We said we’d accept anything other than a three-point loss for the Syracuse Orange football team, and somehow — someway — we got it against the Virginia Tech Hokies. Courtesy of some late-game heroics from Garrett Shrader (and Damien Alford), SU pulled off a 41-36 victory at Lane Stadium.
Despite what looked like a decrepit offense coming in, Virginia Tech was strong on the ground from the start. They dashed out to a 7-0 lead on the first drive of the game, and we were off to the races from there. Sean Tucker punched it in from 28 yards out (on a fourth and short, no less) on the very next drive to tie things up for the Orange.
Tech would take a 14-7 lead to start the second quarter, and then things got weird. Garrett Shrader led a what would’ve been the game-tying drive with about two minutes to go in the half, but the Hokies returned a blocked extra point to take a 16-13 lead. Virginia Tech tacked on a field goal to make it 19-13 with a little over a minute to go, but Syracuse was able to sprint down the field and get to the goal line... only to burn two timeouts and then miss a short field goal as time expired. As you know, this was pretty infuriating and would factor into the rest of the game.
Syracuse switched over to the Shrader-focused offense in the third quarter, and it did pay some dividends early on. The quarterback ran in a touchdown from 21 yards out (his second of the game) to take a 20-19 lead, but the Hokies were ahead again just five minutes later, at 26-20. Another Shrader-specific drive ended with the Orange grabbing the lead once more at 27-26 early in the fourth. But Virginia Tech hit a field goal just a few minutes later to go up again, 29-27.
Syracuse’s offense stalled before Tech added another TD to make it 36-27. Shrader led yet another late-half scoring drive, capped by a 12-yard touchdown throw to Courtney Jackson, to make it 36-34.
After the defense held Tech in check, Shrader led a stunning drive that ended with an incredible 45-yard touchdown throw to Damien Alford to take the 41-36 lead with 19 seconds remaining. SU would hold off the Hokies from there.
This looked like another big Tucker game early on, and the scouting report in advance would’ve suggested as much given Tech’s struggles stopping opposing rushing attacks. But despite some big breaks, Syracuse drifted away from traditional handoffs as the game wore on. Still, Tucker wound up with 112 yards and a score on 20 carries, plus the aforementioned score.
Shrader, as you figured by now, was the bulk of the offense for Syracuse. He was 16-of-34 passing for 236 yards and the two aforementioned scores. The QB also had 174 yards and three touchdowns on the ground on 22 carries. Jackson caught seven passes for 86 yards and a TD. Devaughn Cooper hauled in four balls for 36 yards and Tucker had two catches for 14 yards. Alford (the TD), Sharod Johnson and Anthony Queeley each caught one ball as well.
Defensively, things looked rough early before Syracuse sort of figured things out for a quarter-and-a-half. Later on, they gave up points, but the special teams also continually gave Tech great field position, putting the Orange in a tough spot.
Mikel Jones and Stefon Thompson led the team with nine tackles apiece. Thompson, Rob Hanna and Marlowe Wax each had a sack, while Geoff Cantin-Arku and Josh Black also tallied TFLs. Still, the surprising thing is just how poor they looked against the run, despite that being a strong point all season. Tech averaged well over five yards per carry and really did whatever they wanted on the ground all day.
Honestly, this game could’ve been decided by special teams and inexplicable coaching decisions — one of which may be the decision not to replace Justin Lustig with another full-time special teams coach. The fact that it wasn’t was a complete miracle. But we’ll talk about that more another day.
More recap to come. Syracuse is 4-4 on the year and 1-3 in the ACC, with a bowl game still very much within reach.