At approximately 3:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, fourth year Syracuse University head football coach Dino Babers met with his team and coaching staff for the final time this season, and officially closed the book on the 2019 campaign. Unlike last December when the team was preparing for a bowl, Babers and his coaching staff will get a jumpstart on the recruiting season.
Here are three takeaways from the final chapter of the season, in which Syracuse defeated Wake Forest 39-30 in overtime, to finish with a 5-7 record.
The Epilogue-Playing For Pride
As colleague Brad Bierman wrote earlier this week, Saturday’s game against the Demon Deacons, really could have been considered Syracuse’s bowl game. Already eliminated from bowl contention the week before with the loss at Louisville, the Orange had one last time to prove itself against a Power 5 team in the season finale.
After finishing 10-3 in 2018, which included a win in the Camping World Bowl, expectations were set very high for the 2019 version of the Orange including; a top 25 ranking in the preseason; a second place finish in the ACC; a trip to a tier one bowl game. Week-by-week, reality sunk in and Syracuse suddenly found itself back to those first two seasons, in which four wins were the norm (2016 and 2017 seasons).
“First of all, you have to think back to the 2018 season, they had a lot to do with that success,” Babers said of his 23 seniors that will move on. “It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t meet the expectations of everyone, we really tried. We didn’t get it done. To have a situation where we could send those young men out as winners, and to have the rest of the team have something to play for when everyone else thought they had nothing to play for, it just shows how close those guys are. It shows how we are a family. La Familia or Ohana.”
Senior defensive lineman Kendall Coleman echoed Babers’ sentiments, and said it was nice to see that the team played for a purpose, and continued to compete in the season finale.
“You don’t play the game without a reason,” Coleman said. “Everyone on this team is a competitor. Anytime we step on the field it means something and this game meant the world to us tonight.”
Babers stated he would take the next few weeks to evaluate the team and the coaching staff. He said without a doubt, “there’s going to be come changes.”
“We’ll take some time off, we’ll do some things and then we’ll come to some conclusions and we’ll make some decisions,”Babers shared.
“I think that we have an outstanding culture and I think that we are doing a better job, and we are going to get even better,” he added. “We are going to get to a situation where we can turn this thing around and be a winner consistently and not occasionally.”
Optimism for the 2020 season.
It was a storybook ending for three seniors—Clayton Welch, Moe Neal, and Sterling Hofrichter—in their last hurrah at the Carrier Dome.
Starting quarterback Tommy DeVito injured his foot in practice this past week, when an offensive lineman stepped on him. Enter Welch, who played in five games this season.
A composed Welch managed the offense well, completing 21-of-36 passes for 234 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Welch connected with Trishton Jackson for a 12-yard score, and hit a wide-open Luke Benson on a 27-yard touchdown strike. Welch spent two seasons at Butte College in California, before transferring to Syracuse in 2017. Saturday’s win was his first since suiting up for the Roadrunners.
“Amazing,” Welch remarked when asked about winning his first game as the starting quarterback at SU in the final game of his career. “I wouldn’t have written it any other way. Kendall (Coleman) and I had some moments on the sideline just talking about it and it was a great game to go out on. We battled and battled. It was amazing to see my teammates fight for me. We’d be in the huddle and they would say, “Clay, I got you.” There’s nothing cooler than having ten people just fighting for you.”
Meanwhile, Neal finished his Orange career with 20 carries for 98 yards.
Facing a 3rd and 13 on the final play of the third quarter, Neal zigzagged his way back and forth across the field for a 19-yard gain on a screen pass, giving the Orange a first down. With 8:29 remaining in the game, Neal rumbled for a 13-yard touchdown run as the Orange took a 27-20 advantage.
Neal finished his senior campaign strong, as he rushed for 376 yards in the last three games.
“I’m going to miss Moe next year,”Babers said. “He always came to practice with a smile on his face.”
Thanks to the consistent boot of Hofrichter, Wake Forest did not return a punt against the Orange on Saturday. Syracuse ended the year with only 17 punt return yards allowed on 10 attempts, a new single-season record for the fewest punt return yards allowed.
With 4:08 left in the third quarter, Hofrichter pinned Wake Forest inside its 5-yard line. It was called back due to an illegal formation. Then he did it again, on a 46-yarder, which landed at the Wake Forest 4-yard line. Hofrichter had two punts land inside the 20, and another two cover more than 50 yards.
Hofrichter kicked five times for 227 yards (45.4 avg.) to close his career as the program’s career leader in punts (272) and punting yardage (11,651). He surpassed the previous records of 271 punts and 11,534 yards held by Brendan Carney (2003-06).
After Syracuse opened up overtime with a field goal, Syracuse defensive back Trill Williams put the exclamation point on the season, as he ripped the ball out of Wake Forest receiver Kendall Hinton’s hands at the six and scampered 94 yards for a touchdown.
Williams wanted the seniors to remember their last game of their careers.
“Taking it back to high school, I had the same exact play, but I didn’t score. So, this time I did. I always try to be around the ball and make a play. I didn’t have to score, but I scored for the outgoing seniors. I had to give them something. So, when they leave, they’ll remember that play.”
Coleman remembered a moment earlier in the season when he told Williams to make sure that we was putting in the work and doing the right things to take the next step forward in his development as a player.
“He said to me ‘don’t worry, we won’t let you go out the wrong way,’” Coleman recalled. “And that play happened and the first thought that came to my mind was that he held true to his word.”
Williams said it would be a moment that he will never forget.
“Those guys are my brothers and I love them. If I could start the season over again, I would happily do it just to be around them again. I’m going to miss them.”