Syracuse had just scored on their opening three possessions to stun USF and take an early 17-0 lead. After witnessing USF drive 75 yards in just four plays to score their first touchdown, Syracuse coach Dino Babers said he knew the Orange would have to continue to score if they were to preserve their lead and pull off the upset.
That’s why he said a decision that would have seemed ridiculous to many, was so easy for him.
Facing a fourth-and-four on their own 47-yard line, Babers, a known supporter of going for it on fourth down, decided to leave his offense on the field. Syracuse was already 1-1 on fourth down conversions in the game, and previously went a perfect 3-3 in their season-opening win over Colgate.
This time, however, luck was not on Syracuse’s side, as quarterback Eric Dungey’s pass intended for Steve Ishmael was broken up by USF cornerback Ronnie Hoggins. The Bulls then took over on downs already in Syracuse territory and scored their second touchdown of the afternoon five plays later, continuing what would become a 45-3 run.
Despite converting just two of five fourth down attempts, and the ensuing 45-20 blowout loss, Babers said the decision to go for it five times gave Syracuse their best – and possibly their only – chance to win.
As a result of Syracuse’s limited personnel, due to both injuries and overall inferior talent, Babers said USF was simply too great of an opponent for the Orange to have the luxury to punt.
Think about who we have. Think about who is playing. Think about who we’re playing against. You look at what’s going on defensively with injuries, you look at those skilled receivers, you look at the quarterback.
Even though you’re in the first or second quarter, you can kind of predict what’s going to go on down the road. You saw numerous dropped balls by the wide receivers, true? You saw guys that we’re open and the ball is going on the ground, kind of reminds you of Louisville – same thing, Louisville had a lot of drops against us. If they’re making those catches, it’s a different game.
You get the positive with the negative, but as a coach, I have to be able to look at it and make a decision based on what I believed was going to happen. And what I believed was going to happen was we needed those fourth downs to win the game.
If I thought we could have did it another way, I promise you I would have. But I thought we needed those possessions, I thought we needed more points on the scoreboard if we were going to be able to take a football team like that.
While the Orange may have had success going for it on fourth downs against Colgate, they’ve gone a pedestrian 2-6 against Louisville and USF since. Despite Syracuse’s recent lack of success on fourth down conversions, Babers said fans shouldn’t expect anything to change.
“It’s part of our game,” Babers said. “The more and more you watch us, you have to understand there’s certain things that we do. The most important thing is we’re not going to get them all the time, but we believe we do, and that we’re going to get them when we call it. If we don’t think we’re going to get it, then we punt the ball.”
That thinking is a complete 180-degree shift from Babers’ predecessor Scott Shafer. The ex-Syracuse coach went for it on fourth down just 17 times last season, and only four of those times came when they were tied or in the lead.
Babers, on the other hand, has already gone for it on fourth down 10 times this season, and is on pace for 40 – yes, forty – fourth down attempts.
With a difficult schedule remaining, and the number of injuries mounting, it appears likely Babers will need to continue to risk it on fourth down to give his team the best chance to win, because as Babers so eloquently put it after his team’s season-opening over Colgate, “We’re not playing to be close. We’re playing to win.”