Syracuse started the season with a home game against an underdog FCS opponent. What could go wrong?
Desperate in double overtime, Scott Shafer had to pull out all the punches after his quarterback's punch put the Orange in trouble. With a running game that couldn't score in short-yardage situations and a freshman passer in his first game, Shafer opted to open up the playbook. Riley Dixon rolled left on a fake field goal and found Kendall Moore for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.
"I think I blacked out," Dixon said when asked about the play. "I don't remember much of it."
Syracuse won a game when its only touchdown drive was led by a backup and its only touchdown pass was thrown by a punter. It was a long and strange night in the Carrier Dome. But somehow, the Orange hung on to defeat the Villanova Wildcats, 27-26, and avoided an embarrassing opening night loss.
"We're 1-0," Shafer said. "Was it pretty? No, it wasn't pretty, but we found a way."
Dixon showed off a calm, poised demeanor under pressure that Terrel Hunt didn't have about two quarters and two overtimes earlier. Late in the first half, Hunt was being dragged down by one defender when linebacker Dillon Lucas hit him up high. While on the ground, Hunt punched Lucas in the helmet, earning him an automatic ejection. After an offseason when coaches praised Hunt's development and maturity, it was his immaturity that almost cost Syracuse the game. Shafer said the ejection was warranted, but that there won't be any additional discipline from the team.
Austin Wilson came into the game after Hunt's "Shot Heard Round the Dome". Wilson looked sharp in his first full possession - a 13-play, 83 yard drive - which gave Syracuse a 17-7 lead early in the third quarter.
"I was focusing on what the next play was going to be and how to signal in," Wilson said. "At that point, I just had to react."
But as the game went on, it was Villanova's quarterback, John Robertson, who shined. Syracuse's front four struggled with his lateral speed, in large part because of their fatigue. The Wildcats dominated time of possession - they had about 63 percent of it - and prolonged drives by staying in manageable third down situations. Robertson led the Wildcats on a game-tying 19-play series in the fourth quarter that took just over nine minutes off the clock.
"He's such a damn good football player," Shafer said. "That was a hell of an effort by that kid. I've been around football my whole life and that is a gutsy son of a gun."
Syracuse gave Villanova every opportunity to win the game, but the Wildcats gave it right back - penalties to extend drives, dropped passes to end them and, of course, Chris Gough's missed field goal attempt near the end of regulation.
It was an ironic turn of events that a game where two team battled all night to lose was finally ended by two coaches trying hard to win. The difference in the game was that Shafer's fake was successful, but Andy Talley's attempt at a two-point conversation to win the game wasn't.
The Orange started the 2014 campaign with the win, but still we're left with more questions than answers. Is Syracuse's sleepy performance an anomaly or the norm? Can the defense rebound from a game where it got pushed around at times by an FCS opponent? And how can Terrel Hunt put this incident behind him and become the quarterback and leader we think he can be?
"We need to come back and clean up everything we know we need to clean up and come back with a lot of intensity and hard work," Prince-Tyson Gulley said.
Luckily for the Orange, Syracuse gets a bye week before taking on Central Michigan.
Judging by the opening performance, they'll need it.
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