Coming off its best season in nearly two decades, the 2019 Syracuse football team had expectations, started fine, then fell off a cliff. With a 10-3 season in its rearview mirror, head coach Dino Babers’ Orange opened with a shutout win over Liberty. Then, things got out of hand against Maryland.
The Terrapins led 14-0 after six minutes and 42-13 at halftime en route to rolling up 650 yards on offense and stacked up four sacks. Clemson coasted at the Carrier Dome the following week with over 600 yards and eight sacks.
And the die was cast. While SU won their next two against non-conference foes, as expected, two more conference losses against North Carolina State and Pittsburgh sealed the season. Those two foes racked up 17 sacks against Syracuse and quarterback Tommy DeVito was lifted in second quarter of the latter game after suffering five of those sacks.
The Orange losing streak then extended to four games, putting them on the brink of bowl eligibility. SU’s most impressive effort of the season, a 49-6 thumping of Duke, ended the slide, but Louisville ended the team’s bowl hopes the following week. The team did not roll over, pulling out a 39-30 overtime win in the home finale against Wake Forest when Trill Williams ripped the ball away from a Deacons’ ballcarrier and raced 94 yards for a touchdown to seal the victory and a 5-7 campaign.
The offensive line and defense completed a vicious circle for the team in 2019. The line struggled early and often, its lack of continuity, health, and experience keeping the offense from continuing drives. The defense subsequently spent more time on the field and tired quickly, giving up chunks of yards and lots of points. Then the offense would be tilted toward the pass, exposing the lack of blocking.
That line, which gave up 50 sacks last season, is still an unknown commodity as the 2020 season nears. Four starters return at the positions where they ended 2019, but two players started at multiple spots before landing at their expected posts. New offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was summoned to help the offense, but is not a complete newcomer. Gilbert held the same post under Babers for a pair of seasons at Eastern Illinois and one more at Bowling Green, piling up yards and points at both stops.
The defense, which gave up over 550 yards six times, was scrapped and replaced with the 3-3-5 defense under new coordinator Tony White. That change will lead to some less-than-ideal fits with the current personnel on the roster, as the formation relies on bigger linemen and linebackers. Getting five defensive backs on the field to make plays does fit the roster, though, as Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and Trill Williams could all flourish in the new style.
While the 2019 campaign was a rough one for the Orange and there are lots of unknowns about the current one, there is reason for optimism. Those hopes and dreams may not become realized in 2020, but they point toward a new plan built toward success at Syracuse.