Syracuse’s defense is forcing turnovers and flipping momentum

SU defense works to create more turnovers

Duce Chestnut’s interception on Saturday is the start of something SU has been working on for weeks.
Published: October 8, 2021
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Darian Chestnut (20) and Justin Barron (23) celebrate a pass break-up against Liberty on Sept, 24, 2021.

Two yards behind the line of scrimmage, Duce Chestnut stood with his knees bent, his arms relaxed in front of him and eyes set on the quarterback.

The Seminoles led the Orange 30-27 with 8:33 left in the fourth quarter. Florida State quarterback Jordan Travis handled the shotgun snap and opened to throw the ball quickly to his right.

Chestnut sidestepped FSU’s Camren McDonald and leaped in front of Travis’ screen pass intended for Treshaun Ward. The result was a spectacular diving interception. First down, Syracuse.

“That’s a play I’ve been wanting to make all my life,” Chestnut told The NewsHouse. “That was just an in the moment kind of thing.”

The interception, Chestnut’s second of his true-freshman season, set the Orange up on the FSU 41-yard line. Andre Szmyt kicked the tying field goal on the ensuing drive.

“I haven’t seen it done before,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said about Chestnut’s play. “When you catch a ball like that, your hands and your elbows hit (the ground) first. The elbows will separate the hands and you won’t get the catch, but he was able to fight through all of that which is really big time. It was an exceptional catch.”

Chestnut’s diving pick was the second time in as many weeks Syracuse’s defense captured a turnover in the fourth quarter. In Week 4 against Liberty, Cody Roscoe forced a fumble that Mikel Jones corralled with 3:35 left in the game.

Defensively speaking, turnovers are good. They become even more important when a team’s offense is working to find its identity amid a quarterback competition and key players transferring. Of their seven remaining 2021 ACC opponents, only two – Virginia Tech (23.5) and Clemson (22.1) – average fewer than Syracuse’s 30.4 points per game through five weeks.

“I think this year we’re doing a really good job: offensively, giving us energy and the defense giving it back.” Syracuse cornerback Garrett Williams said. “It’s really big to play complementary football and I think we’re doing a really good job of that right now.”

They’re stripping, picking and sacking now, but the defensive unit is still well behind the pace they set last year. Five weeks into the 2020 season, Syracuse’s turnover margin was 11. Eight interceptions and eight forced fumbles outweighed SU’s five turnovers but attributed to a 1-4 record.

Now, the Orange are 3-2. Their turnover margin reads minus one. They’ve forced five turnovers but forfeited six. Questions about Syracuse’s turnover drought began after their Week 2 loss to Rutgers. Then 1-1, SU had forced only one turnover but surrendered three of their own.

“Our first instinct is to just tackle the ball carrier. But to help us win games, we have to win the turnover battle,” Senior defensive lineman Josh Black said in September. “Last year, we excelled at that. So that’s something we have to get back on track with.”

Black said the team began to re-emphasize the component at practice with a three-station ‘turnover circuit’ to start each day. One station works on ripping the ball away, another on tipping passes, the third simulates strip-sacks and focuses on where the quarterback holds the ball.

“Just something to get our minds flowing and going before practice even starts,” Black said.

Since losing to the Scarlet Knights, Syracuse’s defense has provided its team the opportunity to win each week. SU has regained possession four times since Week 2, at least once in each of their last three contests.

Rolling into the strain of their conference schedule, the Orange will play the No. 19 Wake Forest Demon Deacons on Saturday, their first ranked opponent of the season. Williams, SU’s top returning defensive back from 2020, said the team’s ‘turnover circuit’ has highlighted the importance of flipping possession as they did last year.

“Anytime running backs run the ball in practice, strip at it. When the ball is in the air, make sure you’re going for the interception,” Williams said on Tuesday. “It’s good starting to see that work in practice start to show in games.”