Syracuse, N.Y. — Dino Babers held on to his quarterback decision until the very end, unveiling the surprise of the season — and perhaps of his tenure — moments before his team took the field Friday night against Liberty.
In having Garrett Shrader start at quarterback, Babers abandoned both the predictable and the familiar, sending a message just as ACC play is about to begin: Expect something different this year.
After back-to-back losing seasons, a shake-up was in order, and a different offensive identity was hatched in a 24-21 victory here Friday night in a game decided on a 34-yard field goal by Andre Szmyt as time expired.
Syracuse, once hellbent on running as many plays as it could in 60 minutes and gassing the opposition, appears quite comfortable lowering the shoulder, controlling the ball and giving its aggressive defense time to rest and reload.
Unlike previous years, when SU was often sucking wind and wilting in the fourth quarter, here was Mikel Jones storming through the gap and denying a future NFL quarterback the 2 yards he needed on fourth-and-goal midway through the fourth quarter of a tie game.
Here was Marlowe Wax and Cody Roscoe, barrelling down on Malik Willis, causing him to lose the grip on the ball and gift SU possession at the Liberty 30-yard line with less than 4 minutes to play in regulation to set up the winning score.
Babers, after three games of playing both Shrader and incumbent starter Tommy DeVito, inserted the big, powerful running quarterback from Mississippi State and ran the ball 53 times. He passed 15 times, including a few screen plays.
When he wasn’t sticking the ball in the belly of Sean Tucker 32 times, Shrader was doing just enough to move the sticks with his arm and legs. He dove over a pile of bodies on the goal line for one score and blasted through defenders on a 10-yard run for another.
Syracuse led 14-7 at halftime, forcing Willis to be a one-man offense who couldn’t do it by himself on a night about 30 NFL scouts came to the dome to watch him.
That changed in the second half.
Shedro Louis broke free for a 30-yard run before Willis hit Demario Douglas in stride for a 33-yard touchdown to knot the score at 21-21.
Willis then found CJ Daniels on a hitch route. He escaped a tackle by Duce Chesnut and scampered down inside the 20-yard line to set up the key goal-line situation snuffed out by Jones.
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