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With tackles for loss and Mikel Jones’ interception, Syracuse’s defense recorded more yards (41) on Saturday than Tommy DeVito did through the air.
SU’s punt returners outgained DeVito’s arm by 20, and so did their penalty yards.
DeVito’s 32 passing yards on 22 dropbacks, a career-low for a game with at least 10 pass attempts, represent a low-point for the redshirt junior. One second-quarter flick of the wrist from DeVito’s understudy, Rex Culpepper, more than doubled his yards total, fueling curiosity as to whom Syracuse’s best option is.
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers knows this. After the Orange’s 21-10 loss to No. 25 Pittsburgh, Babers didn’t commit to either QB going forward. Up and down the field, not just at quarterback, Babers has decisions to make for a team that’s scored one touchdown in two games and looked uncompetitive down the stretch of both.
“We’re going to go back and we’re going to look at the film, and if it’s time to make a change, it’s time to make changes,” Babers said postgame.
On SU’s first drive, DeVito looked like he had turned a corner. On a third-and-nine, he found Anthony Queeley on the left sideline on a comeback route at the sticks for a first down. Then, on the next third down, DeVito caught a defender in the neutral zone with a hard count, and he used the free play to take a shot down the sideline to Taj Harris on a vertical route. Though it fell incomplete, the launch was a sign DeVito was going to play aggressively.
A few plays later facing a third-and-three, DeVito rolled out to his left and looked for Queeley, again working the left sideline. The junior QB set his feet and roped a back shoulder toss nicely, but Queeley mishandled it.
Later in the game, when Syracuse inherited the ball on Pitt’s 14-yard line after a botched swing pass turned backwards lateral, DeVito found Courtney Jackson on a button hook for seven. But the next play — a designed quarterback keeper — went nowhere. For third down, Syracuse brought in Culpepper to run his own power run up the middle, which was also stuffed. Syracuse still hasn’t scored a touchdown in the redzone this year.
“We’ve got some packages for (Culpepper),” Babers said. “He could do some things, and we think there are some things he can do to help us get first downs.”
Culpepper later returned when DeVito took his fourth of seven total sacks. Two plays after DeVito exited, as trainers tended to him on the sidelines, Culpepper found a streaking Harris for a 69-yard score, marking SU’s first touchdown of 2020.
On the play, the fifth-year caught the snap in the shotgun, twirled it once, then quickly lofted a ball that Harris hauled in in stride. Culpepper skipped and pumped his fist all the way down the field in celebration.
SU stuck with Culpepper for the next series but went back to DeVito after SU went three-and-out. Neither quarterback impressed from there, though.
DeVito threw a bad interception on a screen play and continued to hold the ball too long in the pocket. Culpepper didn’t take one sack, though he played fewer snaps. The interception was DeVito’s first in his last 211 attempts, snapping the second-longest pick-less streak in the FBS.
In the fourth quarter, with Culpepper under center, Syracuse failed to move the ball while trailing 21-10. Culpepper sailed several throws high or too far out of bounds on out-routes.
If the starting quarterback job is indeed open, neither candidate has much to put on their resume from the second half.
“We’re going to evaluate the team based off of situations and what’s going on,” Babers said. “Culpepper has his package, Tommy understands he has a package. It’s not just those two guys. I know the media likes to go straight to the quarterback and there’s a lot going on out there and we need to look at the tape.”
DeVito’s final numbers — 9/15 for 32 yards and an interception — pale in comparison to Culpepper’s 88 yards and score. But of course, 69 of his yards came on one play, and DeVito had a few positive moments rushing the ball.
Babers said speculation over a quarterback controversy doesn’t help anyone. But after the Pittsburgh loss, it seems natural. Syracuse is 0-2 and reeling. Answers to fix an offense that’s scored 16 points in two games and averages less than three yards per play might not exist, but they certainly extend beyond just QB play.
“Obviously we’ve got to make some changes and we’ve got to start getting the ball moving in the right direction,” Babers said.
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