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SU Offense Sputters in 21-10 Defeat to #25 Pitt

For one reason or another, Syracuse and Pittsburgh seem to play close football games nearly every year. The previous three matchups between the Orange and Panthers were all decided by a single score, a streak that came to an end earlier today.

Given the lopsided spread (-21 in favor of Pitt via ESPN), one might believe that the eleven-point loss was a decent result for SU. However, concerns about the ineffectiveness of the offense superseded any positives that could be taken away from this game.

In his second start under new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert, quarterback Tommy DeVito had arguably the worst statistical performance of his Syracuse career. The redshirt junior finished the contest with a minuscule 32 passing yards and one interception. Excluding games in which he attempted five or fewer throws, that is DeVito’s worst passing yard total as a member of the Orange.

Despite the struggles under center, SU was in command of the game out of the gate. The Orange jumped out to an early lead because of strong play from the defense. Linebacker Mikel Jones recovered a fumble deep in Pittsburgh territory on the Panthers second drive to set up a chip shot field goal from kicker Andre Szmyt. Midway through the first quarter, Syracuse was on top 3-0 – its first lead of the season.

“Defensively we got guys out there making plays,” said head coach Dino Babers in his postgame press conference. “Our defense has just been playing outstanding.”

The Pitt offense, like SU, started slow. Unlike the Orange, the Panthers passing attack started to click in the second quarter. Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett connected with wide receiver Jordan Addison in the endzone to give the Panthers the lead heading into the second quarter.

A few minutes later, Syracuse was afforded strong starting field position from a botched field goal by Pitt. In the most unlikely fashion, this drive was the lone bright spot in the Orange’s offensive unit. After a pair of runs from Sean Tucker earned SU a first down, DeVito was sacked by a barrage of Panther defenders at the Syracuse 22-yard line.

The starting quarterback was shaken up and headed to the sideline, forcing inexperienced backup Rex Culpepper into the game. Before this game, the senior had completed just 48 passes in his career, 45 of which occurred in 2017.

You would not have known, however, when Culpepper stepped into the game. After completing a pass to wide receiver Nykiem Johnson on his first play, the signal-caller hit a streaking Taj Harris down the right sideline and the speedy pass catcher took it for six. With the help of Harris’ legs, Culpepper tossed a 69-yard touchdown. It was the first trip to the endzone for the Orange this season and the quarterback’s first passing touchdown since he battled testicular cancer in 2018.

“Rex [Culpepper] has been out there before,” coach Babers said. “[The throw] was something that we needed. It was our first touchdown of 2020.”            

With 10:35 on the clock in the second frame, Syracuse was in front 10-7. It appeared things were going right, but SU was outscored 14-0 in the remainder of the game. Culpepper stayed in the game until halftime, and then Dino Babers turned back to his original starter, DeVito.

The half began with the Panthers leading 14-10. DeVito had opportunities to get the Orange back into the game, but he made errors at key junctures that could have redirected the momentum. On SU’s initial drive of the second half, the quarterback had a chance to convert a fourth and three from the Pittsburgh 44-yard line. DeVito was sacked for seven yards on the play, and the former four-star recruit turned the ball over on downs.

On the ensuing Pitt drive, Mikel Jones recorded his second turnover of the game – this time an interception. DeVito initially capitalized on that opportunity and put together the Orange’s longest drive of the game. In nine plays, the signal-caller marched into Panther territory, and then completely missed his target on a screen pass and was picked off. The turnover broke a streak of 211 pass attempts for DeVito without an interception, an SU record.

Pittsburgh converted that turnover into seven points and took an 11-point lead with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter. From that point on, Syracuse went three-and-out on every single drive except one. Even in the case of the outlier, the offense was gifted a first down because of a Pitt personal foul.

Culpepper took over QB1 duties for the final ten minutes, stoking the fire about the uncertainty of the quarterback situation in the Salt City.

WAER Sports · The Double Overtime Podcast | Pitt Takes Down Syracuse 21-10

It was believed by many that the backup quarterback would seldom play meaningful snaps for the Orange this season, but it appears that coach Babers is warming up to the idea.

“We’re going to evaluate the tape based on the situations that we’re going on. DeVito and Culpepper are both in it to win,” said Babers.

As the starting quarterback, DeVito has shouldered much of the blame for the loss, but he is not the sole contributor to the lack of firepower on offense. The Syracuse offensive line had trouble protecting the New Jersey native. SU allowed seven or more sacks for the second consecutive game.

Also, there were several instances of unusual play calls from Gilbert and Babers. Early in the game, the Orange had a third and four from the Pittsburgh seven yard-line. Syracuse decided to sub in Culpepper for DeVito – before his heroic toss – and run a quarterback draw up the middle rather than throw for the endzone. The run play was not successful.

Starting quarterback Tommy DeVito (13) had one of the least productive games of his career against Pitt, passing for only 32 yards.

Viewing this game through the lens of the offense may paint a slightly harsher picture of the Orange’s performance than reality. Syracuse played great defensively and had solid contributions from special teams.

The issue is, the defense has had to play incredibly well to get SU to this point. The Orange have forced five turnovers through the first two games, all but one resulting in drives that start in the opposing team’s half, and only 16 points have been scored. The Syracuse offense has had trouble sustaining drives, and it has failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities that are giftwrapped for them by defense.

Luckily for the SU, its next opponent has had its fair share of troubles on offense as well. Syracuse (0-2) plays Georgia Tech (1-1) in the home opener at noon this Saturday, September 26. The Yellow Jackets have averaged below 20 points per game through the first two weeks. Catch Countdown to Kickoff on WAER at 11:30 a.m.