Syracuse blows early lead to NC State and keeps ACC cellar to itself

Nov 28, 2020; Syracuse, New York, USA; North Carolina State Wolfpack wide receiver Emeka Emezie (86) is tackled by Syracuse Orange defensive back Kyle Strickland (22) in the first quarter at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Probably the strangest Senior Day in Syracuse football unfolded on Saturday afternoon. In the last game of a home schedule without fans in attendance, the Orange had a kickoff return touchdown, a 60-yard touchdown pass, a safety, and an improbable end of the game when Rex Culpepper spiked the ball on fourth-and-goal at the North Carolina State 19.

The spike to stop the clock did not officially end the game, as it came with one second remaining, but it did ice the game for the Wolfpack (7-3, 6-3 ACC), who claimed a 36-29 victory over the Orange (1-9, 1-8). It also ended the second-longest drive in yards and longest drive in time of the day for SU, who struggled on offense, particularly on the ground, generating a net of three rushing yards on 25 attempts.

After a field goal extended the NC State lead to seven with 5:20 remaining, Syracuse drove from their own 25 to the ‘Pack 20, where they used their last timeout prior to a third-and-ten. The Orange converted on the following play, setting up a first-and-goal at the nine. Following a run for two yards on first, Culpepper scrambled out of bounds on second down, then scrambled again in the pocket when no receiver came free on third, eventually getting sacked at the 18.

With the clock running, a couple receivers were slow to return to the line of scrimmage and get set. They did, however, get into proper alignment in time for the fated fourth down snap, which Culpepper threw to the ground in an effort to stop the clock.

North Carolina State opened the scoring with a touchdown drive on their first possession, grabbing a 7-0 lead just before the midpoint of the opening quarter. The lead lasted just 13 seconds of game time, as Trebor Pena received the kickoff and raced 98 yards for a Syracuse touchdown, then Andre Szmyt converted the extra point.

The Wolfpack quickly marched down the field again, seemingly scoring another touchdown, but the officials’ review determined that the ball was fumbled prior to crossing the goal line and went out of bounds through the end zone. The ruling wiped out the touchdown, giving the Orange the ball and a touchback.

SU was able to chew up 53 yards before settling for a 45-yard field goal from Szmyt, grabbing a 10-7 lead just over a minute into the second quarter. The offense got the ball back on the next play from scrimmage as Ifeatu Melifonwu drilled an NC State receiver as a pass arrived, popping the ball into the air. Mikel Jones snared the ball and rambled down to the Wolfpack five-yard line. Three incompletions later, Syracuse settled for a 23-yard Szmyt field goal and a 13-7 lead.

The ‘Pack struck back before the end of the second, driving for a touchdown and a 14-13 edge. Less than three minutes later, the Orange were in the end zone again when Rex Culpepper rolled left and hit Nykeim Johnson behind the NC State defense for a 60-yard touchdown. Szmyt’s extra point gave SU a 20-14 lead.

On the first play following a short kickoff return, Marlowe Wax was in the process of wrapping up Wolfpack quarterback Bailey Hockman for a sack when Hockman threw the ball out the back of the end zone for a safety. That pushed the Syracuse lead to 22-14, a margin that stood a little over three minutes until halftime.

NC State received the ball after halftime and promptly drove for a touchdown. They opted to try a two-point conversion, but the pass was incomplete, leaving the Orange in front, 22-20.

Johnson set up SU with great field position on their second possession of the quarter, returning a punt 27 yards to the Wolfpack 43. Six plays later, Culpepper zipped a pass to Taj Harris in the middle of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown. Szmyt tacked on the conversion, pushing the lead to 29-20 with a little under six minutes remaining in the third quarter.

North Carolina State responded with two touchdown drives. The first score came late in the third and sliced the lead down to two points again, while the latter came on the third play of the fourth quarter. Once again, the guests tried for a two-point conversion, but got the same result, leaving them with a 33-29 advantage.

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Syracuse’s offense failed to pick up a first down on their next two possessions and the Wolfpack took advantage after the second one, driving into the red zone. NC State added a 31-yard field goal to the scoreboard, pushing their lead to 36-29 with 5:20 left.

The Orange then set off on their final drive, converting a pair of thirds and a fourth down before the heartbreaking final series of downs.

Rex Culpepper completed 23-of-45 passes for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Taj Harris had a career day with 13 receptions for 146 yards and a touchdown. Mikel Jones had an interception and Marlowe Wax a pair of sacks for the SU defense. Kingsley Jonathan, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Cody Roscoe, and Stefon Thompson each added a sack while Ja’Had Carter had 13 tackles, including three for loss.

Syracuse will conclude their season next week when they play at #2 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish advanced their record to 9-0 on the season and 8-0 in ACC play with a 31-17 win at #19 North Carolina on Saturday. Kyren Williams, who leads the team with 901 rushing yards and 12 scores, rolled up 124 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the win over UNC. Ian Book has thrown for almost 2,100 yards with 12 touchdowns and just a single interception.

NBC will televise the SU-Notre Dame matchup, which will start at 2:30pm Eastern.

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About Jim Stechschulte 894 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. He has also written a fantasy basketball column published by He currently resides in Syracuse.