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On the start of Rutgers’ fourth drive, the Syracuse defense pressured senior quarterback Noah Vedral. He faked the handoff to running back Isaih Pacheco, but SU’s McKinley Williams almost immediately made his way into the pocket, forcing Vedral to spin before Williams dropped him from behind at RU’s 25-yard line. Williams stood up and bowed, and the sack set the Scarlet Knights back 10 yards.
On the next play, Vedral bobbled the snap before quickly feeling pressure from linebacker Stefon Thompson. Vedral stepped up in the pocket before Thompson met him from behind and Cody Roscoe from the left side. The two sacks brought the Carrier Dome crowd to its feet. The noise forced a false start before the snap, making it 3rd down and 30. Roscoe again brought pressure off the edge, making Vedral release the ball quickly for a short gain and a punt.
The sacks were two of the four that Syracuse’s defense recorded against Rutgers. After RU dropped 61 points on Temple in its first game of the season, the Orange’s defense held RU’s offense — which SU head coach Dino Babers described as “explosive” earlier in the week — to just 17 points. The Scarlet Knights totaled just 195 yards offensively, and their 16 first-half rushing attempts lost them nine yards. But SU struggled offensively, too, and it only scored seven points in the loss.
“They came out with some tough situations and amazing energy with some fantastic stops,” Babers said of his defense. “We kept them under 200 yards, you’re supposed to win those types of games.”
Against Temple, Rutgers registered 365 yards of offense and outscored the Owls 35-7 in the second half. Babers and defensive back Duce Chestnut said earlier in the week that they were focused on stopping RU’s key offensive weapons, including Pacheco as well as receivers Bo Melton and Aron Cruickshank. On Saturday, Rutgers ran an up-tempo offense that emphasized getting the ball outside the hashes. Cruickshank had two carries on jet sweep plays and Vedral frequently looked toward the edges of the field when passing.
The Orange’s defense responded by forcing short third downs and making plays on them. With the game still scoreless in the second quarter, Rutgers had a 3rd and 1 in SU territory. After putting Melton in motion, Vedral handed off to Pacheco, who three Syracuse players quickly swarmed for a loss.
With the ball slightly inside the 40-yard line, Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano opted to go for it. Again, Melton was put in motion and Vedral gave the ball to Pacheco. Linebacker Mikel Jones ran right through the middle of the offensive line untouched and met the running back almost as soon as he got the ball. The tackle for loss forced a Rutgers turnover with under two minutes left in the first half.
“It was a great play call by coach (Tony) White and I had seen the tackle looking at me, so I knew the guard was pulling so I just shot through the gap,” Jones said of the play.
Syracuse’s offense had little trouble moving the ball against Ohio but struggled against RU’s defense Saturday. Both Tommy DeVito and Garrett Shrader saw time at quarterback, but neither helped produce much offensively for the Orange. The rushing attack didn’t fare much better, as SU averaged just 2.2 yards running on 30 attempts. What hurt White’s defense, though, were the three turnovers and special teams miscues.
A muffed Syracuse punt gave Rutgers great field position at the start of the fourth quarter. SU’s defense held and forced a 28-yard field goal that was missed. But on the first play of the ensuing possession, DeVito was strip-sacked by defensive lineman Mayan Ahanotu at his own 10-yard line, once again giving the Scarlet Knights optimal field position. While Syracuse didn’t struggle to contain Rutgers’ offense, SU couldn’t keep RU scoreless so close to the Orange’s end zone. After three plays, kicker Valentino Ambrosio converted on another field goal, giving RU a two-possession lead.
“We hurt ourselves, turnovers, penalties hurt. We can’t make mistakes like that,” DeVito said.
Defensive back Garrett Williams shined in the first half for SU, recording eight total tackles and one for loss. On one play after Williams played tight man-to-man coverage on the right side of the field, Babers ran down the sideline and flashed a thumbs up to him after the coverage forced another Rutgers punt.
But Williams played sparingly after that play and was seen limping on the sideline later in the second half. He was replaced by redshirt freshman Adrian Cole, who Melton beat on a first down play later in the third quarter. Vedral just overthrew the wide-open Melton but found tight end Jovani Haskins in the middle of the field on the next play. Haskins dragged Syracuse defenders into the end zone to give Rutgers a 14-7 lead.
Babers wouldn’t comment on Williams’ status after the game. Williams is widely considered to be the Orange’s top defender and a future NFL Draft prospect, too.
“Obviously we need Garrett to get better,” Babers said. “We didn’t have one of our better players there on the football field … Not only did it affect our defense, but it affected our special teams as well.”
SU’s defense has allowed just 26 points over its first two games, but the Orange will head into their game against Albany next week coming off their first loss of the season. But the first-half shutout and performance against an offense that had no trouble finding the end zone in its previous game gives the defense confidence, Jones said.
“It made us feel good, it gave us confirmation that we are what we think we are — a great defense,” Jones said.
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