First-half leads are nothing new for the Dino Babers-coached Syracuse Orange. Closing out games has been this team’s problem in 2016.
On the verge of blowing another second-half lead, Syracuse responded with two fourth-quarter touchdowns and upset the heavily-favored No. 17 Virginia Tech Hokies, 31-17, on Saturday.
Syracuse has been a notorious fast-starting team this season. Nearly one-third of the team’s points have come in the first quarter. Coming into Week 7, opponents had outscored Syracuse by 20 points (131-111) in the first half, but in the second half the Orange had a negative-42 point differential.
After another strong first half versus Virginia Tech on Saturday, it looked like another great start was going to be followed by a poor finish. Syracuse led 17-3 at halftime but allowed the Hokies to score the next 14 points and tie the game with roughly a quarter to go.
Sophomore quarterback Eric Dungey wasn’t going to let this one get away.
He accounted for 66 of Syracuse’s 75 yards on his next drive, including the very last yard at the goal line, the yard which had eluded the Orange on a first-half possession in which the team failed on three straight passes from the 1 and was then stuffed on a fourth-down run.
This time — this fourth quarter — was different. On third and goal from the 1, Dungey called his own number and fought into the end zone, barely reaching the plane of the goal line. It was a valiant effort from a quarterback who suffered a knee injury in the first half. Also credit the Syracuse offensive coaching staff for making that adjustment. Three straight throws from the 1-yard line was a travesty in the second quarter; the staff got in right in the fourth.
Ahead by seven at 24-17, Dungey — still just a sophomore — had one more big play in his bag on the next drive. He ripped off an 18-yard run that put Syracuse in field goal range with under seven minutes left. SU didn’t need to worry about a field goal, however: Running back Dontae Strickland scored a touchdown two plays later to seal the victory.
There’s already a lot of pressure on Dungey to carry this team, but with Syracuse’s inability to run the ball, the sophomore signal caller had been asked to do even more. He delivered Saturday, completing 28-of-53 passes for 311 yards, one touchdown and an interception. He also had 106 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The Orange defense should also receive substantial credit for pulling off a shocker against the Hokies, who had just demolished defending ACC Coastal Division champion North Carolina on the road.
For a second straight week, Syracuse held an ACC opponent to 21 points or fewer (the last touchdown allowed against Wake Forest was a fumble returned for a touchdown). If the Orange can do that consistently during the final five weeks of the season, they are going to be in ballgames.
It’s important not to get too excited about this result, because with the remaining schedule, a bowl game is still highly unlikely for Babers in his first season with Syracuse. However, and without a doubt, this is a huge victory for the program. This marked the first time Syracuse beat a ranked opponent since Nov. 10, 2012.
The win was also Babers’ first in conference play, and the Orange will have a chance to pull to an even 2-2 in the ACC with Boston College up next.
There’s still a long way to go. Syracuse made plenty of mistakes that will go unnoticed because the team won, but at least the Orange answered their second-half demons.
Doing so against a ranked opponent — one with designs on a division title — offers genuine affirmation of the idea that Babers is slowly but surely beginning to move this program in the right direction.