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Syracuse’s Running Game Shut Down in Season-Ending Loss to Pitt

Pitt defensive linemen Calijah Kancey (8) and Habakkuk Baldonado (87) celebrate a defensive stop.
Pittsburgh Athletics
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Pitt defensive linemen Calijah Kancey (8) and Habakkuk Baldonado (87) celebrate a defensive stop.

Syracuse’s offense has been almost entirely predicated on its run game this year. In a game it had to win against Pitt, WAER's Francesco Simone explains how SU’s greatest asset looked more like a liability against the ACC’s best rush defenses.

Three weeks ago, the Syracuse football team was 5-4. The Orange were one win away from bowl eligibility and on a two-game winning streak, which came after three straight one possession losses that Dino Babers and company thought should have been wins. SU’s chances at a second bowl game in six years of the Babers era seemed as bright as Duce Chestnut’s neon-green gloves.

Tonight, those chances were dashed with a 31-14 loss to Pittsburgh. Everyone knew the 17th ranked Panthers would present a massive challenge for the Orange, maybe the biggest one they have faced all year. There are obvious strengths on Pitt’s roster that can be seen with a quick glance-quarterback Kenny Pickett, receiver Jordan Addison-but the real matchup nightmare for SU was Pitt’s stout run defense.

The Panthers came into this one with the best rushing defense in the ACC and ranked within the top 10 of the entire FBS. Syracuse’s offensive strength, and, until tonight, its only competent feature, is its ground game. SU’s rushing offense also ranked in the top 10 of the FBS (ahead of triple-option user Navy). Sean Tucker and Garrett Shrader formed a historic duo on the ground.

So, what happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object? Tonight, the immovable object won.

It’s safe to say Tucker is not pleased with his performance. The running back, who was snubbed from the Doak Walker Award’s list of finalists, had just 29 rushing yards on 2.2 yards per carry. Those numbers seem unconscionably low compared to what he has provided the Orange all season. The second-year freshman came into tonight with 1,438 yards, the most in a single season in program history. That’s good for 131 per game and 6.5 per attempt.

“We were just plugging, plugging, plugging. The linebackers played Cover 0 and that’s where you need those young offensive linemen to bull a guy,” Head Coach Dino Babers said.

Tucker was regularly bottled up, but he’s always one sliver of daylight away from breaking a 50+ yard touchdown run. Syracuse fans have seen it plenty of times. However, tonight it just wasn’t happening. Tucker’s longest rush was just 10 yards.

Pitt defensive lineman Deslin Alexandre looks back towards his sideline after a defensive stop.
Pittsburgh Athletics
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Pitt defensive lineman Deslin Alexandre looks back towards his sideline after a defensive stop.

Garrett Shrader, at least on the ground, wasn’t any better. The quarterback was credited with 14 carries for -2 yards. Those numbers are somewhat deceiving. Part of that factors in a couple of tackles for loss that Shrader took following scrambles on broken down pass plays. Still, the point more than stands. He wasn’t effective with his legs either.

“We have to find a silver lining, learn from it, and get better,” Shrader said.

There was a silver lining for SU’s signal caller. Shrader finally looked like a quarterback with his nine yards per attempt, 71% completion percentage, and two touchdown passes. It was by far Shrader’s best and most efficient passing performance, but on that same day he couldn’t put it together with his best asset. He was like a struggling baseball team. When it pitches it doesn’t hit and when it hits it doesn’t pitch.

Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader warms up before his team’s matchup with Pitt.
Cuse.com
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Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader warms up before his team’s matchup with Pitt.

Shrader’s performance gave SU fans and coaches a glimpse into what he can become if his passing improves consistently, but the full package is still just an abstract thought.

So, that ends another football season, but WAER’s work is far from finished. Attention now turns entirely to men’s basketball. Syracuse tries to bounce back from a tough week in the Bahamas with a Big 10/ACC Challenge matchup against Indiana on Tuesday in the Dome. WAER’s coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with GZA Countdown to Tipoff. Game time is set for 7:00 p.m.