Bowl games are often used as a measuring stick to determine a program’s success. But whether that’s an accurate barometer or not will vary from school to school.
In the Syracuse Orange’s case, the football program hadn’t played in the postseason since 2013; a win over Minnesota in the Texas Bowl. This year, the Orange (10-3) snapped their five-year bowl drought and clinched their best season since the 2001 campaign in which they finished the regular season 10-3 and ranked No. 14 in the AP Top 25.
Quarterback Will Grier may not have played for Camping World Bowl opponent West Virginia, but that didn’t affect Syracuse’s motivation whatsoever. They understood what a win meant to them as players, and to the program overall. After three quarters, things appeared pretty close. However, a big fourth quarter helped them hang 30 on yet another opponent, beating WVU 34-18.
Here are the key plays from the victory:
1. (8:20 - 1st) 1st & 15 at Syracuse’s 16-yard line: For Syracuse, the first two possessions of the game didn’t turn out exactly as planned. And with West Virginia having prime field position following a punt, the defense was tasked with keeping the Mountaineers out of the end zone. The Mountaineers’ offense led —by Jack Allison — moved the ball into the red zone following two third down conversions, the latter of which was a 20 yard run by Tevin Bush. With West Virginia being penalized for a Delay of Game, Ryan Guthrie found his way into the backfield for a sack of Allison resulting in a six yard loss. The SU defense would hold WVU to a field goal on this drive.
2. (4:30 - 1st) 2nd & 8 at West Virginia’s 47-yard line: Two three-and-outs to start the Camping World Bowl isn’t what Dino Babers had drawn up coming into the game. Midway into the first quarter, the Syracuse offense hadn’t crossed midfield and it was time for it to get out of neutral. The Orange ran six consecutive plays of positive yardage until Jamal Custis was flagged for a false start. To make up for the miscue, Eric Dungey evaded Jeffery Pooler Jr. and found Custis down the field for a 44 yard gain.
3. (3:01 - 1st) 3rd & Goal at West Virginia’s 4-yard line: Coming into the game, news came out that Oklahoma transfer Abdul Adams would be eligible to play in the Orange’s postseason game. It was a pleasant surprise to see the former four-star recruit line up in the backfield with Dungey down on the goal line. On his third attempt from the four, Adams’s extra effort propelled him into the end zone to give him his first touchdown at SU and a lead in the process.
4. (10:20 - 2nd) 4th & 3 at Syracuse’s 40-yard line: Dana Holgorsen rolled the dice early in this one as West Virginia clinged to a two point lead early in the second quarter. With his team at the SU 40, it would have made for a 57-yard field goal attempt which he believed was too long for Evan Staley. With the receivers downfield covered, Allison passed it to T.J. Simmons who was stopped one yard short by Evan Foster who made a perfect read on the ball.
5. (9:45 - 2nd) 1st & 10 at West Virginia’s 38-yard line: The Mountaineers’ lack of discipline would prove costly on this drive. After being flagged for a roughing the passer, Dungey would hook up with Taj Harris for a 19 yard gain. Eric would connect with the freshman once more for an eight yard gain that resulted in Kenny Robinson being ejected for targeting in what would arguably be one of the dirtier hits in 2018. The second misconduct penalty of the possession for West Virginia set up Abdul Adams’ second goal line touchdown of the game which gave SU the lead again. Per SU Athletics, Harris broke Shelby Hill’s school record for receiving yards by a freshman.
6. (11:00 - 3rd) 3rd & 15 at Syracuse’s 30-yard line: Out of the locker room, West Virginia strung together a series of plays to get down to the SU 25. The Syracuse run defense, which hasn’t been the best at times, stuffed the run on two consecutive plays to force a third and long. Dominique Maiden was immediately swarmed by the Orange defense to hold the Mountaineers to a field goal.
7. (8:45 - 3rd) 1st & 10 at Syracuse’s 33-yard line: This isn’t a case of deja vu. If this play looks familiar to you, that’s because Mike Lynch called this particular run pass option against Clemson on fourth down. Unlike the game in Death Valley, Syracuse wouldn’t be penalized for an illegal man down the field. Dungey’s pass to Aaron Hackett set up Syracuse at West Virginia’s 41 yard line. Andre Szymt’s field goal six plays later would help the Orange take back the lead.
