After seven first-half turnovers, there was only one big blunder in the second half Saturday as Syracuse lost to Connecticut. The mistake was a Ryan Nassib interception in the fourth quarter, which enabled UConn to begin the eventual game-winning drive.
"We've got a lot of work to do in all three phases," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said afterwards. "We've lost two games in a row, it's the first time we've done that this year."
The Huskies took the early momentum on the opening kickoff while winning the special teams battle all day, as Nick Williams jolted down the right sideline for 61 yards to set up UConn in prime position. Quarterback John McEntee then completed a pass to get Connecticut to the 15-yard line and he found tight end John Delahunt two plays later for the opening score.
Syracuse nearly made a disastrous mistake on its second play from scrimmage when the exchange between Nassib and Antwon Bailey was botched. UConn's Jory Johnson recovered the fumble, but the SU defense got it right back on a Phillip Thomas interception to salvage some points. The ensuing drive was just 24 yards in distance, before a good punt from Jonathan Fisher.
The sloppy play continued throughout the first quarter, as McCummings could not handle a shotgun snap that ended up in the hands of a ‘Cuse defender. Shortly after, Nassib was intercepted on an over-thrown pass intended for a wide-open Nick Provo. Surprisingly, there weren't any points scored off of the four total turnovers in the first 12 minutes of the game.
The second quarter began the same way, as Syracuse was able to force a third turnover when Chandler Jones stripped running back McCombs, who was already nearing 100 yards on the afternoon at that point. Rishard Anderson recovered to get SU in prime position, but Nassib proved ineffective on third down on one of his many passes that came off too high.
"You just have got to make plays," Marrone said. "We had opportunities and weren't able to take advantage in the first half."
Despite the uninspiring early effort from the offense, the Syracuse defense continued to limit Connecticut on the ground to provide more opportunities for Nassib and company. The unit got going in the latter stages of the half, and put together two good drives. A sack derailed the first push, but Nassib completed a 20-yard pass to Alec Lemon to even the game at 7.
SU's Jones made an even bigger play on the ensuing possession, strip-sacking McEntee to give the Orange the ball in plus-territory. However, the drive stalled soon after Nassib missed on consecutive throws. The defense rose up yet again, as Thomas came up with a second interception. The offense moved into scoring position at the end of the half, but Ross Krautman missed the 34-yard attempt wide-left.
The defensive dominance throughout the first half went out of the window after intermission as both teams would not be denied for the majority of the final two quarters.
Syracuse had the momentum going into the half, and it carried it further once play resumed. Nassib continued to fit passes where they need to be, tossing for 50 yards on the drive. It took 10 plays and nearly five minutes off of the clock, but the Orange found Provo in the end zone after a combination of play-fakes. Lemon came up big again with a 21-yard catch-and-run on the drive.
Not to be outdone, the Huskies responded with a drive of their own. McCombs rushed for 37 yards on the push, with the last three accounting for a score on a toss-sweep. The big play was a third-and-12 conversion to Ryan Griffin over the middle. McCombs took a pair of handoffs for a combined 29 yards to begin the drive that started at the 40 because Krautman's kickoff after the SU score went out of bounds.
Nassib and company came out strong on the next chance, and Lemon was once again the driving force. He hauled in three passes on the drive good for 53 yards, while once again working the middle of the field.
"Coming into the game, we saw a weakness in their defense," Lemon said. "We wanted to exploit that."
"It took us a while to get rolling, but once you get that first first-down, things start clicking."
Once SU got close; Dorian Graham got his third reverse of the afternoon and was able to take it the final 7 yards on the drive. At that point, he led the Orange with 40 yards rushing on three carries.
The back-and-fourth affair continued on the next drive, as UConn again knotted things up. McCummings was in at quarterback for most of the drive, running the variation of the Wild Cat. He kept the ball more times than not, and he found the end zone on a designed keep in which he was able to break three tackles on the way to pay dirt. The trend was similar in the second half, as Connecticut dropped back and threw the ball only four times.
"We had to play gap-assignment football, and they caught us a few times off balance," Jones said. "They capitalized off of those plays.
Provo got ‘Cuse a pair of first-downs on consecutive plays on the next drive, and he converted another but Nassib made the first mistake by either offense in the second half. He was intercepted by Sio Moore on a great break to the ball, and Connecticut was on the move again.
The ground game continued to hurt SU, as both McCombs and McCummings had success on just about every down well into the fourth quarter. The duo ran for 33 yards on the drive, and a facemask penalty aided the effort before McCummings plowed in from 7 –yards out to put the Huskies ahead for the first time since the opening score of the game.
"We had a couple of missed tackles that we could have made," safety Shamarko Thomas said. "They had a good shceme against us, and that's how the game went."
And it would leave UConn ahead for good.
Syracuse had a tough time getting going on the next drive, but converted a fourth-down attempt with under three minutes to go. It could not repeat a last-minute conversion as Nassib's pass was batted down by Kendall Reyes to give the Huskies the ball back with a chance to run out the clock. Lemon and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett felt that he had a step on the defender.
"I talked to coach Hackett (right after the game), he said that probably would have been six (points) if that ball didn't get batted down," Lemon added.
-The loss drops SU to 5-4 (1-3). UConn rises to 4-5 (2-2)
-The first quarter interception by Phillip Thomas was McEntee's first interception in 180 pass attempts.
-Before Bailey's fumble, Syracuse had gone three-plus games without a turnover.
-Lemon was able to record over 100 receiving yards for the first time this season.
-McCummings set career-highs in touchdowns (two) and yards (59) for a game.