Syracuse on upswing after inconsistent play
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP)
In an up-and-down season, Syracuse remains on track to qualify for the postseason for the third time in four years.
When the Orange (4-4, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) have been up, they've been very good thanks to their defense. On Saturday, they'll face Maryland (5-3, 1-3).
Two weeks after getting clobbered 56-0 on the road by Georgia Tech's ground-chewing triple option, Syracuse rebounded after a bye week with a 13-0 win at home against Wake Forest last week.
The Orange forced Wake Forest to punt 12 times, only one off the Syracuse team mark set in a 47-0 win at Holy Cross in 1968. They limited the Demon Deacons to just 51 yards offensively on 31 plays in the second half, an average of 1.6 yards per play.
''We were really physical,'' first-year Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said. ''We chart big hits, and we had 16 big hits in this game. That's a lot. There are many games we go in and feel good about coming out of a game with six or seven.''
It was Syracuse's first conference shutout since a 42-0 Big East win over Rutgers in 1996 and its second shutout of the season. The Orange, who blanked FCS foe Wagner 54-0 in mid-September, hadn't posted two shutouts in a season since 1997.
Perhaps most impressive has been the Syracuse defense's performance on third down. Opponents have converted just 37 of 123 attempts (30.1 percent), the eighth-best mark in the nation. Toss out the Georgia Tech game - the Yellow Jackets converted 5 of 8 - and that conversion rate drops to 27.9 percent in Chuck Bullough's first year as defensive coordinator. Wake Forest was successful on 4 of 18 tries (22.2 percent).
''They've done a good job,'' Shafer said Tuesday. ''Chuck and the staff have done a nice job game-planning from week to week. That's been definitely one of our strong suits.''
That can't be said for the offense, which has struggled to move the chains on third down. Syracuse has converted 47 of 128 (36.7 percent), which ranks 86th nationally. Against the Demon Deacons, Syracuse also punted seven times in the scoreless first half and, despite a solid run game that was averaging over 5 yards per carry, the Orange attempted passes on their first five third-down chances and all fell incomplete. That included two third-and-4 plays and a third-and-5 chance.
''We need to keep them (the chains) moving,'' Shafer said. ''At times we've been good, but we're not where we want to be. We have lofty goals of 45 percent, which is really high. We need to keep on keeping.''
Shafer credited the Wake Forest defense, which was anchored by imposing nose guard Nikita Whitlock.
Still, the offense performed well in the second half against Wake Forest, scoring 13 points in the third quarter and rushing for 152 yards after a dismal first half that produced just 31. Freshman wideout Brisly Estime, out of Delray Beach, Fla., made his first career start and set personal bests with nine catches for 62 yards and one touchdown on a 25-yard pass from wideout Jarrod West off a reverse. That's the most catches in a game by a Syracuse receiver this season.
Terrel Hunt played the entire game at quarterback, going 18 of 30 for 144 yards with no turnovers, and scored the game's first touchdown on a 6-yard keeper. Among his completions was a 43-yarder to West, but Hunt was long on five other deep throws.
''I think we're getting closer every week,'' Shafer said. ''Daily improvement is really the theme, and they've worked hard at it trying to get better at the passing game. We've seen glimpses of it at times.''