All eyes were on new Syracuse coach Dino Babers all summer long, and for good reason. He planned to install a fast, new offensive system that he and fans hoped would energize the program. Yet, it ultimately doesn’t matter how good Babers’ scheme is; the offense is only going to be as good as the players running the system.
Fortunately for the Orange, quite a few unexpected offensive playmakers emerged in a big way on opening night in a 33-7 victory over Colgate.
Junior wide receiver Steve Ishmael is expected to be Syracuse’s top offensive weapon this season, but Friday, he took a back seat to two other wideouts, graduate transfer Amba Etta-Tawo and junior Ervin Philips.
If Etta-Tawo sounds familiar to Syracuse fans, that’s because three years ago — when the Orange faced the Terrapins during the 2013 season — Etta-Tawo caught six passes for 109 yards to lead all receivers in yardage.
Orange fans have to be pleased he’s now on their side. Against Colgate, he caught 12 passes for 210 yards and a 43-yard touchdown to open the scoring for Syracuse. That touchdown catch, which he hauled in despite a pass interference penalty, set the tone for the night. It capped a six-play, 79-yard drive that lasted just 1:45. Babers wants his offense to move quickly, and it did for most of Friday.
In the third quarter, Etta-Tawo made his most beautiful reception of the game, dragging his left foot along the sidelines while controlling the ball all the way to the ground and landing out of bounds. This 40-yard catch led to a field goal.
While Etta-Tawo stretched the field with his 17.5 yards-per-catch average, Philips caught short, quick throws and found yards after the catch to move the chains. Philips made 14 catches for 87 yards and a touchdown.
Incredibly, both receivers nearly matched their totals from all of last season in this year’s opener alone. Etta-Tawo had 20 receptions for 216 yards and no scores with Maryland in 2015, so he needs only seven more yards to surpass his yardage from a year ago. As a sophomore with the Orange in 2015, Philips had just 29 catches, only 15 more than he did Friday.
Philips’ 14 receptions in the opener tied a program record. Syracuse great and NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Art Monk also caught 14 passes against Navy in 1977.
It’s important not to get too carried away with these performances. As dominant as Colgate is in the Patriot League, the size and athleticism of its players is no match for the ACC. That being said, if Etta-Tawo and Philips can play major roles in this new offense, Syracuse will score a lot of points.
The Orange also had a similar, unexpected breakout performance in the backfield from freshman Moe Neal. On his very first college carry, he ran 49 yards and broke a couple tackles on his way to the end zone. Neal finished with 68 yards — mostly from that first run — on nine attempts and a score.
Sophomore Dontae Strickland also had nine carries but gained only 20 yards. He was asked to convert a few third-and-shorts but was unable to do so on Friday. To be fair, that was more the fault of Syracuse’s inexperienced offensive line. Plus, the strength of the Colgate defense was its interior.
This game shouldn’t change the expectations surrounding Strickland and Ishmael. Those guys will shine in Babers’ offense; it’s a great sign that quarterback Eric Dungey, who completed 85 percent of his passes for an average of 8.9 yards per attempt (355 yards) and two touchdowns, will have multiple weapons to target.
Syracuse started its season in fine form on Friday. Don’t expect this to continue with great regularity in 2016, but the Orange showed certain characteristics under a new head coach which thwarted this program’s development over the past decade. If these good habits blossom in time, Syracuse will eventually get where it wants to go under Dino Babers.