Heading into the final weekend of September, Syracuse football was undefeated, on the verge of being ranked for the first time since 2001 and looking like one of the hottest teams in football. The Orange rolled into Death Valley and nearly pulled off a massive upset over the third-ranked Tigers.
Even with the loss, expectations remained high. Syracuse’s defense played so well in the first half after all. The offense managed to score early, and if not for a few unfortunate penalties, might have put even more points on the board.
Then, Syracuse ventured out to Heinz Field for a matchup with the Pittsburgh Panthers. A blowout was too much to hope for, as the Orange almost always plays Pitt close. On top of that, SU has beaten the Panthers just twice dating back to 2004. Still, the most recent win was just last year. Pittsburgh also entered the game at 3-3, losers of two straight.
No doubt fans know the outcome. Syracuse fell 44-37 in overtime. SU could not hold off Pitt at the end of regulation allowing a game-tying field goal with seconds remaining. Eric Dungey threw the game-clinching interception in the endzone on the first play of SU’s possession. It was disappointing. It was disheartening. Most of all, it was concerning. Syracuse is allowed to have a bad day at the office, but a lot of the same issues that plagued the team in the second half of the loss to Clemson reappeared against Pittsburgh.
The Panthers had two long touchdowns in the game, both over 65 yard plays. Bad tackling is almost entirely to blame. Quadree Ollison broke away down the sideline in the second quarter for Pitt’s first score of the game, running through a couple of arm tackles. Andre Cisco took a bad angle and missed a chance to hit Ollison in the hole. Scoop Bradshaw had a chance to prevent the touchdown but dove at his feet.
Rafael Araujo-Lopes out ran the secondary on a screen pass to give Pittsburgh a 10-point lead early in the third quarter. Once again it was Cisco, this time in addition to Evan Foster, who took terrible angles and missed tackles on the play. Those two big plays were the difference in the game and provided the opposing offense with a ton of momentum. Those kinds of mistakes should be inexcusable for a quality team.
Syracuse was unable to slow down Travis Etienne the week before, allowing the sophomore running back to get outside the tackles and do a lot of damage in the open field. On both of his second half touchdown runs, he left would-be tacklers in his wake, often leaving the defender flat-footed. After that, Ollison and Darrin Hall killed the Orange at Heinz Field. Over the past two weeks, Dino Babers’ crew has given up 558 yards on the ground at 5.6 yards per carry. Teams are realizing they can run the ball on Syracuse and it seems like it is powerless to stop them.
The Orange has particularly struggled against any sort of fake movement, whether it be a fake sweep or fake reverse. Watching the Clemson tape again, it is easy to see in the second half that the defense has no idea what it is supposed to be reading and is often just running at a player in hopes of guessing correctly.
The turnover bug bit Dungey again as well. It is not so much that Dungey turns the ball over, it is when and how. Against Clemson, the senior forced a ball into coverage in the middle of the field. The pass was well short of where it needed to be. The receiver had no chance to make the play, and the interception set up an easy Tiger field goal.
It was worse against Pitt, as this time Dungey turned it over on three occasions. The strip sack was foolish of him to not cover the ball after he was wrapped up. That was returned for a touchdown and tied the game. His first interception was not overly costly and was simply a great play by a linebacker dropping back into coverage. The last one was obviously the worst, as it cost Syracuse the game. While he was under pressure, it was first down. Dungey should never have been lofting that ball off his back foot into double coverage on first down in overtime. That mental lapse is critical and something that seems to happen all too often with Dungey.
Syracuse has its bye week to sort out some of the mistakes it has been committing in these last two games before it takes on North Carolina. That is a game that the Orange needs to win to make a bowl game considering the rest of the schedule.
It is a game fans will feel the Orange should win. However, after the loss to Pittsburgh, the real test will be seeing if Syracuse avoids the same kinds of mistakes that kept them from already being bowl eligible.