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When Syracuse faced Liberty on Sept. 24, its focus was on stopping dual-threat quarterback Malik Willis. The Orange allowed a few big plays that night but ultimately completed their defensive goal, notching six sacks, including the fourth quarter strip sack by Cody Roscoe that set up Andre Szmyt’s game-winning field goal. And after facing another mobile quarterback in Jordan Travis in October, SU felt prepared for its challenge on Saturday — containing Louisville’s Malik Cunningham.
But then Saturday happened. And unlike six weeks ago against Liberty, Syracuse didn’t accomplish its goal. Despite being better known for his running abilities, Cunningham torched the Orange through the air, totaling four touchdowns and 209 passing yards while being sacked just once.
Even while being No. 2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference in total sacks this season, SU never pressured the redshirt junior, and he responded by dropping in perfect throws off play-action plays. Three of Louisville’s five touchdowns came off fakes in the backfield, and the Cardinals cruised to a 41-3 blowout win behind Cunningham’s arm.
“Overall, we didn’t do a good job of executing our game plan,” Roscoe said. “I just feel like it’s time for us to go back to the drawing board.”
Syracuse’s front six struggled from its first snap of the game. Louisville running back Jalen Mitchell took the game’s opening handoff and ran 39 yards after finding a hole on the left side. Just a few plays later, Louisville ran a triple option, and Cunningham kept the ball as he moved to his right. Defensive back Duce Chestnut overcommitted on the fake, and Cunningham ran right by him for the game’s first touchdown.
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers and members of SU’s defense said their focus heading into the game was on containing Cunningham’s running abilities. The Montgomery, Alabama native leads the ACC in rushing touchdowns (16 before Saturday) and is one of the fastest players Babers said he’s ever seen. Roscoe said the Orange wanted to keep Cunningham in the pocket and test his ability to throw. Cunningham met the challenge and burned Syracuse’s secondary with several deep balls.
Even with Cunningham’s running ability and Louisville’s overall rushing attack — ranked third in the league — the Cardinals mostly stuck to moving the ball through the air after their opening drive. On a first down play from the Syracuse 33-yard line, Cunningham faked a handoff to Trevion Cooley before launching a pass to a wide-open Tyler Harrell, who ran right past Chestnut in man-to-man coverage. Chestnut bit on the run fake and played catch-up with Harrell the rest of the way, costing SU six points.
“Of course we don’t plan on playing man coverage and getting beat like that,” linebacker Marlowe Wax said. “Like I said, mistakes … just eyes in the backfield, that’s all it is, DBs, they’re going to learn from it for next week.”
Play-action passes hurting Syracuse would be a theme for the rest of the first half, too. With Mitchell averaging nearly 7 yards per carry and totaling over 100 rushing yards, SU’s focus was more on stopping him than preventing deep passes. Roscoe said there was also a lack of communication between the defensive line and the linebackers, possibly creating issues in not pressuring Cunningham.
After a rough SU drive that featured a bad snap that Garrett Shrader missed, an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Matthew Bergeron and a short punt that barely went 30 yards, Cunningham and Louisville’s offense went back to business.
On the second play of the Cardinals next drive, Cunningham faked a handoff and Harrell again found space, this time beating Garrett Williams in coverage, and laid out for a nice catch to set up a first and goal. The next play, the Cardinals scored again.
The worst defensive possession for the Orange came minutes later after a three-and-out gave Louisville the ball again. Cunningham threw to his tight end, Marshon Ford, in the flat, and linebacker Mikel Jones rallied to the ball, hitting Ford in the midsection with the crown of his helmet. Officials reviewed the play and ejected Jones for targeting. Babers called Jones the “quarterback of the defense” and said losing him was equivalent to the offense as losing Shrader.
Two plays later, Louisville went back to the play action. Cunningham pretended to hand off the ball to his running back, freezing most of Syracuse’s defense. Defensive back Ja’Had Carter blitzed off the edge. But after he saw the fake, he froze, giving Cunningham time to unload an accurate deep pass to his receiver, Jordan Watkins, who ran by Adrian Cole in coverage. It resulted in a 41-yard pitch and catch that put the Cardinals up 28-3.
“When you’re running the ball, we gotta get out there and we gotta go,” Babers said. “If you don’t get up there close enough to the line of scrimmage with that tailback, with Malik, with space, you’re going to be in trouble.”
After Watkins’ touchdown reception in the second quarter, the game was over. Another passing touchdown from Cunningham to Ahmari Huggins-Bruce only added to that. And with a Syracuse offense that struggled throughout the game, notching just three points and 184 total yards, the poor defensive performance didn’t matter as much.
But for a unit just two weeks removed from recording five sacks against Boston College — and less than two months removed from sacking Willis six times — the inability to pressure Cunningham was costly for a team trying to get the one win it needed to become bowl eligible for the second time in the Babers era.
“It was a wake up call,” Roscoe said.
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