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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The low point of Syracuse’s first half against the Cardinals appeared to be when a JaCobian Morgan pass flew through Taj Harris’ hands and into the waiting arms of a Louisville defender. It then appeared to be when Nykeim Johnson fumbled a kick-off return. And later, when the Orange took a delay of game penalty following a kick return.
Or maybe when Aaron Hackett fumbled a Louisville pooch kick with 30 seconds left in the first half.
Each time it seemed the Orange had reached the low point against Louisville on Friday night, they managed to top that, falling even further. As Syracuse trailed by 20 points in the second quarter to the two-win Cardinals, SU moved even closer to one of its worst seasons in program history. The Orange plunged further from not only the 10-win season that put them on the national map in 2018 but also from the five-win season that was widely viewed as a failure in 2019.
“We’re turning the ball over, we’re not converting on third down,” head coach Dino Babers said. “Those guys had twice as many plays as us. That means our defense is out there twice as many times. It gets to be disappointing not being able to produce on one side of the ball.”
Two years ago, Louisville came to Syracuse on a Friday night and lost by 31 to a dominant Orange team. But on Friday, Syracuse traveled to Louisville and couldn’t score against one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s worst teams. Syracuse had an extra week to prepare for Friday night, while Louisville had a makeup game last week, when their bye week should have been. Despite that, Louisville (3-6, 2-6 Atlantic Coast) beat Syracuse (1-8, 1-7), 30-0, in Cardinal Stadium.
Entering as 19.5-point underdogs with a true freshman quarterback, Babers said early in the week he knew Syracuse had a difficult challenge. The Orange exited with one third down conversion on 10 attempts, seven first downs for the entire game and just the second shutout defeat of the Babers’ five-year era. The first was a 54-0 drubbing against then-No. 3 Clemson in 2016.
Corner Ifeatu Melifonwu said the players are convinced Friday’s crushing defeat is a symptom of this unusual year, where the Orange have lost three players to opt-outs and many more to injuries. Yet in a year when dozens of teams have played short-handed and had games canceled or rescheduled due to COVID-19, Syracuse hasn’t had a positive test since the season began and is one of two ACC teams to not have a game moved. Syracuse’s lack of any offensive success on Friday night felt less like a symptom of this year and more like a result of nearly two full years of subpar play.
“It’s almost like each week we’ve taken a hit,” Melifonwu said. “We know what we can do when we play like that at times. It’s not something we think is going to carry over.”
Syracuse’s offensive failures continued from the second half of the loss to Boston College on Nov. 7 and into the first half on Friday night. In his second career start, Morgan scrambled around, desperately searching for open receivers while his running backs and offensive linemen missed assignments and blitz pickups. The pocket collapsed on Morgan for a sack on SU’s first third down. Running back Sean Tucker and center Carlos Vettorello blocked no one on the Orange’s second third down, which resulted in a rushed Morgan throw and near interception.
When receivers did come open and Morgan had time, he fired over the head of Harris. When Harris was open and Morgan threw accurately, Harris missed the ball, and it was intercepted.
Babers decided to be aggressive and go for it on a fourth down at midfield. Morgan rolled to his right to avoid the blitz, but Harris was shoving his defender out of bounds while multiple Louisville defenders closed in on Morgan. With nowhere to throw it, Morgan threw incomplete. That turnover on downs turned into a Louisville touchdown less than a minute later, extending the Cardinals lead to 20-0.
Syracuse’s defense had held up against the mounting pressure of both the Cardinals’ offense and the inability of the Orange’s offense to convert third downs. Even in a first half where the SU defense forced three turnovers, the offense still managed less than 10 minutes of possession, 91 total yards and no points.
An offense that was built to play fast and wear down its opponents played as slow as it has all year and only wore down its own defense.
The Orange’s one matchup edge over Louisville entering the game was turnovers, where the Cardinals have one of the nation’s worst margins. Garrett Williams went up over the Cardinals best receiver, Tutu Atwell, and used one hand to tip it to himself to make an interception in the opening quarter. Linebacker Mikel Jones forced a Malik Cunnignham fumble to keep points off the scoreboard, and Melifonwu intercepted a bad pass. But when the Orange’s defense jogged into the locker room, they trailed by 20.
“We have to be ready to go at all times,” Melifonwu said. “The defense has to always be ready to go back on the field.”
Even the Orange’s special teams unit — typically one of the best in the country — failed to perform anywhere near the level they have all season. Johnson fumbled a kick return directly following a defensive stand to hold the Cardinals to a field goal. Hackett fumbled a kickoff. Babers opted to bench Johnson on kickoffs following the fumble.
Babers pointed out the number of underclassmen and youth that he’s turned to this year as injuries mount and the season wanes. But the mistakes on Friday night — from Harris, Hackett, Airon Servais and Johnson, among others — all came from players with years of experience playing under Babers.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m also extremely encouraged about what can happen down the road,” Babers said. “And I have to keep that positive attitude going. I really do believe that, if you’re going to go through this much pain on the negative, then there must be an upside on the teeter totter where you’re going to be able to have a lot of positive.”
Midway through the third quarter, Morgan took the biggest hit of his career when Louisville linebacker Yasir Abdullah glided around the edge and past Servais. Abdullah hit Morgan hard enough to knock both the ball from Morgan’s hands and knock the freshman out of the game.
The Orange’s offensive line hasn’t been able to protect its quarterbacks all year, and Babers turned to backup quarterback Rex Culpepper, who started the season backing up Tommy DeVito. Morgan returned to the Orange’s bench and sat with a towel over his head while Culpepper led a few drives. After one three-and-out, Culpepper led SU’s longest drive of the game, which was only 32 yards.
It ended how every other SU drive ended: without points.
As the Cardinals offense bled out the clock and cemented the shutout win, they lined up to punt on 4th-and-long with less than two minutes to go. The 25% capacity crowd at Cardinal Stadium started to boo as the referee blew his whistle.
Babers had called his second consecutive timeout as Louisville was about to snap the ball.
The Orange didn’t have enough players on the field.
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