Middle Tennessee State tried to give Syracuse a gift at the Carrier Dome on Saturday, but the Orange marked it “return to sender”. In spite of three early turnovers and a half dozen major penalties by the Blue Raiders defense and special teams units, SU dropped a 30-23 game at home, evening the records of both teams at 1-1 on the season.
Those three turnovers came in a span of six minutes in the first quarter and Syracuse came out only one point ahead in the exchange, in large part because their offense could not muster a single first down until the second quarter. The second miscue was an interception by Jonathan Thomas at the Middle Tennessee 19 that he returned 15 yards for a first-and-goal opportunity.
Three plays later, the Orange settled for a 25-yard field goal from Cole Murphy to take the lead with just over three minutes left in the first quarter. That lead was only 3-2, as they failed to cash in on a previous turnover. After Evan Foster caused a fumble and Parris Bennett recovered it at the SU 16, the drive ended with a high snap on a punt and Sterling Hofrichter opted to step out the back of the end zone instead of kicking into the rush, giving the Blue Raiders a safety.
MTSU retook the lead early in the second, finishing an 86-yard drive with a touchdown. The extra point gave them a 9-3 lead.
Sean Riley gave Syracuse a boost by returning the ensuing kickoff out to the 48. Nine plays later, the Orange were in the end zone, courtesy of Dontae Strickland, who muscled in on fourth-and-goal from a yard out. Murphy’s conversion gave SU a 10-9 lead just over four minutes into the second quarter.
Two drives later, Murphy added another short field goal to strengthen the lead. After the offense bogged down inside the five, Murphy drilled a 22-yard field goal for a 13-9 lead with under three minutes left in the half and that score carried to halftime.
The Syracuse defense held on fourth down on the visitors’ first possession after the break, giving the ball to the offense at their own 33. Eric Dungey left the game following the third play of the drive, when a Blue Raider was ejected following a targeting call on a roughing the passer penalty, but would return on the following drive.
Zach Mahoney came in at quarterback and moved the team into field goal range. Murphy connected once more, this time on a 40-yard try from the left hashmark, to give the Orange a 16-9 lead with just over six minutes to play in the third.
The SU defense forced a three-and-out, but Sean Riley muffed the punt and Middle Tennessee recovered at the Orange 28. The change of possession was a jolt to the Blue Raider offense, as they scored the tying touchdown three plays later.
Riley tried to atone for his mistake with a solid kickoff return and a personal foul on MTSU gave the Orange the ball at their own 47. The drive bogged down in field goal range, but Murphy missed a 40-yard kick from the right hash, never getting the ball across the upright.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Middle Tennessee got a 48-yard touchdown pass and the extra point gave them a 23-16 lead.
Syracuse responded with their best drive of the day, grinding out 75 yards in 11 plays and breaking through when Dungey sprinted through the middle of the defense for a 29-yard touchdown. Murphy tacked on the extra point to knot the game at 23 a side with just over 11 minutes left.
The visitors were up to the challenge, though, scoring their third straight touchdown just over four minutes later to regain a seven-point lead at 30-23.
Dungey was picked off on the next possession, but the Orange would get another chance, taking over after a short punt at their 40 with just under three minutes on the clock. SU converted one fourth down to sustain the drive, but were not as successful on their second try when a pass from Dungey to Steve Ishmael needed 15 yards, but the comeback route only picked up 14. Official review did not provide any relief and possession went to the Blue Raiders with 28 seconds left.
One snap later, the game was over.
The normally high-powered Syracuse offense struggled in the game, mustering only 308 yards on 93 plays. Middle Tennessee had 363 total yards, needing only 69 plays to get there.
Eric Dungey was 26-of-42 through the air, but for only 180 yards with an interception. Steve Ishmael set a personal record in receptions for the second straight week with 14 catches for 116 yards.
In addition to Evan Foster, Chris Slayton also forced a fumble for the Orange defense, who played well for most of the game. Brandon Berry joined Parris Bennett with a fumble recovery. Jonathan Thomas and Zaire Franklin tied for the team lead with seven tackles, with the former having two stops for loss in addition to an interception. Scoop Bradshaw had the defense’s lone sack of the day.
The Orange will close their three-game homestand to start the season when they host Central Michigan. The game will close a three-game series with the Chippewas in which SU has a 2-0 lead based on a 40-3 road win in 2014 and a 30-27 overtime victory two years ago at the Carrier Dome.
CMU is off to a 2-0 start, including yesterday’s 45-27 road win at Kansas. Michigan transfer Shane Morris led the Chips with an outstanding performance, hitting on 28-of-37 passes for 467 yards and five touchdowns. Senior wide receivers Mark Chapman and Corey Willis each had eight receptions for at least 140 yards in the game, combining for four scores.
Kickoff for next Saturday’s game is set for 3:30pm and the game will be available online through the ACC Network on ESPN3.com.