When Dino Babers said that he expected the Syracuse defense and special teams to be good, he was not kidding. Those two units shone on Saturday, powering the #22 Orange to a 24-0 shutout at Liberty in the season opener for both squads.
The SU defense rolled up eight sacks and forced four turnovers as a unit while the special teams helped rule the field position battle. Josh Black and Kendall Coleman paced seven different defenders who registered at least half a sack by picking up a pair apiece. The Orange kicking game allowed the Flames to start just two drives beyond their own 25 yard-line.
Those strong efforts without the ball helped offset an erratic debut from their offensive mates. The Syracuse offense, led by first-time starting quarterback Tommy DeVito, had a difficult time sustaining drives, as six possessions ended without a first down and they also turned the ball over twice.
The Orange also had a turnover on special teams when Sean Riley fumbled a punt return early in the first quarter. Liberty converted the possession into a 43-yard field goal attempt, but the kick was just outside the right upright. The Flames would get another prime scoring opportunity on their next possession, but the SU defense rose to the occasion when Trill Wiliams forced a fumble and Josh Black pounced on the ball at the Orange three.
After the two teams traded interceptions, Syracuse converted theirs to points. Ifeatu Melifonwu picked off a pass to set up the Orange in Liberty territory and Andre Szmyt cashed in the turnover with a 45-yard field goal to open the scoring with 1:45 left in the first.
The SU offense put together one of their best drives of the game to open the second quarter, moving 71 yards for a score. Taj Harris started the drive with a 31-yard reception and Abdul Adams closed it by slashing into the end zone off right tackle from two yards out. Szmyt tacked on the conversion for a 10-0 lead under five minutes into the second quarter.
The next Syracuse score came after the midpoint of the third quarter. Ballhawking safety Andre Cisco had an interception and returned it to the Liberty 37. Moe Neal picked up 20 yards on the next play to get into the red zone and Jarveon Howard eventually stretched across the goal line for a one-yard score. Szmyt’s extra point gave the Orange a 17-0 lead.
Neal provided the offensive highlight of the night early in the final quarter. On fourth-and-two, the senior running back went untouched for a 42-yard touchdown run. Szmyt’s kick capped the scoring less than three minutes into the final quarter.
SU allowed one late scoring threat, but Kingsley Jonathan had a strip sack and recovered the fumble, blunting Liberty’s last chance to score.
Moe Neal was the top threat for the Syracuse offense, gaining 89 yards on 14 rushes and 54 more yards on three receptions. Tommy DeVito’s first start was marked by inconsistency, as he completed 17-of-35 passes for 176 yards with a pair of interceptions. Lakiem Willliams led the defense with 11 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.
The Orange will have their second straight contest to open the season next Saturday when they travel to Maryland. The Terrapins coasted past FCS opponent Howard in their season opener, 79-0, as Josh Jackson threw for four scores in the first half.
Kickoff is set for noon Eastern and the game will be televised by either ESPN or ESPN2.