As mentioned on Friday night shortly after the Syracuse Orange’s 34-18 win over the West Virginia Mountaineers, the game was about the magical 2018 season and the players that got us there.
However, it’s also impossible to miss how that win came about. Beyond graduating seniors like Eric Dungey and Jamal Custis, there were a ton of younger players in the mix on both sides of the ball all game. Several had some of the night’s biggest box scores of all, and they might have given us a few glimpses of what’s to come in 2019.
The obvious names to point to right off the bat are the two former blue-chip transfers, Trishston Jackson (Michigan State) and Abdul Adams (Oklahoma). After sitting out this season, they were eligible to play in the Camping World Bowl without it impacting eligibility, and both played integral roles in the Orange win.
Abdul Adam's 2nd TD of the first half pic.twitter.com/RMaByD6oEi— Syracuse Football (@CuseFootball) December 29, 2018
Adams may have finished fourth on the team in rushing with 19 yards, but the way he got them was the most important note. With offense sputtering for much of the first half, the bruising tailback punched in two touchdowns for Syracuse’s only points through 30 minutes. Considering how much this program has struggled in the red zone for what feels like a decade now, having a potentially reliable rushing option near the goal line is a gamechanger.
Jackson didn’t have the first half fireworks, but was an enormous part of breaking the stalemate in the later stages of the game. He wound up with three catches for 27 yards, including the go-ahead touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Moe Neal is a name you’re well familiar with, as he was the Orange’s leading rusher in 2018 and has been one of the offense’s primary contributors for the past three seasons now. Still, his table-setting 42-yard grab late is further evidence of what he can do as a pass-catcher. As a senior next year, he’ll likely split carries with Adams. Jarveon Howard is another potential power option for SU. And while he was fairly quiet in this game, he did punch in the dagger TD late last night.
Aaron Hackett’s 26-yard reception down the seam looked like a small preview of what we can expect going forward from the young tight end. The Orange didn’t use tight ends in the passing game as much as we’d thought this year. However, Hackett’s a big target who’s already shown up in the clutch a couple times. He finished the game with three grabs for 42 yards and will be the team’s starter at the position in 2019.
Of course, no one’s forgetting names like Taj Harris (four receptions for 55 yards), Nykeim Johnson or Sharod Johnson, either. Harris, in particular, had an impressive freshman campaign this year and will be in line for a good portion of passing targets next year when things likely extend more vertically once again given DeVito’s arm strength.
The defense was a concern coming into the West Virginia game with McKinley Williams, Alton Robinson, Antwan Cordy and Trill Williams all out. And yet, even with a few big plays given up here and there, the young Orange D actually looked alright, too.
Andre Cisco continued his All-American level of play, leading the team with nine tackles. And young linebacker Tyrell Richards played exceptionally at linebacker, recording a sack and six stops. Reserves like Kingsley Jonathan and Kenneth Ruff showed themselves more than capable of stepping up to replace the “bigger” names typically ahead of them on the depth chart. And those guys (McKinley Williams, Robinson) may still be back next year too.
Allen Stritzinger also shouldn’t be overlooked here, given the path he’s taken from injured high school running back to special-teamer to primetime defensive performer. With the Orange up six in the fourth quarter, his tipped-ball interception (surely assisted by his great hands from being an offensive player) set Syracuse up to take a nine-point lead and change whatever was left of West Virgnia’s game plan.
We don’t know how involved Stritzinger will be in the secondary going forward. But he certainly showed himself capable here and a name to watch as next year’s depth chart begins to shake out in spring.
Bowl games are exhibition games in many ways, but rarely to show your fans what’s up ahead in terms of talent on the roster right now. Dino Babers and Co. got to put a clear exclamation point on the 2018 season on Friday night, yet also embraced the chance to showcase what’s on deck for next year, too.
What we saw tonight was no rubber stamp on 2019 being even better. But it was a great sign that the Orange are turning a real corner as a program when you look up and down the depth chart. A few years ago, absences like today’s would’ve debilitated Syracuse. Today, they took advantage of what WVU gave them, and veterans and newcomers alike made the plays required to win.
The future is bright for SU football. And we’re already seeing an outline of just how much so.