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ATHENS, Ohio — The marquee, fast-paced offense that Dino Babers promised to bring to the Orange when he arrived six years ago made its return during the opening offensive drive of Syracuse’s 2021 season.
Running in a no-huddle system, freshman running back Sean Tucker exploded for a 47-yard gain when he weaseled by Ohio defenders and found an alleyway along the right sideline. Taj Harris snagged a screen pass and gained eight yards, then Tucker picked up the first down to set up first and goal. Quarterback Tommy DeVito capped the drive off by pulling down a read-option handoff and sprinting into the end zone for a six-yard touchdown run.
“It felt good just to get the offense on the board and to keep going. The defense feeds off the offense and vice versa,” DeVito said postgame.
After a 1-10 season in 2020, the program’s worst since 2005, Syracuse football opened the season with a win over Mid-American Conference’s Ohio, 29-9. SU hasn’t lost to a MAC team since 2008, and that didn’t change on Saturday night in Athens. Babers said on Tuesday before the game that Ohio would play this like a “bowl game.” DeVito emphasized that the season-opener is always the most important game and that despite the fact that Ohio (0-1) is a MAC team, they’re deceptively good.
But Saturday, it was the occasional bursts of fast-paced offense — largely from Tucker — good tackling on defense, and Ohio’s offense stalling in the red zone that led to Syracuse’s (1-0, 0-0 Atlantic Coast) season-opening win. Tucker finished with a career-high 181 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown.
“It feels good to start off on a win, it helps to get that bitter taste out of your mouth,” DeVito said.
After Ohio turned the ball over on downs with 2:21 remaining in the third quarter, Tucker exploded through a gap for a 28-yard gain on the first play of the series. Syracuse turned to its hurry-up offense once again, and this time DeVito kept it for a 15-yard rush. He fired a dart to Anthony Queeley for 21 more, and after Jarveon Howard ran into a pile near the goal line, Tucker finished the drive off with a cut left and a six-yard touchdown.
The series lasted 40 seconds, and SU stretched its lead to 16 points.
“We were rolling, when the ball was rolling, that’s all you can do,” DeVito said of the up-tempo offense. “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
With 5:00 remaining in the fourth quarter, Tucker continued with back-to-back 14 and 17 yard carries before backup Cooper Lutz ran it in for the touchdown to secure the win. Tucker gave credit to his offensive line, which contributed significantly to his career day.
“They’ve opened a whole lot of holes,” Tucker said.
Ahead of the game, defensive lineman Josh Black said that Ohio was a physical team who ran the ball with a lot of success. Head coach Dino Babers compared the Bobcats to “old Nebraska” without the option.
“They run the ball downhill, they’re washing everything down with them, so the more separation and space they can get, the more yards they have,” Black said.
But Saturday, it was Tucker who did that. He finished with almost three times as many rushing yards as his counterpart, De’Montre Tuggle.
Syracuse finished with 10 plays of more than 15 yards. Their tempo tired out the defense, Tucker said, and running the ball so much in the first half wore down Ohio for the second half.
DeVito threw the ball away when needed, and the Orange offense didn’t turn the ball over on Saturday night. The redshirt junior quarterback narrowly missed Harris in the left corner of the end zone in the first half, and he threw a near-perfect deep ball that was millimeters away from Harris’ outstretched arms during the third quarter.
“It’s a game of inches,” DeVito said. “Inch there and inch here, we’re going to get those shots.”
He paced the offense, finishing with 49 yards on the ground in addition to 11-of-17 passing for 92 yards.
On its opening possession, Ohio chipped away with short gains on handoffs to Tuggle. But Syracuse’s defense forced a third-and-long situation which Ohio could only complete a short pass on, and then the Bobcats kicker came up short on a 50-yard field goal attempt.
The Orange got another big red zone stop when Tuggle picked up five yards on 3rd-and-10 before he was forced out of bounds. A Philly special-esque play set up a 38-yard gain for Bobcats quarterback Kurtis Rourke, who turned into a wide receiver on the big play. But Syracuse forced a short field goal at the start of the second quarter and then another at the end of the half.
During that sequence, with under 30 seconds, cornerback Garrett Williams put himself in the perfect position to force a turnover. He leaped toward the jump-ball, which hit him in the hands, but dropped the interception and the Bobcats settled for three points. Postgame, he laughed about the missed chance and admitted he knows he should’ve had it.
Duce Chestnut nearly jumped a route on a flat to the left side and ran it back for a touchdown in the third quarter, but the ball snuck by him and into the wide receiver’s arms as well. Ohio went three-and-out and punt returner Trevor Pena slipped by multiple defenders on a strong return to start the drive at the Bobcats 26-yard line.
But this time the Orange stalled in the red zone. DeVito couldn’t find Queeley, his first read, on third down, and ended up throwing it away as pressure eventually arrived.
For Tucker, both Chris Bleich and DeVito said they knew he was a special talent during his two-touchdown, 112-yard performance against Georgia Tech in Sept. 2020. Everyone thought he had been tackled and was down, but he popped back up and scored, both teammates recalled. Chris Elmore — who didn’t play in the season opener for undisclosed reasons — said that Tucker deserved the iconic No. 44 jersey ahead of the Ohio game.
Saturday in Athens, he showed a glimpse of why.
“We feel like he’s going to be one of those generational players a team has,” Bleich said of Tucker.
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