Get the latest Syracuse news delivered right to your inbox.
Subscribe to our sports newsletter here.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Before Syracuse’s bye week, the Orange ranked No. 7 in the nation in defensive explosivity rate. They just didn’t give up many big plays.
Before the game against Louisville, defensive lineman Kingsley Jonathan was asked for his takeaways from playing dual-threat quarterbacks like Liberty’s Malik Willis and FSU’s Jordan Travis, and how they’d translate to Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham. “Limiting the big plays” was the key learning point from those previous matchups, he said.
“We gave up a lot of big chunk plays. If we limit the big plays we should be good,” Jonathan said. “We just gotta put ourselves in a better situation to stop that, and we’re going to get better with that.”
But Saturday, the defense was burned continuously as the Cardinals marched down the field with ease in the first half. Louisville’s first play from scrimmage was an outside zone where running back Jalen Mitchell cut to his left and burst through a hole for a gain of 39 yards. The next play, he cut through a similar hole on the left side and gained 28.
“We knew that they were a team that likes explosive plays, they go for the shots, they go for the big throws so we knew we needed to stop that and we didn’t do that today,” defensive lineman Cody Roscoe said postgame.
The Orange gave up 10 big plays on Saturday — four rushes of 10+ yards, and six passes of 15+ yards. SU has given up more big plays this season (15 against Virginia Tech and 11 against Wake Forest), but it’s also had better performances (eight against Clemson and four against Boston College).
The problem for the Orange was that those big plays came in quick succession. They couldn’t stop the bleeding against Louisville. The back-to-back Mitchell runs set up the Cardinals’ first touchdown, and then Syracuse’s defense allowed a 3rd-and-15 conversion that led to Louisville’s second touchdown.
On that first quarter play, Syracuse left Marshon Ford wide-open on a shallow passing route. When Cunningham dumped the ball off to his tight end, SU watched as Ford sped straight ahead. No defender made contact until Ford reached the sticks, and the Orange couldn’t tackle him until he reached the sticks.
Cunningham saw SU playing man-coverage moments later, and fired a deep shot to his receiver for a 33-yard touchdown. The quarterback unleashed a deep shot to set up a first-and-goal on the next drive, and then tossed two more deep touchdown passes of 41 and 17 yards. All were in the first half on Louisville’s first four possessions.
“Having time to throw those deep, post crossing routes which takes a long time to throw,” head coach Dino Babers said when asked why SU gave up a significant number of big plays.
Syracuse’s game plan was to load the box and contain Cunningham to stop him from running. But it didn’t get enough pressure on him, and he had time to hang in the pocket and make deep throws, Roscoe said. The Orange didn’t properly account for his arm either, with multiple touchdowns coming on deep passes against man coverage. Eric Coley got burned on a deep touchdown pass. Duce Chestnut did too.
“That was just them making plays, and we just gonna get better next week,” Chestnut said after the game. He said the defensive backs weren’t “themselves.” Linebacker Marlowe Wax added that he wasn’t certain why the defensive backs struggled against deep passes, but said it may have had to do with where their eyes were in the backfield.
Because the Cardinals had success running the ball, particularly on that first drive, that made the play-action dangerous because SU had to account for the run. That’s when Cunningham made Syracuse pay with the deep passes.
Poor tackling from the Orange, like on Mitchell’s runs, didn’t help either. Wax said the defensive unit missed a lot of tackles, and those errors all accumulated in the loss.
The game was won when…
After Louisville scored back-to-back touchdowns and SU trailed 14-3, the Orange opened the second quarter with a 29-yard punt. That set Louisville up with a short field, and the Cardinals scored with ease in two plays. The poor boot allowed UofL to go up 21-3, and effectively seal the game in the first half. Backup punter Ian Hawkins was filling in because starter James Williams was sick all week, Babers said, but Hawkins averaged only 29.7 yards per punt.
Quote of the night: Garrett Shrader on passing offense
SU threw for 46 passing yards on Saturday, its fewest since Nov. 2020 against Louisville (45 passing yards).
“We gotta be able to throw the ball,” Shrader said. “They loaded the box how we thought they would and we kept running our plays, but we gotta be able to throw the ball, have dropback-pass out of different sets, not just out of empty… We just didn’t execute today.”
Game ball: Does anyone deserve one?
The Orange lost by 38 points, and looked significantly outmatched all around. Syracuse’s only points of the afternoon came on a 43-yard Andre Szmyt field goal, one that had just enough leg but probably wouldn’t have been good from a yard or two further. We’ll leave this one blank for this week.