8. (1:35 - 3rd) 1st & 10 at Syracuse’s 39-yard line: When in doubt, find Sean Riley. The receiver has been one of Dungey’s go to guys all season long and in his only reception of the contest, Riley made up for the yards lost with Evan Adams’ unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
9. (14:54 - 4th) 3rd & 10 at West Virginia’s 14-yard line: In the red zone, coming away with six is a lot better than three and in a game that was as tight as this one was, Eric Dungey knew better than anyone that the Orange needed a bit of breathing room. The senior quarterback found Michigan State transfer, Trishton Jackson, with a back shoulder throw for the go ahead touchdown and a lead that Syracuse would never relinquish.
10. (14:44 - 4th) 1st & 10 at West Virginia’s 25-yard line: Allen Stritzinger was the latest of unsung players to make a difference this season for the Orange. The former HB turned LB made one of the most important plays of the Camping World Bowl when he picked off Jack Allison on the first play of West Virginia’s ensuing drive after Jackson’s touchdown. Andre Szymt added another field goal to his ledger to give Syracuse some breathing room in the game’s final quarter.
11. (12:10 - 4th) 3rd & 10 at West Virginia’s 25-yard line: Upon the news of Alton Robinson and McKinley Williams missing the bowl game for personal reasons, the Orange defensive front was confident that they had the personnel to wreak havoc in the backfield. By game’s end, they were proven right as Kendall Coleman collected three of SU’s five sacks on the night; the final tally set a single-season record of 43.
12. (10:35 - 4th) 1st & 10 at West Virginia’s 46-yard line: “No, no, no, no......yes!” That phrase is something that many Syracuse fans have uttered at one point during Eric Dungey’s career at SU and Friday night in Orlando was no different. When it looked as if he would be brought down for a 10+ yard loss, Moe Neal got open and the rest is history. The referee himself couldn’t believe what he had saw as he exchanged a few words with Eric as they ran to the West Virginia four yard line for the next play. Jarveon Howard’s touchdown increased the lead to 16 and made a Mountaineer attempt at a comeback that more difficult.
13. (8:35 - 4th) 1st & 10 at West Virginia’s 44-yard line: Will Grier’s shoes aren’t easy to fill as Jack Allison found out. When he wasn’t being harassed by the Orange defense, he couldn’t get in sync with his receivers, specifically David Sills V. Up until this point in the game, Syracuse greatly benefited from their inability to get on the same page as the Mountaineers best weapon on offense after Grier had two catches in total. He’d get his third on a busted coverage when Scoop Bradshaw misjudged the route. Sills almost took it to the house, but Freshman All-American Andre Cisco got one of his nine tackles on the night by knocking the receiver off balance just enough to cause him to fall at the eight yard line.
14. (6:12 - 4th) 4th & Goal at Syracuse’s 6-yard line: Allison’s inexperience proved costly throughout the game and none bigger than what would turn out to be West Virginia’s last hope at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. With Sills lined up against Bradshaw one on one, that’s the matchup Grier would lick his chops at as the star receiver would have been targeted in that situation. However, the Miami transfer never looked Sills’ way and passed it to Trevon Wesco who looked to pass it himself before realizing that there wasn’t a play to be made. The Syracuse defense made the stop and forced the game deciding turnover on downs.
Coming into the 2018 season, the “experts” had the Syracuse Orange slotted dead last in the ACC, with sportsbooks taking prop bets that they wouldn’t win more than four games. Yet, 13 games later, the Orange not only defied those expectations; they shattered the ceiling. Despite the senior class bidding farewell to the university, they leave behind a strong foundation and bright future as exhibited throughout the year. Expectations will certainly be higher than they have been in years past for the program, but with Dino Babers’s renewed commitment there’s no one better to take them to the next level.
With the successes realized in 2018 and the new year just starting, the SU football faithful are already counting down the days until August 31, 2019 when Syracuse heads down to Lynchburg, Va. for their season opener at Liberty. Dino asked us to have faith and belief without evidence. At this point, we both have faith and have seen the evidence.