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ATHENS, Ohio — On Ohio’s opening drive, the Bobcats set up for a third-and-1 using the attack that was seventh-best in the country in 2019 — their running attack.
The Bobcats earned a first down already off two runs, going to it again to set up the short first down. De’Montre Tuggle took the ball and cut up the left side of the field.
On that side of the field was Syracuse freshman cornerback Duce Chestnut, who charged toward Tuggle at the line of scrimmage. Chestnut was only able to clip Tuggle’s ankle, and the run resulted in a first down. Head coach Dino Babers lost his voice, yelling at Chestnut to “wrap up” on every play.
Chestnut responded to Babers when the Bobcats challenged him on the ensuing play. He met Tuggle again, this time completely squaring him up off a pass in the flat, drilling him to the ground.
Babers flashed a thumbs up at Chestnut, and he wrapped up on every following tackle in the game.
“You can poke that bear, and boy did he come around and start playing,” Babers said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a better opening day performance, especially with how many tackles he had.”
In his debut in Syracuse’s 3-3-5 defense, Chestnut finished with one interception and one pass breakup in SU’s 29-9 win over Ohio (0-1) on Saturday. Chestnut was crucial in the run game, solidifying his spot on the left side of the field. Syracuse’s defense held the Bobcats to just three field goals, led by Chestnut’s team-high eight tackles, including five solo ones.
Chestnut highlighted Syracuse’s 2021 recruiting class as a 3-star recruit from New Jersey. With the loss of Ifeatu Melifonwu, Andre Cisco and Trill Williams after last season, Chestnut enrolled at Syracuse early, joining the team for spring practices — where he was first introduced to the 3-3-5 defense. Chestnut said working alongside redshirt freshman Garrett Williams, who led the team in interceptions last year, helped him with the transition to the college game.
“It definitely helped me stay focused,” Chestnut said. “Run the plays a little faster, definitely having a lot of reps, having Garrett as a leader to me means a lot.”
Chestnut emerged during the spring practices, and later in training camp Williams said he was less “timid” compared to some of the other freshmen joining the defensive group. By the end of the Orange’s three-week training camp, Chestnut won the starting job on the opposite side of Williams.
“He’s tough,” linebacker Mikel Jones said during training camp. “He knows what to do with his mindset. He knows that he belongs on the first team since he got here.”
Chestnut said he spent a lot of time talking with Williams about how the pair would approach the opening game, trying to “lock up” both sides of the field. Chestnut and Williams delivered, finishing with a combined four tackles on the opening drive.
On Ohio’s second drive at the end of the first quarter, Tuggle again came in Chestnut’s direction, receiving a bubble screen pass. With the design of the play, a receiver was supposed to block Chestnut, but the true freshman ran his opposition over, coming face-to-face with Tuggle for the fourth time. He caught his ankle, holding on until other teammates could help him finish the play.
“Just the energy,” Chestnut said. “My play is to be physical and just provide energy.”
The Orange’s defense held the Bobcats to three field goals in the outing. In the second half, Syracuse’s six-point lead forced Ohio to throw the ball more, starting on its opening drive of the third quarter.
On first down, Chestnut saw Ohio quarterback Kurtis Rourke drop back, letting his receiver get some separation so he could have a chance to jump in front of the ball. He read the play perfectly as Rourke delivered the ball at his receiver, but the ball went through his hands and into Jerome Buckner’s instead.
But Chestnut bounced back at the end of the third quarter, as Ohio set up for a fourth-down play on Syracuse’s 27-yard line. Chestnut again read Rourke’s eyes, realizing that he was looking toward Buckner — his man — for a pass. Buckner made the grab, but Chestnut lowered his right shoulder into him, forcing the ball to pop out and resulting in an incomplete pass, and a turnover on downs. Chestnut embraced Williams after the play. He said that fourth downs were a place where he knew his play was crucial.
“I just saw the ball and made a play,” Chestnut said. “Me and Garrett were talking about this last night, just making a play and celebrating with the team.”
In the fourth quarter, Ohio turned to desperation after Cooper Lutz’s touchdown gave SU a 29-9 lead. The Bobcats again worked close to the 25-yard line, and Rourke dropped back for a pass, with Buckner streaking down the left sideline. Chestnut remained in his deep zone coverage near the end zone, but Rourke completely overthrew him.
Chestnut flipped his hips and started running in the same direction as the opposing receiver before sticking out his left hand to try and grab the ball. He couldn’t get his entire palm over the ball, but he was able to tip it up, snagging it before running it back to the 25-yard line. He jumped up and clicked his heels in celebration after securing Syracuse’s first win since October 2020.
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