It was 3rd and goal on the seven-yard line. The Syracuse Orange trailed the NC State Wolfpack by seven after initially taking the lead. Even with no timeouts remaining, Syracuse had the chance to send the game into overtime.
Then Rex Culpepper took an 11-yard sack. ACC Network analyst Roddy Jones immediately said, “Can’t spike it. You’ve gotta go.”
Culpepper spiked the ball.
In some respects, it was a perfect way to encapsulate not just the game, but the season, for the Orange as initial promise turned into utter disappointment. Syracuse’s defense and special teams did all it could to keep the Orange in the game. But offensive woes continued to plague Syracuse as the comeback attempt fell short with NC State winning 36-29.
“The third down call, you have to throw it away and then you play the fourth down snap” said Dino Babers. “Nobody wants to spike it on fourth down. There’s people making mistakes but one mistake didn’t win or lose the game. There were other mistakes made during that game.”
Syracuse spikes the ball on 4th down, needing a TD to tie the game. pic.twitter.com/XJH8gTMl1O— Funhouse (@BackAftaThis) November 28, 2020
The final drive was a microcosm for how Syracuse’s offense operated throughout the entire day. The primary target was Taj Harris, who caught a career-high 13 balls for 146 yards and a touchdown on the day. He caught three balls for 31 yards on the final drive, including two third-down conversions. The veteran wide receiver did most of his work after the catch, fighting for extra yards after a short throw from Culpepper.
“He’s hungry,” said Mikel Jones. “Anytime he got the ball, he didn’t just go down. He tried to make a play and get a first down every time. That’s the Taj I know.”
Meanwhile, Culpepper’s accuracy was all over the place on the day, with the majority of his passes missing his intended target by some margin. While he finished the day with 254 passing yards and two touchdowns, his accuracy and decision-making left a lot to be desired. To his credit, Culpepper did go 6-of-8 before Syracuse got into the red zone on the final drive, but there were multiple times where he held onto the ball for far too long and made questionable decisions while scrambling.
What wasn’t available for Syracuse on it’s final drive was the run game, which was held in check throughout the game. After Sean Tucker went down with an injury earlier in the fourth quarter, Cooper Lutz came in and only rushed once for two yards on the last drive. The run game was nonexistent for Syracuse, with Tucker and Lutz combining for 20 rushing yards on 17 attempts.
“Those guys (NC State) played on a heavy-run front the entire game,” said Babers. “They did not want our tailbacks to have any success. They were forcing us to beat them with the throw.”
The offensive inconsistency and decision-making from the players and coaches finally caught up with Syracuse on the final drive. The coaches failed to call adequate plays for most of the game to set up the offensive to extend drives. Once Syracuse got into the red zone, Culpepper’s decision-making outside of the pocket bled time from the clock and took yards away from the Orange. It all added up to a disappointing finish to the game.
The ending doesn’t reflect how the rest of the team played as Syracuse’s defense and special teams did what they could to keep NC State off the scoreboard. The Orange scoring started with a Trebor Pena kick return touchdown: the first for Syracuse since 2011. Andre Szmyt hit on both field goals he was required to kick and Nolan Cooney did a great job as usual at flipping the field with his punting.
The defense also continued its performance from last week when it came to turnovers. Syracuse forced two NC State turnovers: an interception by Mikel Jones and a forced fumble out of the endzone by Geoff Cantin-Arku. And also a safety created by Marlowe Wax. The pressure Syracuse generated forced Bailey Hockman out of the pocket and made certain situations for the Wolfpack uncomfortable.
The biggest knock on the defense was on third downs, as NC State was 8-for-13 on third down conversions. Most of the third downs forced by Syracuse were from a considerable distance as well, but the weak Orange zone coverage extended enough drives for the Wolfpack. Combine that with multiple three-and-outs from Syracuse in the middle of the game and the defense started to tire late in the game once again.
“When you look at the third-down situations, you see pressure,” said Babers. “You see guys almost getting to the quarterback with the defensive line rush. You’re seeing young, freshmen DBs almost make the play. We’re a pressure defense. We’re trying to tune it up. And if we had some other cats back there, the coverage would be a lot tighter and the success would be a lot more. But those guys aren’t back there. They’re gone.”
Syracuse did switch to man-to-man coverage as the game progressed and found some more success. What didn’t help the Orange cause were the spectacular receptions that NC State’s wide receivers pulled off against great coverage. Thayer Thomas in particular had an excellent game with many highlight reel catches. He finished with nine receptions for 102 yards and three touchdowns.
What makes this game disappointing for Syracuse is not just the fact that the Orange had a chance to send its seniors out with a win. The more disappointing fact from a fan’s standpoint is that the offense continued to be problematic with multiple facets of the unit not working as intended. Most are and will continue to be disappointed that the offense can’t capitalize on the havoc and headaches that the defense is causing.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that those offensive issues will be fixed for the final game of the season, and with that Syracuse is facing a one-win season for the first time since 2005.