Leaky defense leaves Syracuse with eighth loss of season

Syracuse has plenty to be excited about with the 2017 class
Syracuse dropped to 4-8 on the season

Any defensive-minded football fans who saw Saturday’s contest between Syracuse and Pittsburgh were probably left feeling ill. The two teams racked up almost 140 points and over 1,300 yards, but the Panthers took home a 76-61 home win in the season finale between the two teams.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the game is that the Orange (4-8, 2-6 ACC) came into the game ranked 122nd out of 128 teams in rushing yards and Pitt (8-4, 5-3) entered the contest with the fourth-best rushing defense in the country in yards allowed. SU rolled up 228 yards on the ground.

Or perhaps the best way to sum up the game was that in a stretch of 14 second half possessions, the game more closely resembled a tennis match instead of a football game, as the two teams raced up and down to the field to score 11 touchdowns.

Or maybe it was that Syracuse ran up 668 yards by running 106 plays from scrimmage and converted all four of their fourth down tries, including two going for touchdowns.

Or maybe it was that Pittsburgh piled up 644 yards by averaging just under 11 yards per play on offense.

The Orange were the first team to get on the board, converting a short field into a score when Zack Mahoney ran in on a keeper from two yards out and Cole Murphy added the extra point for a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

The Panthers scored a pair of touchdowns to go up by seven, but SU knotted the game up just before the end of the first. Dontae Strickland capped a 74-yard drive with a five-yard run through a couple tacklers to get into the end zone from five yards out. Murphy’s extra point made it a 14-14 game.

Pitt continued their proficient offense by scoring on their next two possessions to take a 28-14 lead with just under seven minutes left in the first half. Mahoney connected with Amba Etta-Tawo for a six-yard score with under two minutes on the scoreboard and Murphy’s kick cut the game to seven points.

Pittsburgh marched down the field quickly, scoring just before the half to take a 35-21 lead to the locker room.

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The SU defense forced a punt on Pitt’s opening drive, but Mahoney was intercepted three plays later. The pick was returned for a touchdown and the hosts led, 42-21. The Panthers added on another score on their next possession for a 49-21 lead six minutes into the third.

Moe Neal got into the scorebook on the next Syracuse possession, exploding on a draw play for a 42-yard touchdown run. Murphy’s extra point was blocked, leaving Pitt with a 49-27 lead.

Following another Panther touchdown a couple possessions later, Mahoney led the Orange on a scoring drive, completing six consecutive passes to get SU into the end zone. Etta-Tawo had the honors again, catching a short pass and turning the corner for a 12-yard score. Murphy’s extra point was good to make it 56-34, Pitt.

Jonathan Thomas thwarted the next Pittsburgh drive when he forced a fumble and Chris Slayton recovered for Syracuse. Mahoney led another scoring drive, this time scoring on a designed quarterback draw from 19 yards out. Murphy added the conversion and the Orange trailed, 56-41, less than four minutes into the fourth quarter.

Pitt struck back with a quick touchdown and Syracuse replied in kind. Neal ate up 42 yards on the ground to get the Orange within striking distance and Mahoney hit Etta-Tawo on fourth down from the Pitt seven-yard-line for the score. Murphy banged through the extra point and SU trailed by 15 again at 63-48.

The Panthers covered the onside kick and again reached the end zone quickly. Syracuse again matched the score when Etta-Tawo caught a quick pass on fourth-and-six, made a man miss, and sprinted 49 yards down the left sideline to the end zone. The extra point was good and the Orange trailed, 70-55, with under four minutes left.

Pitt again got the onside kick and again scored shortly after, missing the extra point to take a 21-point lead. SU again marched for a score, with Etta-Tawo taking a wide receiver screen in from 13 yards out to cap the drive. Murphy pulled the extra point wide left, leaving the final score at 76-61.

In a career day, Zack Mahoney completed 43-of-61 passes for 440 yards with five touchdowns and an interception while also adding a pair of scores on the ground. Amba Etta-Tawo closed his magical single season at Syracuse with 13 receptions for 178 yards, catching all five of Mahoney’s touchdown passes. Erv Philips caught 11 passes for 107 yards. Moe Neal picked up 91 yards on eight rushing attempts to go with a score.

Corey Winfield had an interception for the Orange defense. Jonathan Thomas forced a fumble that Chris Slayton recovered.

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About Jim Stechschulte 894 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. He currently resides in Syracuse.