Perhaps no play encapsulated Syracuse’s strange, frustrating loss to the visiting Pittsburgh Panthers more than the one that came with 20 seconds to go in the first half.
The Orange had recovered a fumble on a Kevin Weatherspoon punt return deep in Pitt territory. Down 10-6, Syracuse had a golden opportunity to pull ahead after a grinding first half.
Facing 3rd and 10 with 20 seconds remaining in the first half, QB Terrell Hunt lofted a pass to a streaking Durell Eskridge on the left sideline. With wideouts Jarrod West and Brisly Estime injured, Eskridge had been pressed into service as a receiver after jokingly pestering the coaching staff about it throughout the season.
Eskridge, falling out of bounds in the end zone, hauled in what looked to be a touchdown pass.
“It was close,” head coach Scott Shafer said after the game. “Did you see the replay? Was it as close as I thought it was?”
It was close, but after a review, officials ruled the pass incomplete, and the Orange settled for a field goal.
“Yeah, I feel like I made that catch,” a visibly dejected Eskridge said after the game. “I kind of bobbled it a little bit, but I felt like I brought it in at the end and kept my feet in. The officials made the call. We had to live with it and get ready for the next down.”
That was how the afternoon went for the Orange, as opportunity after opportunity slipped away. Deep bombs inches overthrown or caught out of bounds. A blocked extra point, a missed field goal. The ill-timed penalties that have plagued the team all season. A key timeout as the Orange lined up for a fake 53-yard field goal on its final drive, facing 4th and 10 with seconds on the clock. The Orange had an open Kendall Moore lined up on the sideline, unnoticed by anyone but Pittsburgh coach Paul Chryst, who managed to call time a split second before the snap went off, and that was the game.
“It came up six inches short. It came up half a second or quarter of a second short. That’s life, man,” Shafer said.
“Am I frustrated? Hell yeah.”
The loss also wasted a phenomenal effort from the Orange defense, which allowed just 239 total yards, and only 25 rushing. Eskridge was everywhere, making his presence known with 9 solo tackles.
The defense made life miserable for Pittsburgh QB Tom Savage, sacking him 3 times and knocking him down, it seemed, countless more. Two of those sacks came courtesy of junior LB Cameron Lynch, stopping what looked like a certain touchdown on a Panther drive that lasted for 19 plays and more than 9 minutes. Pitt had 1st and goal from the 2 yard line, but Lynch got to Savage twice in the next three plays for a loss of 16 yards, and the Panthers settled for a field goal.
With the clock winding down in the second half, the defense came up again, with a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage that fell into LB Luke Arciniega’s hands. But the offense stalled out and Ryan Norton’s 41-yard field goal attempt sailed wide right.
Syracuse did plenty of things well on the afternoon, but the small mistakes added up. The Orange now has one last shot at bowl eligibility, one shot to ensure the game against Pittsburgh doesn’t become the biggest missed opportunity of Shafer’s up-and-down first season as head coach.
A quietly furious senior DT Jay Bromley summed it up after the game.
“We have to practice better, we have to play better, we have to do a lot of things better to win. Period. We can’t keep saying, ‘Oh, we killed ourselves and stop shooting yourselves in the foot.’ Man, put away the gun. You can’t keep doing that and expect to come out victorious. It gets frustrating to a point. You come so close and you lose games because of little, minute things.
“We’ve got one shot.”