The last thing most fans will remember from Saturday’s game is that the Syracuse Orange only trailed 17-7 to the Wake Forest Demon Deacons heading into halftime.
It’s amazing how much two plays can immediately change a close game into a foregone conclusion.
An 80-yard touchdown pass by Sam Hartman to Jaquarii Roberson followed by a pick-six thrown by Rex Culpepper to Gavin Holmes is all that Wake Forest needed to secure a 38-14 win at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse has now lost four straight games.
“When you don’t execute and the momentum shifts in the other team’s favor, it’s hard to come back from that,” said Nykeim Johnson. “Against Clemson, we made a lot less mistakes and we made a lot of mistakes early on in this game.”
After a shaky start to the game, Syracuse settled in well and stayed close throughout the first half. The defense initially struggled, allowing the first two Wake Forest drives to end in scores, but Tony White’s men buckled down and forced punts on the following three drives. The run defense clamped down in the second quarter which helped the Orange limit the Demon Deacons’ offense.
The Syracuse offense returned to its struggling ways against Wake Forest, but the run game wasn’t to blame. Cooper Lutz filled in for an injured Sean Tucker and did enough to start some tempo for the Orange. Lutz had 50 yards on eight carries in the first half.
“I had a conversation with [Lutz] on the field and I said, ‘Coop, I’m really proud of the work you’ve been doing,’” said Dino Babers. “You could see he was getting it. He was making us go, ‘We should have never moved him in the first place [to wide receiver].’”
Unfortunately for Syracuse, Culpepper couldn’t string enough drives together through the air. The Orange only went 1-5 on third down conversions in the first half and ran 19 less plays than the Demon Deacons. The lone Syracuse score came off a nice play by Nykeim Johnson who found space on the right side of the field to score off a good throw by Culpepper.
Culpepper’s touchdown to Johnson would be the last of the positives that Syracuse fans would see from the redshirt senior as he would fumble to end the half and throw both of his interceptions in the second half. Culpepper’s day ended after going 15-for-27 through the air for only 85 yards.
The big momentum swing was to start the second half after Syracuse went three-and-out. Wake Forest was backed up at their 20 facing a third-and-five when Hartman rolled out of the pocket and found Roberson wide open in blown coverage for an easy touchdown. The ensuing Syracuse drive quickly ended as the first play was easily read by Holmes as he waltzed into the endzone.
The Demon Deacons put the game out of reach after a long, 10 play, 71 yard drive ended in a Kenneth Walker III rushing touchdown, which was his third of the day. Multiple Syracuse penalties prevent the Orange defense from ending that drive early, which could’ve given some momentum to the SU offense. Culpepper couldn’t return the favor as the rest of his drives ended in punts and an interception.
“The penalties were big,” said Babers. “You’re not gonna beat good football teams if you give them stuff like that.”
Wake Forest did enough at the beginning of both halves to put the game out of reach. The offensive numbers don’t jump off the stat page for the Demon Deacons, but the lack of stats for the Orange stands out. Syracuse ran 26 less plays and gained 217 less yards of total offense than the Demon Deacons. Wake Forest also converted 11 third or fourth down opportunities while Syracuse only converted four.
There are still noticeable holes in the defense, notably in the run defense and in zone coverage. Tackling was a problem as Walker and Christian Beal-Smith seemed to easily bully their way through the initial contact for extra yards. Zone coverage remains a problem as well since Hartman found limited success against receivers covered by Ifeatu Melifonwu and Garrett Williams. He found receivers covered by linebackers who were dropping back into coverage, which presented another issue for the Orange.
Syracuse needed to bring the help of its linebackers often in the pass rush as it was clear that the defensive line of the Orange couldn’t break through the offensive line of the Demon Deacons. While bringing the linebackers on blitzes in the pass rush proved to be effective, the Orange defensive line struggled without help to trouble Hartman.
Perhaps the lone bright spot for fans was the final Syracuse drive of the game, led by JaCobian Morgan. With the initial help of 25 rushing yards on two carries by Lutz, Morgan strung together seven completed passes, including a deep 31-yard completion to Ed Hendrix, that culminated in a touchdown to Luke Benson. While many Syracuse fans would clamor over that drive from the true freshman, Babers was quick to push the brakes on his performance.
“I’m glad he didn’t fumble the snap,” said Babers. “I wouldn’t put too much stock on that. I’m pretty sure he didn’t get blitzed. That’s like throwing seven-on-seven. That’s not like a real football game. But if someone was gonna play that defense and play that style, you would expect him to go in and complete a lot of balls and he did.”
While fans will continue to debate if Morgan should start over Culpepper, there are other issues that need to be addressed. It remains to be seen if Tucker can go next week or if Cooper Lutz will be needed to provide another strong performance. The defense still needs to shore up its run defense and tackling issues and the coverage apart from Melifonwu and Williams needs to improve. Finally, the defensive line needs to find a way to create pressure by itself without the need for linebacker help.
After the relative highs of the Clemson game, Syracuse came back down to earth by struggling to generate much momentum against Wake Forest. Unfortunately for Orange fans, that means another losing season is confirmed in Central New York.