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Just minutes before Syracuse was set to begin its home opener with Georgia Tech on Saturday, many of the players warming up left the field. Syracuse Athletics and the Atlantic Coast Conference announced the game would be delayed up to 30 minutes as SU awaited the COVID-19 test results from three players.
At 12:27 p.m., the game kicked off, and by 4:08 p.m., the Orange had their first win of the season, their first win in the renovated Carrier Dome and a functioning offense. Syracuse (1-2, 1-2 Atlantic Coast) raced out to a 17-0 lead and held on for a 37-20 win against Georgia Tech (1-2, 1-1).
Here are three takeaways from SU’s first win of the season:
Without Andre Cisco, SU’s secondary still shuts down GT
During pregame warmups, All-American safety Andre Cisco collided with wide receiver Ed Hendrix. Cisco appeared to limp off the field with a leg injury. When the Orange came running out of the tunnel to start the game, Cisco was not in pads and did not play in Saturday’s game.
Despite the loss for Syracuse’s defense, the Orange secondary coped, intercepting GT quarterback Jeff Sims on four separate occasions, three by defensive backs. In the first quarter, interior pressure on Sims led to a tipped pass that fell into the arms of defensive tackle Josh Black.
On the next drive, as the Yellow Jackets were rolling into Orange territory, defensive coordinator Tony White dialed up a Mikel Jones blitz off the edge. Sims released the ball as Jones hit him, and Trill Williams intercepted it and returned it to the Yellow Jackets’ side of the field. SU turned its positive field position into a field goal and a 10-0 lead.
The Orange did blow one coverage near the end of the third quarter, when cornerback Cam Jonas was caught on a double move by Yellow Jackets’ receiver Ahmarean Brown. Brown couldn’t keep his feet in bounds to walk into the endzone, but he did make a 40-yard catch and set up GT for a touchdown on the next play.
Defensive back Ja’Had Carter iced the game for the Orange in the fourth quarter when he stepped in front of a Sims pass for the fourth interception at his own 32 yard line. As he was about to be tackled at the Yellow Jackets’ 40, he pitched the ball to Williams, who ran it all the way back for a touchdown.
While the front six had issues tackling against the run, SU’s secondary prevented large plays and was beaten over the top only once, both critical in preserving the lead SU held for the entire game. They held Sims to 174 yards, passing on 28 attempts before Sims was pulled with 8:00 left in the game following his fourth turnover.
Sean Tucker emerges as RB1
Head coach Dino Babers has noticed holes open up in the running game that the Orange’s running backs haven’t found through the first two games. Jawhar Jordan and Markenzy Pierre split time as SU’s lead backs in the opening weeks, but after true freshman Sean Tucker’s 38-yard touchdown dash in the first quarter, the offense featured plenty of Tucker and not much of Pierre or Jordan.
The offensive line opened up a hole straight up the middle, but Tucker had to be decisive as three Yellow Jackets’ defenders rushed off either end and were in the backfield. Tucker hit the hole hard, got to the second level and rolled on top of a defender, springing out of the tackle without his knee touching and entering the end zone for SU’s first rushing touchdown and longest run of the season.
Near the end of the first quarter, Tucker notched his second touchdown of the game after bouncing a run up the middle off the right tackle.
Tucker’s improved vision and ability to find holes may have earned him the starting job going forward. He had 19 carries by the game’s end, compared to just three combined for Jordan and Pierre. Facing the worst run defense in the ACC by defensive line yards, the Orange’s ability to establish runs on early downs kept them out of 3rd-and-longs that had stymied them in the opening two weeks.
Tucker finished with 24 carries for 117 yards in the Orange’s win, which is more runs than the Orange’s offense had in the first two games combined.
Given some protection, Tommy DeVito’s deep ball unlocks Syracuse offense
Tommy DeVito followed up his career-worst performance with the Orange — where he threw for 32 yards against Pittsburgh — with two long touchdown passes that helped the Orange hold at least a one-score lead for the entirety of the second half.
When GT scored its first touchdown of the game to pull within 11, a long Nykeim Johnson return put Babers in perfect position to take a deep shot. Taj Harris beat the press man at the line of scrimmage and caught the GT defensive back peeking into the backfield. He broke up field, and DeVito’s ball placement was spot-on as the two connected for the touchdown to put the Orange back up 17. That throw amassed more yards for DeVito than he’d had all of the week prior.
Near the end of the third quarter, as the Yellow Jackets pulled within three, DeVito’s long throw to Johnson put the Orange back up 10. All five of the Orange’s offensive lineman built a strong pocket for DeVito to step into, and he didn’t miss the throw.
DeVito was intercepted in the first quarter on an under-thrown deep ball, but his willingness to unleash the ball vertically is a sign that he both has more time to throw and understands that, for the Orange to be successful, he has to be willing to make difficult throws into tight windows instead of holding the ball.
DeVito finished with only 194 passing yards, but at 8.1 yards per attempt, that was more than enough given the success of Syracuse’s rushing attack and defense.
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