With less than five minutes in the game, and trailing by eight points, the Syracuse Orange defense needed to string together one more stop to give backup quarterback Zack Mahoney and the offense a chance to tie the game.
Instead, after North Carolina State marched all the way to Syracuse’s 13-yard line, running back Matthew Dayes took the handoff on first down and ran into the end zone seemingly untouched to give the Wolfpack a 35-20 win and put the nail in Syracuse’s coffin.
The score was Dayes’ third touchdown of the game and the result of 55 minutes, up to that point, of Syracuse’s young defensive line being bullied by the Wolfpack’s big men on offense.
Of the eight defensive linemen listed on Syracuse’s two man depth chart, three are freshmen and only De’Jon Wilson, a redshirt-senior, is an upperclassman.
“Our defensive line are all babies,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said after the loss. “We’ve got to take our lumps right now. Big brothers punch little brothers in the chest and tell them not to cry.
“We’re going to take it right now. But there’s going to be a time when our babies grow up and all of a sudden they’re big brothers, and I’m looking forward to that day.”
That day wasn’t Saturday, as Dayes finished with 108 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. NC State (5-5, 2-4 in ACC) finished the game with a 184-28 rushing advantage over Syracuse (4-6, 2-4 in ACC).
Orange running back Dontae Strickland led the team in rushing with 28 yards on 12 carries, averaging 2.3 yards per carry. Moe Neal finished with zero yards on two carries and Jordan Fredericks finished the game without a carry.
The disparity in rushing total was in large part due to the absence of Syracuse starting quarterback Eric Dungey, who was ruled out due to an injury suffered in last week’s loss to Clemson. Babers said defenses typically haven’t tried to stack the box as much as NC State did on Saturday because they account for Dungey and Syracuse’s success passing the ball.
“The one thing, you look at our rushing total. And you look at it, that’s bad. It’s bad,“ Babers said. “Well when you have Eric, and you say ‘Oh you can’t run the football.’ When you have Eric out there, when you have a guy that has made a whole bunch of throws, they back off and they don’t try to come at you as much.”
While the Orange offense showed brief flashes with Mahoney under center, including scoring a touchdown on its opening drive, it was mostly inefficient for the majority of the game.
Shortly after scoring on its opening possession of the game, Syracuse’s next four drives to close the first half ended as such: interception, field goal, punt, punt. The second half was more of the same, as the Orange scored a touchdown and a field goal on two of its first three possessions, before once again stalling, with its last four drives ending in disappointing fashion: punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs.
Outside of two long completions – 46-yard pass to wide receiver Alvin Cornelius and an 81-yard touchdown to Amba Etta-Tawo – Mahoney finished the day 11-of-22 passing for 63 yards and one interception. Not including those two big plays, Syracuse’s offense as a whole totaled just 91 yards.
On defense, Syracuse repeatedly struggled to get off the field, as NC State converted 10-of-18 third downs. While Babers isn’t one to harp on time of possession, the Wolfpack held the ball an eye-opening 41:18, compared to just 18:42 for the Orange.
Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin, who finished with a team-high 11 tackles, said it was frustrating for the defense to struggle on third down.
“We were playing really great defense on first and second down,” Franklin said. “Getting (tackle-for-losses) and stopping the run...It was really disappointing, as a defense, when you’re playing really great defense on first and second down and just can’t get off the field on third down. I think their play-calling and execution was just better than ours today.”
Syracuse’s loss was also marred by several questionable calls by the officials. The most controversial call came midway through the fourth quarter with the Orange trailing 28-20.
On first down at NC State’s 34 yard line, Mahoney delivered a pin-point pass to Cornelius in the corner of the end zone. However, the officials called a chop block penalty on Strickland, negating the touchdown and pushing Syracuse back 15 yards.
“I saw the guy come, I did what I was supposed to do,” Strickland said. “The ref probably saw it differently...I did what I was supposed to do, that’s all I have to say about it.”
The controversy didn’t stop there, however, as the officials failed to change the down marker back to first down, instead leaving it at second. As a result, Syracuse ended up being penalized 15 yards and losing a down as a result of the chop block penalty. Mahoney was then sacked for a loss of 13 yards, which was technically first down, and threw an incomplete pass on the next play. The Orange then should have been faced with 3rd-and-38, but, since the down marker read fourth down, Syracuse was forced to punt.
Babers, who stepped onto the field asking for an explanation, said he wasn’t given a reason for the loss of down.
“They did not (give an explanation). I’m not clear on all of that stuff that went through right there,” Babers said. “I was just politely asked to leave the field, so I obliged.”