Stat to know: 2-6
During the Dino Babers era, Syracuse has gone 2-6 after the bye week. Babers’ post-bye week performances include a 54-0 loss to Clemson (2016), a 38-24 loss to Duke (2020) and now a 38-point thrashing at the hands of Louisville.
Babers emphasized multiple times before and after the week that the bye-week was much needed for the Orange because the players needed the rest. Before the Louisville game, Babers said he didn’t anticipate the week off would disrupt SU’s rhythm or ability to focus. After the game, his answer was different.
“When you give them time off to heal, sometimes the mind wanders,” Babers told SU’s Matt Park. “And the mind is the thing that you have to beat in situations like this.”
Part of the blame for SU’s slow start and lapse in focus falls on Babers. The head coach is responsible, in part, to keep his players focused and prevent their mind from wandering during that off-week. SU’s 2-6 record after the bye week speaks to the fact that Babers isn’t doing that as well as he should.
Three final points
Was this one of the “worst” losses of the Babers era?: Syracuse has lost by larger margins during the Babers era: a 54-point loss to Clemson in 2016, a 46-point loss to Louisville in 2017 and a 43-point loss to Maryland in 2019. There have also been losses to Group of Five schools — notably a home loss to Middle Tennessee in 2017 and the one to Liberty last year.
But the argument can be made that Saturday’s 38-point defeat is up there for the “worst.” The loss to then-No. 3 Clemson came when starter Eric Dungey left the game with a concussion and did not return. The 46-point loss to Louisville was part of a five-game losing streak, and what eventually became a 4-8 season. The 43-point loss to Maryland for an SU team that entered the season with high hopes is the most comparable, but that defeat came in Week 2 when the Orange were still figuring it all out. Last year’s Liberty team ended up as a Top 25 team.
This year’s Syracuse team doesn’t have a valid excuse. Yes, it was without two offensive linemen, but it proved earlier in the season that was a roadblock it could overcome. Saturday’s game came after a bye week. All the players emphasized that they prepared for this contest, and that they felt prepared. This year’s team has demonstrated that it has the potential to keep up with the ACC’s best teams, and though it is a down year for the conference, that’s still important. The Orange got much-needed rest during their bye-week, and had every reason to be motivated with a bowl game on the line.
Yet the Orange still got beaten — thoroughly — on offense, defense and special teams. Louisville was supposed to be a fair match for SU, a close game that Babers said he expected to come down to the final possession.
Babers dodged a postgame question about whether the first half was SU’s worst during his tenure. But if you consider the expectations and then the reality, and the potential and then the result, this is one of the worst losses under Babers.
Will SU still go bowling?: If the Orange play the way they did against Louisville, they don’t have a chance. But an overtime loss to Wake Forest, and a last-second one to Clemson are proof that SU is capable of keeping up with the ACC’s best. Matchups at NC State and at home against Pittsburgh won’t be easy, but Syracuse still has the pieces to put up a fight.
“We’ve played other teams in the top 25 and been within three points, so I guess we’re gonna have to find a way to go out there and do it again with those top 25 teams,” Babers said of NC State and Pitt.
Babers probably should’ve pulled Tucker and Shrader: Babers left Tucker and Shrader in the game throughout the third and fourth quarter when the game had long been settled. The Orange trailed by 32, then 35 and then 38 — well beyond reach of a comeback.
Tucker was 11 yards short of SU’s single-season rushing record, but he still has two games left. Risking injury to the Orange’s two best offensive players — and quite frankly, their only two productive offensive players — probably wasn’t a worthwhile gamble. Neither was injured, but had one of them been, Syracuse’s shot at a bowl game would’ve evaporated entirely in Louisville.
Next up: No. 25 (AP) NC State
The Wolfpack lost a close game to ACC leader Wake Forest, 45-42, that featured a frenzy of lengthy punt and kickoff returns from both teams. NC State returner Zonavan Knight notched 194 return yards on three kickoffs, including one that he ran back for a touchdown. Wolfpack quarterback Devin Leary tossed four touchdowns, including two to No. 1 receiver Emeka Ezemie.
The Wolfpack have already secured their spot in a bowl, but will be looking to leapfrog Clemson in the conference standings and play in a higher-tier bowl. Last year, the Orange lost to NC State by seven when backup quarterback Rex Culpepper spiked the ball on fourth and goal. Syracuse has lost six of the last seven games to the Wolfpack (the exception being 2018). With bowl eligibility once again at stake and what may have been a wake-up call against Louisville, Syracuse will have to limit its errors if it wants a chance in Raleigh.
The post The next day: SU’s defense used to prevent big plays. What changed in Louisville? appeared first on The Daily Orange.