMA Wireless Dome on Saturday. With every passing Audric Estime hook and every Logan Diggs jab, ND began looking like a team playing above its weight. SU looked exhausted, shorthanded, and overmatched. A Irish team that saw the specter of a .500 record played for its life and head coach Marcus Freeman – and won. By the end, a game that felt winnable for Syracuse went squarely by the boards.
How many 6-1 teams ever experience a game like that? Not many, and those who do usually aren’t ranked in the Top 20 for much longer. No. 22 Syracuse isn’t anymore, either.
After three years of howling about coaching or in-state recruiting or whatever else, it’s unusual to lack a scapegoat when it comes to SU football’s ills. ‘Cuse isn’t suddenly losing because it’s a bad team or because someone is throwing away SU’s destiny. We foresaw what’s now happening just a few weeks ago. For one main reason out of their control, the Orange are falling – injuries.
Not in SU’s recent history has such a talented team been more beset by injuries. Yes, Eric Dungey missed quite a few games in his day before he put it all together in 2018. Yes, SU’s banged-up offensive line forced Clayton Welch and Rex Culpepper into action during dismal years. Yes, Andre Cisco’s freak warmup accident two years ago cost the team dearly – but the injury report hasn’t been this long or stung worse in a good minute.
This season ended early for Stefon Thompson, Chris Elmore, Terry Lockett, Isaiah Jones, Denis Jaquez (the only non-starter of the group), and now NFL-hopeful and defensive stalwart Garrett Williams after yesterday’s announcement of a torn ACL. Defensive starters like Alijah Clark, Ja’Had Carter, and Derek McDonald have all suffered nicks at different points. Even quarterback Garrett Shrader’s status is unknown after his doubly-taped ankles faltered against the Irish.
There comes a point where you feel sorry for Dino Babers even as a critic and observer of the team. His squad is bound to make a bowl, but this is now a would’ve, could’ve squad. No matter what the Orange do this year, those mid-October visions of a potential ACC title or an Orange Bowl appearance have vanished like a mirage. As SU gets thinner on depth and sees no reprieve on its remaining schedule, a 6-6 or 7-5 finish and a small Northeastern bowl look all the more likely.
One factor that would help the cause and a defense riddled with holes is an infusion of offense. Backup quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson provided bits and pieces on Saturday, but he labored in offensive coordinator Robert Anae’s system that looked overwhelmed and limited for the second straight outing. For as much as we’ve lauded Anae for not being Sterlin Gilbert, the former’s playbook hasn’t worked seamlessly over the past few weeks. Five carries for Sean Tucker against Clemson and three straight games of 24 or fewer points isn’t cutting it.
There are still positives to take away from what Syracuse has done. Unlikely players thrust into action like walk-on defensive lineman Kevon Darton, the aforementioned McDonald and Steve Linton look like solid contributors who have earned the chance to shine. SU still has many of its leaders standing, and their responsibility is to keep the team together down the stretch. That objective could very well mean the difference between another sour finish on The Hill or a fulfillment of midseason promise.