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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The low point of Syracuse’s first half against the Cardinals appeared to be when a JaCobian Morgan pass flew through Taj Harris’s hands and into the waiting arms of a Louisville defender. It then appeared to be when Nykeim Johnson fumbled a kick-off return. Or when the Orange took a delay of game penalty following a kick return.
Or maybe when Aaron Hackett fumbled a Louisville pooch kick with 30 seconds left in the first half.
For every moment it seemed that the Orange had reached the low point against Louisville on Friday night, they managed to top that — falling even further. As Syracuse trailed by 20 in the second quarter to the two-win Cardinals, SU moved even closer to one of the worst seasons in program history. They plunged further from not only the 10-win season that put the Orange on the national map in 2018, but from the five-win season that was widely viewed as a failure in 2019.
Two years ago, Louisville came to Syracuse on a Friday night and lost by 31 to a dominant Orange team. Friday, Syracuse traveled to Louisville and couldn’t score against one of the ACC’s worst teams. Syracuse had an extra week to prepare for Friday night, while Louisville had a makeup game last week scheduled where their bye week should have been. Despite that, Louisville (3-6, 2-6 Atlantic Coast) beat Syracuse (1-8, 1-7), 30-0, in Cardinal Stadium to push the Orange to 1-8 with two games left in their lost season.
Entering as 19-point underdogs with a true freshman quarterback, Babers said early in the week he knew they had a difficult challenge. The Orange exited with zero third down conversions on nine attempts, six first downs for the entire game and just the second shutout defeat of the Babers’ five-year era. The first was a 54-0 drubbing against then-No. 3 Clemson in 2016. Friday, Louisville entered with a 1-6 conference record.
In his second career start, Morgan scrambled around, desperately searching for open receivers while his running backs and offensive linemen missed assignments and blitz pickups. On the first third down of the game, the pocket collapsed on Morgan. Sean Tucker and Carlos Vettorello blocked no one on the game’s second third down, which resulted in a rushed Morgan throw and near interception.
When receivers did come open, and Morgan had time, he fired over the head of Harris. When Harris was open and Morgan threw accurately, Harris missed the ball and it was intercepted.
On a 4th-and-5 near midfield where Babers decided to be aggressive and go for it, Morgan rolled to his right to avoid the blitz. Harris was shoving his defender out of bounds while multiple Louisville defenders closed in on Morgan. With nowhere to throw it, he threw incomplete. That turnover on downs turned into a Louisville touchdown a minute later, extending the Cardinals lead to 20-0.
Syracuse’s defense had held up against the mounting pressure from the weight of both the Cardinals’ offense and the Orange’s offense’s inability to convert third downs. Even in a first half in which the SU defense forced three turnovers, the offense still managed less than 10 minutes of possession, 91 total yards and no points.
An offense that was built to play fast and wear down its opponents played as slow as it has all year, and only wore down its own defense.
The Orange’s one matchup edge over Louisville entering the game was turnovers, where the Cardinals have the nation’s worst margin. Garrett Williams went up over the Cardinals best receiver, Tutu Atwell, and used one hand to tip it to himself to make an interception in the opening quarter. Linebacker Mikel Jones forced a Malik Cunnignham fumble to keep points off the scoreboard, and Ifeatu Melifonwu intercepted a bad Cunningham pass. Yet, when the Orange’s defense jogged into the locker room, they trailed by 20.
Even the Orange’s special teams unit — typically one of the best in the country — failed to perform anywhere near the level they have all season. Johnson fumbled a kick return directly following a defensive stand to hold the Cardinals to a field goal. Hackett fumbled a kickoff. Babers opted to bench Johnson on kick-offs following the fumble, but the Orange never got past the 25 on any ensuing return.
Midway through the third quarter, Morgan took the biggest hit of his neophyte career when Louisville linebacker Yasir Abdullah glided around the edge and past Airon Servais. He hit Morgan hard enough to knock both the ball from Morgan’s hands and to knock the freshman out of the game.
Babers turned to backup quarterback Rex Culpepper, who started the season backing up Tommy DeVito. Morgan returned to the Orange’s bench and sat with a towel over his head while Culpepper entered the game. After one three-and-out, Culpepper engineered SU’s longest drive of the game: 32 yards.
Syracuse’s defense allowed 10 points in the second half, as the Cardinals offense bled out the clock and cemented the shutout win. Yet as Louisville lined up to punt on 4th-and-long with less than two minutes to go, the 25% capacity crowd at Cardinal Stadium started to boo.
Babers had called timeout just as Louisville was about to snap the ball.
The Orange didn’t have enough players on the field.
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