Defense wins championships, but it can win games as well. Especially when given the lead. That's what happened on Saturday as the Syracuse University football team visited the University of Louisville, as the Cardinals got off to a hot start that the Orange were never able to respond to.
Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse offense was ineffective against the attacking Louisville defense. The Cardinals put up some early points as a result of big plays in the passing game from true freshman Teddy Bridgewater, and the Orange could never make it close enough to be considered a contest in what became a 27-10 route.
Louisville got the game started at its own 8 yard-line because of a penalty, but it didn't slow their attacking pace. Bridgewater, who managed to protect the ball throughout the afternoon, went to the air twice in the next four plays. It was enough to move the Cardinals down the field. A zone-coverage breakdown led to a 44-yard completion to Michalee Harris, Bridgewater's high school teammate. Two plays later, the versatilequarterback connected with DeVante Parker for a back-shoulder, 42-yard touchdown, as he beat Keon Lyn's man-coverage. The seemingly easy score would become a recurring theme.
The Cardinals were poised to score again after an SU three-and-out, but what looked like a 27-yard TD to Harris was nullified by a holding penalty. Two plays later, Marquis Spruill – who was held on the would-be score – forced his first career fumble after a screen pass was completed to Dominique Brown. However, Syracuse could not capitalize and it went three-and-out for a second straight possession.
Bridgewater then took to the air again, completing a 21-yard screen pass to Harris to set up the Cardinal running game. Jeremy Wright powered down to the Syracuse 2, and 6-foot-8 Josh Chichester hauled in a score over the smaller Olando Fisher. A play earlier, it seemed as if Phillip Thomas recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown but Marrone called a timeout before the play.
"The defensive call went in, but the second part of the call didn't get communicated," Marrone admitted. "So I called a timeout…why would I want a defense out there that only has half the call."
Down 14-0, Nassib took to the air. He connected with Dorian Graham for the team's initial first down as the opening quarter came to a close. After another first down, this time to Nick Provo, Antwon Bailey got into the act with a 14-yard run. However, the drive stalled after Nassib misfired on second down and took a sack on the next play to put the team out of Ross Krautman's field goal range. The senior felt responsible for the loss after an inconsistent performance.
"Me particularly, I definitely wasn't accurate enough this week, and I didn't make enough throws where guys were open," Nassib said. "Those missed throws I made really cost us the game."
After the defense shut down a promising Louisville drive, the running game got going. Bailey broke one for 29 yards and Graham took a reverse for 18. However, Nassib's pass to Van Chew on third down went just short of the first down. Marrone contemplated going for it on 4th-and-1, but called a timeout. In a surprise move, the offense came back to the field anyway. Jerome Smith plunged for the conversion soon after. The drive then fluttered, and Ross Krautman got SU on the board with a 34-yard field goal.
Louisville put a decent drive together – aided by the eighth SU penalty of the first half – but Chandler Jones put a wrench in the plans with a big sack on a second down that killed the momentum. Time ran out in the half shortly after. But the damage had been done.
"Teddy Bridgewater is a young player, but he's a great player," Jones said. "He extended plays with his feet…personally I missed one or two sacks on him. He's just a great player and a lot of credit goes to him for extending those plays. "
Second Half, Same Story
Syracuse relied on the running game on the opening possession of the half, as Bailey took another wild cat snap, in which he later called the "express" formation, for 24 yards. Nassib threw to Chew twice, but only four yards resulted. On third down, Bailey was stopped on another wild cat attempt. The SU defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing UofL possession, which became a common theme in the third quarter.
Both defenses played well throughout, as no points were put on the board. Syracuse had the best chance of scoring on its opening possession, but the Louisville defense ended drives with big plays.
"They did what the film said they were going to do," Bailey said. "They were going to pressure us, and they were going to come after us, which they did – and we struggled."
The scoring lull changed in the fourth, when UofL was able to notch a field goal on the first play of the quarter. Chris Philpott made good on a 44-yard attempt after the Cardinals got the ball in Syracuse territory to start the drive. In the process, Bridgewater helped to convert a first down despite being faced with a 1st-an-19 because of penalty.
Louisville broke the game wide-open on its next possession after Syracuse managed just one first down. On a 3rd-and-8, Bridgewater ran the option to perfection with Victor Anderson, who was on the receiving end of the pitch. After out-running a defender, Anderson picked up a down-field block and scampered 61 yards for a touchdown to put the Cardinals up 24-3.
Syracuse would salvage the day with a late touchdown drive capped by a 20-yard Jarrod West reception from Nassib, but the imprint from the Louisville defense had been dealt. The Orange was held under 200 total yards until its final drive, when the reserve defenders were in for the Cardinals.
The Cardinals stopped an Orange runner 15 times behind the line of scrimmage – coming off a week and a win in which not one Syracuse offensive play went for negative yardage.
-Cardinals WR Michalee Harris notched a career-high 92 yards receiving on the afternoon.
- Louisville defensive end Greg Scruggs did not play. He was on the sidelines before the game in a walking boot.
-The win gave UofL its first back-to-back Big East wins in five seasons and provided SU with its first road loss in conference this season.
-SU's Antwon Bailey was unable to notch 100 yards on the ground for the first time in five games.
-U of L's Bridgewater had thrown an interception in each of the previous four games. He finished 17 of 24 for 198 yards and two touchdowns. He didn't turn the ball over once.
-SU's West caught the first receiving touchdown of his career from Nassib, who finished 22 of 36 for 162 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked four times.