In 2013, Scott Shafer’s Syracuse Orange football team finished the regular season 6-6 en route to a Texas Bowl victory over Minnesota in December. Since then, the Orange had not even surpassed the four-win threshold, let alone making another bowl game.
But on Saturday night, Syracuse finally earned a bowl berth in a 51-41 barn burner win over the No. 22 N.C. State Wolfpack.
Eric Dungey led the offense for the start of the game and dominated right out of the gate. The offense settled for a field goal on SU’s first drive downfield and then fell behind 7-3 after NC State quarterback Ryan Finley found Emeka Emezie streaking downfield on a deep ball for a 67-yard touchdown pass.
But Dungey wasn’t prepared to let Finley run the show on the Dome turf. Dungey responded a two-play drive of his own that was capped off with an 82-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Nykeim Johnson to get the Orange back in front 10-7.
The Orange ended the first quarter up 24-7, but suffered through a sluggish second half in which Dungey only threw for 27 yards while picking up fewer than 20 on the ground as well. All the while, the Wolfpack cut the lead to as close as four points. This decision led SU head coach Dino Babers to replace Dungey with redshirt freshman Tommy DeVito for a drive.
A week after leading the team to victory against North Carolina, DeVito and Dungey had been locked in a competition. Between the past week in practice and that one drive on the bench, Babers could tell that Dungey had a fire in his belly when his job was in jeopardy.
“He’s like Seabiscuit,” Babers said in reference to the championship racehorse that became the subject of a 2003 film. “You don’t have to whip him, you just have to show him the whip.”
Dungey confessed that last week’s benching brought a startling fact to light.
“I don’t want to say I was getting complacent, but I was getting comfortable,” Dungey admitted. “You can never be comfortable.”
Dungey re-entered for the final drive of the first half, leading SU into field goal range for Andre Szmyt to boot a 45-yard field goal and send Syracuse into the locker room up 27-20.
The offenses got even hotter in the second-half. Up until a Syracuse punt with just over three minutes left in the game, every single second half drive by each team resulted in a touchdown or field goal.
Finley led NC State while throwing for 473 yards and 3 touchdowns. But on the other side, Dungey was practically impossible to stop, completing more than 70 percent of his passes while throwing for 411 yards and 3 touchdowns. He routinely utilized deep throws downfield that had been absent from his regular repertoire in past games.
Wide receiver Sean Riley, who finished the night with 10 catches for 164 yards, said big shots were always going to be part of the game plan.
“We knew we were going to take a lot of shots downfield this game,” Riley said. “Eric (Dungey) did a great job finding us.”
After a 12-yard touchdown pass from Finley to Kelvin Harmon cut Syracuse’s lead down to three and the Orange were forced to punt, the Wolfpack had the first chance in a long time to retake the lead.
But on an NC State third down, Syracuse linebacker Andrew Armstrong snagged a Finley pass out of the air and set SU up just outside the red zone with 2:18 to play. Just over a minute later, running back Dontae Strickland punched it in from five yards out to give Syracuse the ten point cushion that stood when the clock struck zero.
Syracuse has now achieved bowl eligibility with the win moving their 2018 record up to 6-2. But the Orange still have four games left, including Wake Forest on the road next, and Babers says the team’s goals extend beyond just sneaking into a postseason game
“We still have goals that need to be met,” Babers said. “We are not satisfied and we will not settle.”