Syracuse football hits bottom and loses to Liberty

Saturday afternoon, Syracuse suffered what is probably the most embarrassing loss of the Dino Babers era, getting handled at home by Liberty, 38-21. The Flames (5-0) came into the game a modest favorite over the Orange (1-4), who have been hammered with injuries, but cruised throughout, leading for almost 45 minutes of game time, including the final two-and-a-half quarters.

The victory was the first by Liberty over a Power Five conference team since jumping to the FBS level of play prior to the 2018 season and the first over a Power Five foe team since opening the 2017 season with a 48-45 win at Baylor, who would finish that season 1-11.

Similar to SU’s last outing against Duke, the Orange defense simply could not stop the visitor’s rushing attack. The Flames torched the Syracuse defense for 338 rushing yards, including rushing touchdowns of 75 and 52 yards, as well as eight other carries netting double figure yardage.

The SU offense, which was without starting quarterback Tommy DeVito, was also not up to task, as they mustered 308 yards overall on 67 plays. Liberty rolled up 520 total yards in the game, needing just one more play than Syracuse to generate that output.

Each squad hung a three-and-out on their opening possession, but the Orange broke through the second time they had the ball. Rex Culpepper completed five-of-six passes on the drive, including a pretty post pattern off play action to Taj Harris for a 17-yard touchdown. Andre Szmyt booted the extra point through the uprights and SU held a 7-0 lead less than seven minutes into the game.

Two plays later, the lead was wiped out when the Flames’ Shedro Louis raced through the Syracuse defense for a 75-yard touchdown run. The next Liberty drive put them in front, as they marched 88 yards for another touchdown, taking their first lead at 14-7 with 28 seconds to go in the opening quarter.

The Orange were forced to punt on their drive, but the kick was muffed and Isaiah Jones recovered for SU 14 yards from the Flames’ end zone. Syracuse could do little with the ball, including getting minimal push on fourth-and-one, eventually giving the ball back to the guests at their own five-yard-line.

Their defensive counterparts forced a quick punt, though, which gave the offense a short field. Three plays later, the Orange finished a 36-yard drive when Culpepper hit Aaron Hackett with a short pass and the tight end headed upfield and crashed into the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. Szmyt tacked on the extra point, tying the score at 14 a side with 9:21 left in the first half.

The guests charged right back, needing just three rushing plays to eat up 78 yards of turf, getting the score on a 52-yard sprint from Louis. The extra point reinstated Liberty’s seven-point lead at 21-14. The Flames’ next drive was blunted deep in SU territory when Mikel Jones forced and recovered a fumble at the three-yard-line with 29 seconds on the clock. Liberty’s 21-14 lead held to intermission.

The Flames doubled their lead on the opening possession of the second half, needing just over two minutes for a touchdown drive, this time cashing in on a 36-yard touchdown pass. The conversion stretched their lead to 28-14.

Each team punted on their next possession, then Liberty intercepted Culpepper, nullifying a short field for Syracuse. Two plays later, a Flames receiver lost the ball, but Rob Hanna could not recover the ball for the Orange before it rolled out of bounds. The guests took advantage of their good fortune, finishing their drive in the end zone once more, pushing their lead to 35-14 with under three minutes to play in the third.

SU finally cashed in on their first possession of the fourth quarter when Culpepper drilled Anthony Queeley in the left side of the end zone for a 21-yard score, the first touchdown of Queeley’s career. Szmyt’s extra point chipped the gap down to 14 points with 8:45 remaining.

Syracuse opted for an onside kick, but Liberty recovered the ball, then ate up three minutes of clock while moving into position for a 20-yard field goal. The chip shot was good, pushing the Flames lead to 38-21 with 5:20 left.

The Orange got a pass interference penalty to start their ensuing drive, but four straight incompletions gave the ball back to the visitors, who promptly drained the clock.

Rex Culpepper was scattershot through most of the game, completing 19-of-40 passes for 211 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Sean Tucker had his second 100-yard game of the season, amassing 111 yards on 21 carries. Taj Harris led all receivers in the game with nine receptions for 96 yards and a score.

Both Isaiah Jones and Mikel Jones had a fumble recovery in the game. Lee Kpogba and Marlowe Wax each had a quarterback sack. Tyrell Richards led the Orange with nine tackles while Josh Black and Mikel Jones each logged eight stops.

» Related: A look back at Syracuse safety Andre Cisco’s college career

SU will return to the road next Saturday when they travel to #1 Clemson. The Tigers (5-0, 4-0 ACC) are yet to be tested this season, winning every game by at least 18 points, including a 73-7 throttling of Georgia Tech on the road Saturday afternoon.

Heisman candidate quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for 404 yards and five touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets, pushing his season totals to 1,544 yards and 15 scores. The Clemson defense has compiled 23 sacks on the season while giving up an average of just 264.6 yards per contest.

The Syracuse-Clemson game is set for a noon Eastern kickoff and will be televised by either ESPN or the ACC Network.

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Jim Stechschulte
About Jim Stechschulte 637 Articles
A 1996 graduate of Syracuse University, Jim has reported on Syracuse sports for the Syracuse University Alumni Club of Southern California on nearly a decade, where he currently resides. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter @DSafetyGuy.