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As Syracuse’s players sprinted through the tunnel before the start of Saturday’s game against Wake Forest, other players lagged behind.
Individuals who were injured, or couldn’t play in the game for other reasons, stayed at the back of the group, not wearing shoulder pads under their Orange jerseys. At the front of that group were offensive linemen Chris Bleich and Darius Tisdale, who was aided by a scooter with a boot on his right leg.
Without two of its tenets on the offensive line, Syracuse still scored on its first drive on a Sean Tucker run in the red zone. But after the drive, center Airon Servais limped to the sidelines. For the rest of the game, SU would have to play without three of its starting offensive linemen.
But Syracuse’s offense produced 37 points, 354 rushing yards and 160 passing yards against No. 19 Wake Forest, despite the loss of Bleich, Servais and Tisdale up front. True freshman Kalan Ellis and second-year player Josh Ilaoa replaced Bleich and Servais, respectively, while Dakota Davis went in Tisdale’s spot. The line paved the way for Tucker to record his fifth 100-yard rushing game of the year, with 153 yards on 26 carries.
“I’m sure there’s some mistakes in there, but I’m proud of how those guys played,” quarterback Garrett Shrader said of Syracuse’s replacements on the line. “They got thrown into the fire early. (But) the numbers show how good they played.”
Syracuse’s line went through multiple changes at most positions before or during the game, but the Orange kept Matthew Bergeron, their mainstay at left tackle since 2019. Bergeron, like Ellis, went in first as a freshman because of injuries to starters at the line.
“I know that feeling — I was thrown into the fire my freshman year, and I was just helping them to make sure they were not too nervous out there,” Bergeron said. “I think the younger players did a good job for the most part.”
Ellis was the only one who hadn’t started for the Orange at any point in his career. Despite being the youngest player on the line, Servais said earlier this season that he was surprised by Ellis’ ability to learn techniques and read defenses.
With Ellis in at left guard for Bleich, the Orange found early success in the run game with Tucker’s score on their first drive. But after Servais went out, Ilaoa needed more time to settle in, and SU went three-and-out on the next series.
But on Syracuse’s third and fourth drives, the offense started to mesh together, getting quick gains in the rushing and passing attack. With a third-and-1 at Wake Forest’s 5-yard line, the offensive line paved a perfect path for Shrader to run through, giving Syracuse a 21-10 lead.
“We were all on the same page and we got Shrader enough time, and he did what he does best — make plays,” Ilaoa said.
Throughout the game, Wake Forest started to throw more defensive shifts to try and confuse the Orange’s line. Right tackle Carlos Vettorello said that the Demon Deacons started running a lot of “twists” on third down in order to get more pressure on Shrader.
Twists are when one of the defensive linemen goes inside, while the other goes outside of their original spots. This ensures both gaps are still contained, but the lineman covering those gaps switched spots. On the offensive side, the line was able to communicate about those shifts, giving Shrader more time in the pocket.
“Definitely we played well against the twists,” Vettorello said. “We (were) still running off the ball, running to our points and going through them.”
Communication is something Bergeron said during training camp was one of the biggest improvements from the unit. But on Syracuse’s second drive of the second half, the Demon Deacons started to blitz Shrader, forcing the line to make quick communication after the snap. On most plays, however, that didn’t happen, and Shrader was forced to throw early. The offensive line created enough time for him to throw on third down, but with no receivers open, Shrader was taken down at the line of scrimmage.
At the end of the fourth quarter, the offensive line created enough time for Shrader to go on his game-tying drive. With 21 seconds left in regulation, Shrader dropped back to pass as the line picked up on blitzes that were meant to come at the quarterback.
While the line was holding up the first two levels of Wake Forest’s defense, Tucker sneaked past the linebackers and sat in the middle of the field. With enough time in the pocket, Shrader looked deep and then hit Tucker short. Tucker ran 28 yards to get the Orange within one point of the Atlantic Coast Conference leaders.
“We had some young guys in there playing against some real, stout cats, and they made it OK,” head coach Dino Babers said.
But after a miscommunication among some of the new players in the offense, Syracuse couldn’t get set up in time for a two-point conversion. The Orange had to settle for the extra point, and they won the coin toss for overtime.
While Wake Forest didn’t throw any different sets at Syracuse in overtime, the Orange’s inexperience started to show. After picking up a first down, Shrader was caught 2 yards in the backfield as the line was unable to get on their blocks. Tucker ran for 4 yards on the ensuing play, but it set up a third-and-long.
With a third-and-8, Syracuse looked to pass into the end zone. But right before the snap from Ilaoa hit Shrader’s hands, the offensive line miscommunicated, Ilaoa said. As Shrader looked left and right for receiving options, he was hit in the face by multiple defenders, who had successfully confused Syracuse’s makeshift offensive line. Shrader was brought down 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, allowing the Demon Deacons one more drive to score, which they did, picking up a 40-37 road win.
The post Despite injuries, SU offensive line keeps it close against Wake Forest appeared first on The Daily Orange.