Well, that happened.
The Syracuse Orange came into this one desperately needing an upset victory. At 3-4 overall, a loss wasn't the nail in the coffin on the season, but it certainly wasn't going to help matters. A win was unlikely too, sure. But with Dalvin Cook and Everett Golson out for the Florida State Seminoles, there were a whole lot of "maybes" and "what ifs" tossed around as kickoff neared.
Syracuse ended up losing to the 'Noles, 45-21 down in Tallahassee, and in front of a national TV audience on ABC. The Orange are now 3-5 overall, and 1-3 in the ACC. Florida State jumps to 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the ACC leading up to next week's big showdown with Clemson, a defacto ACC Atlantic title game.
Based on how the game began, however, you'd be forgiven for expecting a different outcome.
Opening up with the type of screen game reminiscent of those that have beaten SU all season, Florida State's offense seemed slow and lackadaisical for two straight drives. Back-up Seminoles QB Sean Maguire was under duress, the screens were being sniffed out in a hurry, and (best of all), pressure led to tackles for loss. You probably watched Ron Thompson's big third down sack on that first possession and suddenly found yourself thinking "wait a second -- we've got this offensive line on its heels."
Then the offense did what it rarely does (after punting on its first drive) -- they scored EARLY, and very quickly. Like last week, the tempo they were establishing was readily apparent and it caught the opposition off guard. This time around, that meant an impressive 62-yard screen from Eric Dungey to Dontae Strickland, which set up a Dungey touchdown run just a couple plays later.
But from there... what the hell happened in this game? Maguire would end up throwing for over 300 yards in the first half (!!!) as FSU abandoned the short pass in favor of the deep ball that any scouting report would've told you beats Syracuse to death every time. The secondary -- which may have taken some steps forward last week -- took several leaps backward and will be occupying your preferred sports highlight show as a laughable sidenote all weekend. In an ode to poor tackling, Syracuse scored high marks while flailing about the field as if they'd never defended a pass before.
All hope was not lost for the Orange as the end of the second quarter drew near, though. After stalling out at mid-field and questionably punting, SU came up with a spot, then drove down for another Dungey running score. Despite feelings of woe on our end, it was a seven-point game, and Syracuse would receive the ball at the start of the third quarter. Things were trending up!... Until the team used some questionable timeouts to leave too much on the clock, then (for the second straight week) squib-kicked to provide its opponent with quality field position. The 'Noles drove down the field for a score to end the half, and firmly captured momentum for a 28-14 lead.
The rest was regrettable, forgettable history. FSU spent the second half racking up ground yards at will, as both Jacques Patrick and Jonathan Vickers put in solid games (a combined 226 yards for the two of them on 32 carries). With less onus on Maguire to pass, he'd only add another 40 or so yards. But that was plenty as the Orange offense -- which looked effective in spurts in the first -- simply ran out of gas in the second.
Without jumping into ALL the reasons, the basics: Syracuse couldn't utilize play action, which directly hurt its chances to get receivers open downfield. The Orange had less reason to run the ball, which made the offense one-dimensional. Dungey was under a ton of pressure, which forced him to either hold the ball too long or take off too quickly (no middle ground). And Florida State's elite secondary simply blanketed potential pass-catchers all day. Just a week after the team had Jordan Fredericks, Ervin Philips, Steve Ishmael and Brisly Estime heavily involved, the four-some had 21 touches for 86 yards today.
Speaking of Estime, his late-game punt return touchdown was impressive, even given the circumstances. You have to give him that as he has truly established himself as one of the more dangerous return men in the country this season. After going over a decade without a punt return TD, Estime's had two this season in just eight games.
At the end of the day, we went into this game expecting a loss, and that's what occurred for Syracuse. The Orange played well for bits and pieces of the game, but largely, they looked to be completely out-skilled by Florida State's athletes on both sides of the ball. We're three years into this divisional "rivalry," and while the scores may show improvement (59-3, then 38-20, then 45-21) in some respects, have we really gotten ourselves any closer to the Seminoles? Especially when you consider this is the worst FSU team of those three, and they still beat us by 24?
For some additional food for thought, Syracuse hasn't beaten a non-Wake Forest ACC team since November of 2013 (Boston College), nor a Power Five program since December of that same year (Minnesota). Obviously they still have four more chances to fix both streaks this season. But it's worth putting some perspective on the task at hand as the team attempts to earn three wins over the next four games.
Yes, we're young. And you could say inexperienced. But at some point in players' first seasons, they stop being so young and inexperienced, and just start being players on a football team. Eight games into 2015, we probably should be there. And you can't necessarily make a claim that performance against FSU is indicative of anything else that happens with your season. But let's just hope this is the bottom, before the spike back up.