Pittsburgh pounds Syracuse 27-20 at the Dome
Pittsburgh pounds Syracuse 27-20 at the Dome
Boos rained down on Tommy DeVito and the Syracuse offense as they took a knee to run the last few seconds off the clock, taking the Orange into the locker room for halftime.
It looked like Syracuse’s showing against Pitt was going to be exactly what could have been expected. Matched against the country’s 19th-best yard/game defense, Syracuse was bound to struggle to move the ball. An offensive line that has been unable to give its quarterback a stable pocket all season didn’t help the cause. Syracuse never established a ground game, averaging 1.5 yards per carry for a mere 51 rushing yards. But Syracuse managed to hang around, through a combination of a similarly struggling Pittsburgh offense and quality play by the Orange defense.
After trading punts and field goals to start the game, it seemed Pitt, too, was going to struggle to score. Then, with 1:23 remaining in the first quarter, the Panthers reached deep into their toolbox and found a trick play that, after a few laterals in the backfield, allowed wide receiver Aaron Mathews a wide-open 43-yard touchdown reception.
After the slow offensive start for both teams, Pitt was ready to pull away in the second quarter. Syracuse turned to backup quarterback Clayton Welch to rest DeVito for a few plays, but the senior’s three rushes for 41 yards failed to generate a touchdown. A pair of Pitt touchdowns put the Panthers up by 18, a seemingly insurmountable total for an Orange offense that couldn’t piece together drives or keep their quarterback upright. Time and time again, the offensive line closed around DeVito. The quarterback tried scrambling out of the pocket, tried juking lineman and tried getting the ball off quickly, but none of it worked. Six times DeVito found himself on the ground under a Panther defender, sacked.
“Everybody’s job is in jeopardy,” Dino Babers said about his offensive line. “We’re going to go through the tape and if guys haven’t done the type of job they need to, we need to start getting some other guys in there.”
Booed into the locker room, it was clear the Orange faithful wanted changes in the second half, but with DeVito lining up under center for the half’s first play, it seemed Babers was unwilling to oblige.
However, just a few minutes into the third quarter, a near-fumble and a big hit on DeVito forced Babers’ hand. With only eight career passing attempts in his college career, Welch returned to the game, and they were going to have to let him throw.
For the rest of the game, DeVito would be left to the sideline, with his helmet off, and a towel draped over his shoulders. Win or lose, comeback or not, this game was going to be Welch’s.
“It was good to see him finally get out there as a senior,” Babers said about Welch. “It might be his last opportunity this year to play football.”
On his first pass after returning under center, Welch dropped back into his own end zone, looked to the sideline and almost immediately released the ball. Floating 30 yards through the air, the ball fell into the open arms of Taj Harris, who would carry the ball 94 yards into the end zone for the longest Orange touchdown since 1997, the days of Donovan McNabb. Just a few plays after the boos, the crowd finally erupted.
“We got playmakers out there,” Welch said. “I threw it up and we saw them make a play.”
But “The Clayton Welch Game” wasn’t meant to be. Some pass interference calls, drawn by Trishton Jackson, allowed the Orange to go on a third-quarter drive, but it became increasingly clear that Welch’s arm was not going to shoulder the load of a Syracuse comeback.
But, after Welch led Syracuse down the field to the Panthers’ seven-yard line, down 14 points with 2:44 to play, there was a small glimmer of hope. The glimmer turned into reality when Welch found Aaron Hackett on an out route for a touchdown. The Orange were a touchdown away from a tie game.
Babers elected to trust his defense and kicked the ball back to Pitt, quickly needing a turnover, stop or miracle. They almost got it.
What appeared to be a Kenneth Ruff strip and fumble recovery with just two minutes to play, sent the Syracuse bench and crowd into a frenzy. But the play was put under review.
“We were excited in the moment,” defensive lineman Kendall Coleman said. “But the longer they took to review it, the more a little bit of doubt began to set in.”
The replay review found Pitt running back Vincent Davis was down by contact.
In the dying seconds, Syracuse knew what was coming. Davis took the ball and ran it up the middle, into the heart of the Syracuse line. As Davis passed the first down marker for the final dagger, fans in the Dome began to head for the exits.
Welch wouldn’t be the savior, Friday night at least.