Syracuse football drops second consecutive home game, falling to Liberty 38-21

SU football loses 38-21 to Liberty

Syracuse defense is no match for Shedro Louis and the Liberty ground game as incomplete passes mar the Orange's offensive play.
Published: October 17, 2020
The Orange takes on the Blue Devils on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at the Carrier Dome
Syracuse Orange wide receiver Taj Harris (3) is tackled after a reception in the first half during Saturday's game against Liberty.

After a rough start to the season, Syracuse football lost their first non-league game of the season 38-21 against the Liberty University Flames. This was the Orange’s sole non-conference game of the season, and the second of a three-game series between the two teams. Syracuse beat the Flames 24-0 last year but failed to duplicate such result Saturday.

Syracuse running back Sean Tucker produced an electrifying 111 yards on 21 attempts, leading the team by over 100 yards. He almost exactly matched his strong performance against Georgia Tech in their home debut three weeks ago, only now he was missing the two touchdowns and one yard. With the entire team gaining only 53 rushing yards at halftime, Tucker shined for the Orange offense, despite worries he may not play in today’s game.

Another high point was Taj Harris, who scored the opening touchdown of the game, a 17-yard pass from starting quarterback Rex Culpepper. This marked his fourth touchdown catch of the season and his fourth straight game with a score. Harris exploded with nine receptions, 96 yards and the lone touchdown, building off the momentum from an even better game against Duke last week.

Harris’s score followed a poor sequence of events from the Orange offense, committing two consecutive false starts, leading to 1st & 20, then followed by a rushing loss of two yards. Luckily for Culpepper and the Orange, they made up for it after three consecutive catches, including a 4th & 2 conversion, to get the first down that would set up the touchdown.

Flames running back Shedro Louis immediately answered the Syracuse score with a shocking 75-yard touchdown run on only the second play of the drive. In what seemed like a breakout game for him, Louis ran 10 times for a baffling 170 yards and two touchdowns.

Late in the next drive, Liberty defensive end Durrell Johnson got his sixth sack of the season, tackling Culpepper for a loss of 16 yards. This forced the Orange to punt, turning over the ball to the Flames. At the end of this new drive, Liberty quarterback Malik Willis quickly scrambled for a 4-yard touchdown, taking the lead, 14-7, after a successful extra point with under 30 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Orange takes on the Blue Devils on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at the Carrier Dome
Syracuse Orange running back Sean Tucker (34) in Saturday's first half against Liberty.

Syracuse could not respond in their first drive of the second quarter after gaining only 13 yards, being forced to punt. This did not end things, however, as Liberty’s Demario Douglas fumbled the ball on an attempted return, and Syracuse recovered the football. Despite much effort, the Orange could not do much with it after a forced turnover on downs at the Liberty 5.

Later in the second quarter, Tucker burst past the Liberty defense with a 20-yard rush to his opponents’ 16. This created the chance for Culpepper to make a crossing pass to tight end Aaron Hackett for a touchdown, tying the game 14-14.

Again, Liberty answered with a solid drive to their own 48 and a score. Syracuse’s offense in the second quarter continued to be very porous and low-pressure, traits that haven’t normally been used to describe their unit this year. Following the patterns of earlier this game, Louis made another huge run for 52 yards and a touchdown to take the 21-14 lead.

Willis ran for 12 yards to the SU 3, but was hit by Mikel Jones and fumbled it, which Jones then recovered for the turnover right before the half. Syracuse had to kick it off to the Flames right after, as Jones’s play resulted to no points. At the half, stat lines weren’t looking too pretty for Syracuse. Allowing 258 rushing yards compared to their 53, the Orange defense seemed pretty permeable.

Louis opened up the half with another strong rush for 24 yards. The Flames would end up closing out the drive with a 36-yard touchdown pass from Willis to DJ Stubbs, his second reception of the game and third touchdown of the season.

Later in the third, Culpepper threw his second interception of the season at 2nd & 10 on the Liberty 45. His throw was intended for Nykeim Johnson but instead found the hands of Liberty’s Anthony Butler. In the next drive, Peytton Pickett rushed for 16 yards on first down for a touchdown, his first of the game and 3rd of the season, giving them a 35-14 lead over Syracuse.

There was a little light in the tunnel, however, when Culpepper passed to Anthony Queeley for a touchdown. This was Queeley’s career first, shortening the lead to 35-21 with just under nine minutes left in the game.

With about eight minutes left in the game, Willis passed a deep 28-yard pass to Johnny Huntley to get them in the red zone on the 20. The Orange’s defense held the Flames away from another touchdown after getting a first down on the SU 8, but the visiting team scored a field goal for 20 yards to make the score 38-21, sealing the victory for the still-undefeated Liberty team.

The Orange takes on the Blue Devils on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at the Carrier Dome
Syracuse Orange wide receiver Taj Harris (3) turns away from a tackle against Liberty.

In a game full of mistakes, Syracuse head coach Dino Babers didn’t shy away from what went wrong in the loss.

“There’s certain things we’re still not doing well, we’re not getting better,” said Babers. “The reason we’re not getting better is we’re constantly changing over personnel. As everyone else that’s playing us would say, ‘so what?’ That’s part of the business. We have to find out what our personnel can do, and we’ve got to stay consistent.”

Looking ahead to next week’s opponent in Clemson, who beat Georgia Tech 73-7 this weekend, Babers is focused on the big picture rather than specific opponents.

“We all understand that what we just saw was not good enough. It really doesn’t matter who the next opponent is. The way we’re playing, it really doesn’t matter who we’re playing next. We’ve got to decide to go out there and play.”

Queeley, coming off his first career touchdown, echoed his coach’s sentiment.

“The positive thing about today’s game is we’re still together as a team, we all want to win, we all want the same thing, and we’re just going to focused on the mistakes that we had today.”