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When Nykeim Johnson fumbled the kickoff in the second quarter, Syracuse had only allowed six points. The Orange defense, depleted by the opt outs of Andre Cisco and Trill Williams, had held the Cardinals to a field goal on a drive they started on the Orange’s 49-yard-line. But they were suddenly shoved back onto the field.
“We have to be ready to go at all times,” cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu said. “The defense has to always be ready to go back on the field.”
Six plays later, the Cardinals extended their lead to 13 and scored a touchdown against the Orange defense. That unit was on the field for 18 more plays than Louisville before the turnover, but it had only allowed two field goals. Syracuse’s defense forced three turnovers and limited Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham to 7.8 yards per attempt and just 21 rushing yards.
Yet, the offense’s inability to convert third downs and score points forced Melifonwu and the defense off the sidelines. The Orange had the ball for 18 minutes of game clock — the defense was on the field for over 66% of the game. The inexperienced Orange defense ran out of gas and eventually allowed over 400 yards.
“You can’t realize how difficult it is to go out there and play twice as many plays as the other defense does,” head coach Dino Babers said. “Eventually, you’re going to break down.”
Babers has routinely lauded the defense’s effort. Shorthanded by opt outs and injuries to three starters at defensive back, the Orange held Boston College to just 16 points, one week after the Eagles scored 28 in the first half against then No. 1 Clemson.
The first 25 minutes painted a similar portrait of a low scoring game in which Syracuse’s offensive deficiency would be its shortcoming. But it was mental errors — two kickoff return fumbles and an interception that fell through Taj Harris’ hands in the second quarter — that led to 10 Louisville points.
Syracuse had one drive in the first half that lasted longer than six plays. No SU drives took more than three minutes of game clock.
“We’re just young. I can keep saying it, but it’s not going to change,” Babers said.
The defense was exhausted by the start of the second half, Babers said. Melifonwu, who hadn’t allowed a touchdown entering this week, was caught with his eyes away from the ball on a back shoulder throw. Freshman Aman Greenwood was beaten by Louisville wide receiver Tutu Atwell for a touchdown, and the Cardinals converted nine first downs in the third quarter.
The Orange tallied 71 yards on the ground in the 15 minutes after halftime as defensive linemen Josh Black and Kingsley Jonathan, along with the linebackers, struggled to plug holes. A three-pronged rushing attack helped Louisville hold onto the ball for 12 minutes in the third quarter, removing any notion of a Syracuse comeback.
“It’s not a good feeling when you lose,” Melifonwu said. “It doesn’t demoralize us in a sense. Everyone gets ready to go for the next game.”
This is the third straight game where Syracuse’s defense has been on the field for 10 minutes more than its offense. In all three, the unit has kept the score close early in the game before tiring out and relenting after walking onto the field for drive-after-drive.
Against Boston College, it was a four minute, game-sealing drive in the fourth quarter. Against Wake Forest, it was chunk plays created by running backs Kenneth Walker and Christian Beal-Smith. And today, it was a combination of Cunningham through the air and the three running backs on the ground.
Babers knows that’s a recipe for losing, and it won’t be solved until the offense rediscovers how to move the ball.
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