Former Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer’s emotional return to the Carrier Dome acted as a speed bump for #OrangeIsTheNewFast.
Shafer returned as Middle Tennessee State University’s defensive coordinator after being fired at the end of the 2015 season, and his defense stymied a high-powered SU offense in a 30-23 win for the Blue Raiders.
From the start, the Blue Raider defense frustrated the Orange and forced costly mistakes. After going three-and-out on its second drive, a botched Syracuse punt resulted in a safety, giving Middle Tennessee an early 2-0 lead.
“Middle Tennessee did a great job, coming with pressure and disguising their looks with a lot of different stuff that we didn’t see before,” SU quarterback Eric Dungey said.
The Orange remained without a first down until the second quarter and Middle Tennessee’s stingy defense kept Syracuse from executing at its regular tempo. Although up 13-9 at the half, the Orange only managed 38 rushing yards and 73 yards through the air.
Containment of Eric Dungey was a major factor in the Blue Raider’s success. Dungey’s mobility was projected to be an asset for the Orange. But Shafer’s defensive schemes kept Dungey under pressure throughout the afternoon.
Sacked five times, Dungey was limited to just 180 yards passing and 53 yards on the ground. Over half of those rushing yards came from Dungey’s only touchdown, a 29 yard rush in the fourth quarter.
“Coach Shafer, he is a genius, and he always comes up with something,” Dungey said. “He gave us something that we haven’t seen before, a bunch of different disguises so props to Coach Shafer.”
Dungey was not the only member of the Orange offense to struggle against the Middle Tennessee defense. Dropped passes, a lackluster running game, and a missed field goal prevented the Orange from ever developing a sizable lead over the Blue Raiders.
On the day, Syracuse managed only 308 yards to total offense on 93 plays, averaging just 3.3 yards per play.
Missed scoring opportunities by Syracuse ultimately proved decisive in the matchup.
“There’s nobody to blame but myself,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “It’s my job to get them ready; they weren’t ready. We didn’t handle the emotional rollercoaster of all the stuff that was brought into this game, and all the blame should be put right here.”
For most of the game, the Orange defense held solid. But blown coverages in the third and fourth quarter enabled Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill to convert long touchdown passes that tied and then gave the Blue Raiders a 23-16 lead.
“From the defensive side of the ball, they came out and did what we thought they were going to do. They were going to pressure us, hit us, hit us on time and hit us right until the echo of the whistle,” Babers said. “We had opportunities to make plays out in space, and we didn’t capitalize on all of those opportunities. If you capitalize on those opportunities, the game changes, and it’s a different game.”
Although the Orange tied things back up with Dungey’s touchdown rush, the Blue Raiders answered back with a 75-yard drive that resulted in another touchdown and the final 30-23 lead.
In addition to the staunch defense, emotion surrounding Shafer’s return played a significant role in the matchup.
“We wanted to prove to Coach Shafer that we are a good recruiting class that he brought in,” Jonathan Thomas said. “We definitely wanted to get the win, and it is very disappointing to lose because we wanted to prove something to him.”
The old ball coach felt the same way.
“It was bittersweet in a lot of ways. I loved it here,” Shafer said. “It was bittersweet seeing those kids, seeing Eric and Steve. I hope Steve is okay. I love those kids. It was difficult today for me going on that field and having all those boys come over to say hello.”