Against Louisville, they gave up too many big plays. Against USF, they scored early but then stalled in the second half. Against Notre Dame, special teams play was a disaster. Against Wake Forest, the passing game was nonexistent.
But against No. 17 Virginia Tech, it all came together.
In Syracuse’s biggest upset win since taking down No. 9 Louisville back in 2012, the Orange (3-4) were clicking on all cylinders Saturday afternoon, scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter after blowing a two-score lead, en route to a shocking 31-17 win over Virginia Tech (4-2).
“I think we needed a win like this just to give us some momentum,” wide receiver Erv Phillips, who finished with 11 receptions for 139 yards and one touchdown, said after the game. “This is a big win against a ranked opponent. Getting a win like this gives us a lot of confidence moving forward.”
Cool-as-hell moment! pic.twitter.com/z7cyRbBGwM— Matthew McClusky (@MatthewMcClusky) October 15, 2016
In a game they never trailed, Syracuse certainly played with confidence, scoring 31 points against the country’s 10th-ranked defense and limiting Virginia Tech’s high-scoring offense, which averaged 39.0 points per game entering Saturday, to just 17 points – Virginia Tech’s lowest scoring output of the season.
While the final product looks impressive, it was almost the same reoccurring story for Syracuse: race out to an early lead, crumble defensively and watch the offense stall.
After entering halftime with a 17-3 lead, thanks to Phillips’ 58-yard touchdown reception and a trick-play 84-yard touchdown pass from running back Dontae Strickland to receiver Brisly Estime, Syracuse fans could only watch in horror as the Groundhog Day-like scenario started to once again unfold.
Despite not being able to produce anything offensively in the first half, Virginia Tech marched 83 yards down the field on its opening possession of the third quarter with ease, ending with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Jerod Evans to Isaiah Ford.
Syracuse’s next two drives ended with an interception and a missed field goal, respectively, allowing for Virginia Tech to tie the game at 17 a piece following a 63-yard touchdown drive.
The scene looked all too familiar for Orange fans who remembered Syracuse’s previous collapses against USF and Notre Dame earlier in the season.
However, instead of another disappointing finish, the Orange were able to quickly respond to the momentum swing, scoring a touchdown on both of their fourth quarter drives to put the game away.
Syracuse’s play in the game’s final frame was a stark contrast from previous games. Rather than play conservative, the Orange remained the aggressor – a fact that Syracuse coach Dino Babers said led to his team’s late-game success.
“My thing was, we’re going to play smart, but you’ve got to play to win the game,” Babers said. “You’ve got to knock out the champion, you can’t just try to beat him up. We can’t hang around and try to bleed clock and all of that kind of stuff when the score is like that. We’re going to try to score touchdowns. We’re going to try to win it the right way and then we’re going to get some space so our defense can play wild and lose.”
The initial fourth quarter scoring drive came immediately following Virginia Tech’s tying touchdown. Starting on their own 25-yard line, Syracuse showed its ability to methodically march down the field, rather than constantly rely on big plays. The Orange took 17 plays and 5:57 off the clock, converting on four third downs and one fourth down, before quarterback Eric Dungey finally capped the drive on a quarterback sneak at the goal line.
Syracuse’s defense then forced a quick three-and-out before watching as Estime and the punt return unit set the offense up with stellar field position, returning the Virginia Tech punt to the Hokies’ 37-yard line. Four plays later, running back Dontae Strickland barreled his way into the end zone on a 16-yard run to give Syracuse a 31-17 lead.
Even with a two-score cushion, Virginia Tech still had more than five minutes remaining to potentially crush Orange fans’ hearts. Instead, Syracuse’s defense slammed the Hokies’ comeback bid shut, as defensive tackle Chris Slayton barreled into Evans after the Virginia Tech quarterback managed to scramble for 13 yards, knocking the ball loose and resulting in a game-ending fumble recovery by fellow Syracuse defensive tackle De’Jon Wilson.
Minutes later, after the Orange ran out the clock to seal the win, Syracuse fans jumped down from the bleachers to celebrate with the team at midfield, a moment Babers said his players and the fans will never forget.
“That’s what college football is all about,” Babers said. “That excitement, that energy – it’s so pure, it’s so honest. Anytime you’re young, 18 to 22 years old, and you have the opportunity to experience something like that, it’s always going to be special. It’s always going to be something that stays with you for a very long time.”