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Trill Williams had just entered the game when he was flagged for a personal foul. The defensive back, a previous ACC defensive player of the week, shoved a Liberty player to the turf of the Carrier Dome near the Syracuse sideline and was aptly penalized. Instead of a third down and two, the Flames had a first down.
Williams missed the first half after suffering an injury earlier in the week, head coach Dino Babers said. But after his second play in the game, he walked back to the sideline and forcefully unstrapped his helmet.
Lacking Williams and facing a fresh set of downs, the Orange defense relented as LU quarterback Malik Willis found DJ Stubbs for a 36-yard touchdown on the next play.
“You can’t get into a pushing match or a battle with some yahoo that costs us 15 yards of position,” Babers said. “You’re not worth it, I’m not worth it, none of us are worth 15 yards in a game like that. That part is really disappointing, and it has been addressed.”
His foul was one of 10 for the Orange, all of which combined to hand the Flames 80 yards and often take SU out of advantageous positions. Sometimes it was veterans like Williams. Other times, it was one of the many underclassmen starting in place of the injured starters. The starting quarterback, left guard and strongside linebacker, as well as three running backs and two safeties, all were missing Saturday.
Penalties contributed to Liberty’s ability and Syracuse’s inability to move the ball, which Babers and wide receiver Anthony Queeley said must be corrected. But with No. 1 Clemson coming up next Saturday, one mistake might be too many.
“It’s a little frustrating, of course, because we came to the game with a certain mindset, but we just have to look at the positives,” Queeley said. “There’s a lot of mistakes that happened, but we know we can correct those mistakes with the right action.”
Last season, Syracuse ranked third to last in FBS teams in penalty yardage per game. Through four games, Syracuse had committed 25 penalties for 243 yards. Babers previously attributed that to inexperience. The Orange are notably starting 10 underclassmen, including three true freshmen on defense, after safety Eric Coley was injured and Andre Cisco decided to opt out of the 2020 season.
But against Liberty, it wasn’t just the younger players. Kingsley Jonathan jumped offside, and there was a holding penalty in the red zone.
Syracuse had possession on Liberty’s side of the field and had an opportunity to take the lead after the Flames muffed a punt. A holding call on sophomore left tackle Matthew Bergeron set the Orange back 10 yards, and a failed fourth down conversion handed the ball back to the Flames.
“Most of the mishaps are either a mental mistake or a physical mistake by mostly young people, but some veterans, and that’s the disappointing part — the veterans part of it,” Babers said.
False starts, offsides and personal fouls can be corrected easily, as they aren’t penalties from being beaten. Six of the 10 penalties were of that sort. That’s why Babers finds it so agonizing: The penalties weren’t holding calls where the tackles were beaten and players grabbed an opponent’s jersey as a last gasp, and they weren’t defensive pass interferences.
Babers blamed some of it on the changing personnel, a lack of communication with so many interchanging parts. And perhaps that’s why Queeley emphasized positivity and correcting mistakes. All the veterans in the locker room wanted to leave the game behind and move forward, Queeley said.
“I know what happens to young guys,” Babers said. “And the best thing that happens to freshman and redshirt freshmen is that they turn into sophomores. And hopefully somebody gets to take advantage of that.”
But with No. 1 Clemson impending, both Babers and Queeley admitted that a similarly undisciplined performance next Saturday may result in a beatdown similar to the Tigers’ 73-7 beatdown of Georgia Tech.
False starts, offsides and needless personal fouls will hand Clemson stars Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne even more opportunities to score points. They don’t need the “mental mistakes” to score points, Babers said. In what will already be an uphill battle, Babers warns against similar errors that were committed today.
“You thought it was difficult this week, wait until next week,” Babers said.
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