Syracuse football drops final home game of strange season to NC State 36-29

SU football loses home finale to NC State 36-29

The Orange fail to stop a second half surge from the Wolfpack in Syracuse's second highest scoring game this season.
Published: November 28, 2020 | Updated: November 30th, 2020 at 7:55 am
Syracuse football
SU wide receiver Taj Harris (3) is dragged down during Saturday's game against North Carolina State.

In the final home game of the season, Syracuse closed out the renovated Carrier Dome with a 36-29 loss to NC State. Syracuse is now 24-17 in home finales in the Dome, and the loss drops the team to 1-9 on the season.

In all-time matchups between the teams, NC State holds a 12-2 advantage, but Syracuse won the last meeting in 2018 51-41. The victory brings the Wolfpack to 7-3 and fourth place in the ACC.

Syracuse emerged from the locker room through the haze of a fog machine behind head coach Dino Babers. The defeat brings Babers’ career record to 61-51 (.545) and his record at Syracuse to 24-35 (.407). The Orange retain their last place ranking in the ACC standings.

The Orange hoped to bounce back after a 30-0 shutout on the road against Louisville the week prior in which the defense forced three turnovers while the offense only possessed the ball for just over 18 minutes of the game. In the team’s ten games this season, Syracuse has yet to lead in time of possession.

Syracuse’s defense forced multiple turnovers in five straight games to start the season but only once in the last four contests. Against the Wolfpack, the Orange defense got back on track with an interception, a fumble and a safety.

The defense has adapted to defensive coordinator Tony White’s 3-3-5 scheme despite multiple injuries throughout the lineup, and Babers said that the defense will be a high point for the team heading into the offseason.

“I am cautiously excited about what that unit’s going to be, especially with the youth over there,” Babers said.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse
Syracuse Orange wide receiver Taj Harris (3) tries to avoid a tackle by North Carolina State Wolfpack defensive back Joshua Pierre-Louis (19) in the second quarter at the Carrier Dome.

Syracuse moved the ball past midfield on its first possession thanks to three receptions and a third down conversion for Taj Harris. The drive stalled, and NC State took their first possession down the field for a 7-yard rushing touchdown by Zonovan Knight.

On the ensuing kickoff, freshman wide receiver Trebor Pena returned the ball 98 yards to tie the game at 7-7. He found daylight along the visitor’s sideline and sped past all would-be tacklers to score untouched until he was surrounded by teammates in the endzone.

The Wolfpack marched the next drive down the field, primarily on the ground. The Syracuse defense had allowed an average of 214 yards entering the game, but as quarterback Bailey Hockman extended the ball towards the pylon on an 11-yard rush, he fumbled the ball through the endzone for a touchback to set up the Syracuse offense at their own 20.

The Orange drove the ball into NC State territory and Andre Szmyt converted a 45-yard field goal to give the Orange its first lead of the afternoon.

On NC State’s possession, Ifeatu Melifonwu jarred the ball loose from NC State, and the ball popped into the air for a Mikel Jones interception returned to the five yard line. Szmyt added three more points to the SU lead with a 23-yard field goal.

Jones credited Melifonwu in the postgame press conference for the interception. He said he slipped on the play and had to hustle back into position when the ball came out in front of him.

The Syracuse defense struggled to get off the field on third downs throughout the game. The Wolfpack were 8/13 on third down conversions and were aided by seven SU penalties, including two that led to conversions on separate 3rd and 19’s.

Thayer Thomas got behind the Orange defense for a 15-yard receiving touchdown towards the end of the second quarter to regain the lead for NC State. Syracuse took over, and when flushed from the pocket to his left, Rex Culpepper, starting in place of the injured JaCobian Morgan, delivered a deep strike across his body to Nykeim Johnson who finished the play for a 60-yard touchdown.

On the next play, the Orange defensive line crashed into the backfield and pressured Hockman into a pass that went backwards through the endzone for a safety. The SU lead grew to 22-14 heading into the second half.

The second half started with another Thomas receiving touchdown for the Wolfpack. He caught the ball over Garrett Williams on the front pylon for a 31-yard score. The Wolfpack, down two, attempted a two-point conversion to tie the game but were unsuccessful, and Syracuse held on to a narrow 22-20 lead.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Syracuse
Syracuse Orange quarterback Rex Culpepper (17) throws a pass in the first quarter against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at the Carrier Dome.

Later in the quarter, Culpepper delivered a strike to Harris on a 13-yard slant. Harris led all SU receivers in the game with 13 catches for 146 yards. His 13 receptions are new career high for the team’s leading receiver.

Thomas caught his third touchdown of the game, matching his season total, and Emeka Emezie put NC State back in command with a 26-yard touchdown reception from Hockman. Hockman fared well against the opportunistic Orange defense with 313 yards and 4 touchdowns while leading an efficient offense for the Wolfpack.

With just over five minutes remaining, the Orange defense tightened up in the red zone and forced a 31-yard field goal by the Wolfpack to maintain a one score game at 36-29.

Syracuse improved their third down efficiency offensively, converting 8/20 on the afternoon. Harris was instrumental in this turnaround – his six receptions for conversions led the team, none more crucial than a 26-yard acrobatic toe-tap to prevent a punt while trailing late in the game.

The Orange were able to drive the ball into the red zone with less than a minute remaining, but Culpepper held the ball for a sack instead of throwing the ball away, and the redshirt senior quarterback spiked the ball on fourth down to end the last gasp effort for Syracuse.

Despite the mental lapse, Babers had nothing but praise for his veteran quarterback in the press conference.

“Rex is an amazing person,” Babers said. “Rex is going to go off and do great things. You’ll have to remember how to spell his name because it’ll come up in other endeavors in his life.”

Syracuse football
Syracuse Orange wide receiver Nykeim Johnson (4) during a game against North Carolina State on Saturday, Nov. 28, 2020, at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.

Following the game, the seniors re-emerged from the locker room and slowly walked around Ernie Davis Legends Field. Kingsley Jonathan, Rex Culpepper, Josh Black, Airon Servais and Nolan Cooney walked in a group through the empty stadium minutes after the final whistle.

After the game, Babers spoke on the potential final home game for some of the senior class.

“My biggest disappointment was that the seniors didn’t get to play in front of the fans,” Babers said.

The loss marks the seventh straight defeat for the Orange. Syracuse will kick off its final game of the season on the road against No. 2 Notre Dame at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 5.