Football

Louisville crushes Syracuse’s bowl game ambitions with 56-34 win

Max Freund | Staff Photographer

Louisville's quarterback, Micale Cunningham, threw for a career-high five touchdowns against the Orange on Saturday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It wasn’t just Luke Benson dropping a pass. Or Sean Riley muffing a punt. Or Sterling Hofrichter punting the ball 27 yards. Or two defensive backs — seniors Evan Foster and Antwan Cordy — dropping an easy interception.

At no single point in the first quarter on Saturday was it clear that Syracuse’s season would be rendered meaningless. No single failure seemed to doom the Orange, but by the end of the first frame, with SU down 21-3, it was clear that the Orange had let the game and ultimately their season slip away. 

Syracuse’s (4-7, 1-6 Atlantic Coast) bowl hopes are effectively obliterated after Louisville (7-4, 5-3) jumped out to an early lead en route to a 56-34 win at Cardinal Stadium. Much like Syracuse’s season, whatever gains and improvements made in the latter stages of the game weren’t going to get SU out of the hole it created. Beside it being senior day, the Orange will host Wake Forest with nothing but pride on the line.

“It’s the goal coming into the year, like last year as a freshman,” safety Andre Cisco said. “All I know is winning. To flip-flop to this, obviously it’s tough.”

The Orange needed to finish the season a perfect 3-0 to become bowl-eligible; the Cardinals represented the second win. The first, a 49-6 drubbing of Duke, was a defensive clinic in Steve Stanard’s first game as interim defensive coordinator.

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To defeat the Cardinals — who average more than 32 points a game — the Orange required a similarly stout performance that never came. From the outset, Louisville gashed Syracuse with a bevy of run-pass and read options, pre-snap motions and well timed play-action passing to the tune of 21 first-quarter points and 166 yards.

Louisville’s modern spread offense, in a way, reminded SU head coach Dino Babers of some of his past teams.

“Just like the first time we rolled through the league,” Babers said of dealing with U of L’s new schemes, “and people were adjusting to us and they’re playing us better. We need to keep evolving to stay with those types of offenses and we need to keep evolving as an offense so it’s difficult for them to stay with us.”

The only time Louisville’s punted in the first quarter, Riley lurked around the Syracuse 20-yard line with the Orange already trailing 7-3. He ran left to catch Mason King’s punt, letting it fall into his arms around the “ACC” logo on the 25 when the ball hit the turf. Two Louisville players fell on the fumble and quarterback Micale Cunningham completed a 29-yard touchdown pass to Seth Dawkins up the seam on the first play of the ensuing drive. Instead of getting the ball back with a chance to take a lead, the Orange, in two plays, went down two scores.

Syracuse had myriad mistakes in the early frame similar to Riley’s, ones that hamstrung an offense showing life and forced the defense to try and create a momentum swing against a team running rampant on it already.

After driving inside the Louisville 10-yard line on its first offensive possession, on 2nd-and-10 SU ran a tried and true play that’s worked for touchdowns and first downs all season. The two wideouts on the left side ran slants, leaving the tight end running an out — in this case Benson — wide open. It worked again, but Benson dropped the ball thrown right in front of him while trying to tuck it under his arm in stride. SU settled for a field goal. 

“So you know, in order to make the game a game that you can win, you have to score touchdowns,” Babers said. “And we can kick field goals and try to feel good like it was a close score when it was all said and done … Especially this team we were playing, I don’t think anybody out there wanted us to kick field goals.” 

Once Louisville stretched the lead to two scores following Riley’s muffed punt, SU went three-and-out. From the SU 33-yard line, it seemed like a prime opportunity for punter Hofrichter — who averages over 44 yards a punt — to boom a kick and flip field position. But his kick travelled 27 yards and flew out of bounds over the Louisville 40. The Cardinals covered the 60 yards in eight plays and scored a touchdown, but could’ve had the drive cut short via turnover.

Cunningham dropped back on 2nd-and-2 from the Syracuse 40-yard line, targeted Marshon Ford deep down the right sideline and left his throw short due to a hit from Alton Robinson. Foster, who was covering Ford, and Cordy, the safety covering the middle, came together, each trying to make the interception and in turn preventing the other from making it. 

All of those first quarter mistakes, coupled with a defense that couldn’t get a stop — the Orange forced two punts (including the one Riley muffed) in the first half and got a third stop thanks to halftime — to get the ball back. 

The result was a 21-3 hole that the Orange were never going to climb out of. And by getting buried in 15 minutes, Syracuse failed to get the second of three wins they needed. The hole SU dug itself by losing in embarrassing fashion to Maryland before starting ACC play 0-5 proved too deep.

“I was emotional,” senior defensive tackle Kenneth Ruff Jr. said. “Some other guys were as well. But we want to go out on a good note. So we’ll mourn today for a little bit. But tomorrow it’s about getting better and getting after Wake Forest.”

Heading to Durham, North Carolina, last weekend, SU’s margin for error was gone. The Orange had to be perfect, and they were. But the problem with margins for error is they never get bigger. 

Syracuse had to be perfect again, and it couldn’t. But even after a mistake-filled, flat-footed start, it still had a chance to climb back into the game. Earlier in the fourth, the Orange failed on its previous red zone chance off an Andre Cisco interception. But with less than 10 minutes to play and SU down by 15, the Orange had their last real chance to cut the lead to one touchdown. 

Jawhar Jordan took a swing pass 81 yards to the Cardinals 3-yard line. A hold on Trishton Jackson wiped out a touchdown. Two false starts backed up the Orange. From the Louisville 18 on 4th-and-goal, the Orange’s absolute last chance to make it a game and have a hope to secure secure bowl eligibility, Clayton Welch — in at quarterback for DeVito — threw to Taj Harris at the three, where he was tackled and the Cardinals’ offense took over.

“It’s frustrating to get all the way down there and not get into the end zone,” senior running back Moe Neal said.

The Orange ended that drive and Saturday’s game empty-handed. A season that, prior to its start, held more promise for Syracuse football than any other this century, is now a wash. Another sub-.500 season among many in recent years. 

There will be no bowl game this year. No double-digit wins. All that’s left is the hole Syracuse is stuck in, the one it dug itself.

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