Defense, special teams give Syracuse football reason to smile

Sep 23, 2022; Syracuse, New York, USA; Syracuse Orange defensive back Garrett Williams (8) recovers a fumble by Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Brennan Armstrong (5) during the first half at JMA Wireless Dome. Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Syracuse football found themselves 4-0 for the first time since 2018 after their 22-20 victory over Virginia, mostly behind a strong effort from defense and special teams.

“What a game,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said. “Another nail biter at the end. We’re really fortunate to come out with a win, we’re excited about that. The play wasn’t perfect that’s for sure, but the record is.”

Babers was likely referring to his imperfect offense.

Syracuse started strong, scoring on their very first drive of the game on a 17-yard Garrett Shrader scramble on third and 15. That turned out to be SU’s only touchdown of the night as the Orange squandered multiple opportunities inside the red zone.

“We came out strong today,” Shrader said. “We have to get in the endzone, that’s the biggest thing going forward.”

But SU didn’t, and scored only six points after halftime. That allowed Virginia to rally from a 16-0 halftime deficit to take a 20-19 lead with 5:51 left.

While Syracuse couldn’t score touchdowns, kicker Andre Szmyt was able to cap off three separate drives with made field goals of 26, 32, and 28, yards.

“I got to shout out my guys,” Szmyt said. “The whole O-line, I couldn’t do it without those guys.”

» Related: A look back at thrilling finishes at the Dome

Szmyt would finish a perfect 5 for 5 on field goal attempts, kicking the go-ahead score from 31 yards out to go up 22-20 with just 1:14 left in the game. It was reminiscent of Szmyt’s freshman year, when he won the Lou Groza Award for college football’s best kicker.

“How cool was that?” Babers said. “He went back to his old way and lo’ and behold, we got old Andre back.”

Syracuse also got a sterling performance from its defense. Aside from pitching a shutout in the first half, the Orange held the Virginia offense to 287 total yards. SU also forced two turnovers, highlighted by a Garrett Williams interception in the fourth quarter after the offense had just turned it over.

It also needed to get one final stop after Szmyt’s go-ahead field goal left the Cavaliers with just over 70 seconds left to mount a game-winning drive. Instead, Virginia could only manage five more plays from scrimmage, and got no further than its own 47-yard line.

Brennan Armstrong’s pass to Lavel Davis Jr. was batted down with :27 left, and Shrader took a kneel in victory formation to close out SU’s fourth straight win.

“This game was hard, it was competitive and I thought the defense did a really really nice job,” Babers said. “At the end of the story, the field goals were the difference.”

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