As Syracuse kicker Cole Murphy’s kick sailed through the uprights, the 32,000 fans in attendance erupted in cheers. The Orange were coming off an embarrassing loss to Louisville, lost two of their starting defensive backs to season-ending injuries and entered Saturday’s game as a 14.5-point underdog.
But as the seconds ticked away to close out the first quarter, none of that seemed to matter. Despite most “experts” predicting another double-digit loss, Syracuse had somehow jumped out to an early 17-0 lead, leaving fans to wonder if last week’s debacle was just a mirage and if this was the real Orange team fans would be seeing for the rest of the season.
Then the second quarter happened.
And the third.
And the fourth.
Syracuse may have won the first quarter, scoring the game’s first 17 points, but the Orange were then overmatched by a superior USF team and outscored 45-3 the rest of the way.
“I thought the first part of the game we were doing the things we wanted to do offensively, defensively and kicking game,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said after the game. “I thought we started well. Once we were in the second quarter, third quarter, second half, we just weren’t able to finish.”
Ironically, it appeared at one point it would be USF who wouldn’t be able to quite finish. After the Bulls had stormed back to take a 28-17 lead at the break, their high-scoring offense went dormant to start the third quarter, going three-and-out on their first two possessions to start the second half.
Syracuse then drove from their own 11-yard line 52 yards for another Murphy field goal, cutting USF’s lead 28-20 and making it a one-score game.
Syracuse’s newfound sense of hope, however, was short-lived.
After driving close to midfield, USF was stopped by Syracuse on three consecutive plays and faced a fourth-and-one on their own 48-yard line. Then, disaster struck.
As Flowers received the snap, Syracuse defenders were still trying to frantically get into position. Flowers turned and handed the ball off to running back Marlon Mack, who raced around the left side of his offensive line and down the sideline untouched for a 52-yard touchdown, putting USF up 35-20 and draining the life out of the Carrier Dome in the process.
After the game, Syracuse linebacker Zaire Franklin admitted the defense had multiple “mental breakdowns” throughout the contest, including one on Mack’s 52-yard touchdown.
“Just a miscommunication by the defense,” Franklin said. “I take responsibility for that because it’s really my job to make sure everybody is on the same page...When you are playing dynamic players, they are going to make you pay.”
USF would score two more times in the fourth quarter: an 83-yard punt return by D’Ernest Johnson and a 42-yard field goal from Emilio Nadelman.
While the 45 points is concerning for a defense that gave up 62 the week before, what may even be more troublesome was the ineptitude by the offense. Even with a resurrected running game – starting running back Dontae Strickland finished with 127 yards – the Orange managed to score just three points in the game’s final three quarters.
The offense’s biggest culprit? Quarterback Eric Dungey. Although his stats sheet may say otherwise – 32 of 48 for 350 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions – Dungey was erratic and inconsistent for most of the afternoon.
The sophomore quarterback overthrew receivers, made poor decisions and was bailed out multiple times by the Bulls’ defense. In addition to his two interceptions, Dungey had a third one wiped away thanks to a roughing the passer penalty, at least three others dropped by USF defenders.
Despite Dungey’s poor performance, Babers said he still believes the sophomore quarterback is developing.
“I think Eric is progressing nicely,” Babers said. “He’s not totally there yet, but every week we find something to correct...I wouldn’t say he had a great day, I wouldn’t say he had a bad day. Just he’s had his third game in this system and I can’t wait until he gets to more games so he can get better.”