Syracuse University entered into New York's College Classic making strong defensive stances to silence an offense in USC that has aided the Trojans in being regarded as one of the best in the nation. On the Trojans' first two drives, the Orange defense helped to force a turnover on downs each time.
The linebacker unit did so by attacking the run quickly and with powerful tackling.
Also, working against USC to placed them in these fourth-down conversion attempts was the fact that their place kicker Andre Heidari was not active for the game and did not even travel to MetLife Stadium. Their decision to not chance a field goal without their starter did not work in their favor early in the game.
But a weak right side of the offensive line and the receivers' continued failure to gather the ball consistently kept Syracuse from capitalizing off of the turnovers that they helped to cause.
The first quarter came to a close at 0-0, which was a win for the Syracuse defense for stalling Barkley's unit from reaching the endzone, but a loss for the Orange offense who had opportunities to get on the board, which they did not succeed in.
In the following quarter, Syracuse released another page of their playbook, installing running back Ashton Broyld in at the wildcat position. After two plays that amounted zero yards together, the formation was declawed.
Back on defense, Syracuse failed to provide pressure against the run as they did in the first quarter, allowing USC running back Curtis McNeal to get comfortable, breaking free for two big runs, one for 16 yards, the other for 22. With the running game establishing itself, Barkley went to the air for the first touchdown of the game, caught by Lee, to put the Trojans ahead 7-0.
The Orange tried to answer back quickly with running back Prince-Tyson Gulley moving the chains on three carries, each for five yards, but besides Gulley, the defense stalled and another punt sent away a Syracuse opportunity.
Trouble ensued for the Orange as they were unsuccessful on their next drive, not getting farther than their own 32-yard line and sending out special teams for another punt.
When USC received the ball at 6:09 in the second quarter, their offense began to look like it did in last season's match-up against Syracuse: comfortable. A pass, then a run. Two runs, then a pass. Little stopped the Trojans from capitalizing again. This time, Barkley went to wide receiver Robert Woods with near perfect placement on the ball, getting it over Woods' head to drop it in his hands and he crossed into the endzone.
Three drives in the first quarter for USC equaled zero points. Consequently, three drives in the second quarter brought 14 points.
With the Trojans capitalizing on Barkley's quick decision-making, the Orange made some quick decisions themselves, taking their final drive before the half down the field and through the uprights. Eight plays got Syracuse from their own 20 to the USC 20, and finally got them on the board, in just 1:15. 14-3 at the break.
The last drive illustrated Syracuse's ability to get downfield quickly when needing a score, but the ineffectiveness of the offense prior to this drive, an interception and three punts, still lingered overhead as missed opportunities.
Halftime was extended longer than normal due to the potential of lightning, wind, and a possible tornado. Many watched as a dark cloud came overtop the stadium and sat there. By the grace of God, no tornado formed and the game returned.
Syracuse opened the second half with an interception, but not because Nassib was inaccurate on the pass. Once again, the batted ball scenario reared its head at the Orange, when USC defensive end Morgan Breslin tipped Nassib's pass and teammate, linebacker Dion Bailey, was in the right place for the pick.
"You can understand if you misread it, throw an interception, but the batted ball thing, I get frustrated with," expressed Marrone.
That play began a drive that led to another score for the Trojans, increasing the distance by 18, at 21-3 in favor of USC.
But, the Orange ripened in the third quarter, scoring back-to-back touchdowns with an interception in the middle of those scoring drives. Broyld and Smith shouldered the carries, while Nassib completed two big gains to wide receiver Jarrod West for 14 and 31 yards, respectively, before connecting with wide receiver Marcus Sales in the endzone. Syracuse had cut the USC's lead to five, then forced a punt on the Trojans' next drive, giving themselves their first chance to take the lead since the beginning of the game.
The most productive quarter, by far, was this third quarter, with Syracuse allowing one touchdown, while scoring their first two consecutively, gaining a takeaway, and having a strong defensive stance to provide the offense with an opportunity to put the Orange in the lead for the first time all game.
Barkley and the Trojans came out fast, as depicted in Barkley's style of play, scoring back-to-back touchdowns to take the game from a potential swing in favor of the Orange to a deeper hole for the Orange to climb out of, at 35-16.
The first touchdown was aided by poor play by Syracuse's special teams unit, which continues to struggle early on in this season, allowing Woods a 31-yard punt return to the Orange 22-yard line. One play was all it took for Barkley, meeting tight end Xavier Grimble in the endzone on a 22-yard pass. After another punt, the defense lost the drive on a 76-yard run by Woods that got USC to Syracuse's four-yard line.
But, once again, as in the first game of the season, the Orange did not spoil in the final quarter. Syracuse continued to fight, reaching the endzone twice, with both touchdowns coming from carries, first by Gulley and then by Nassib on a keeper. On Nassib's run, the team got behind him and continued to push until he got in. If the game is numerically out of reach, it is still never out of reach to the Orange, demonstrated by their will to score as this game winded down in the final quarter.
At the end of the game, Marrone continuously talked about liking the direction that the Orange are heading in. Despite two losses in their first two games of this season, Syracuse scored 28-straight points in the second half to stay in play against Northwestern and then kept themselves in the game versus USC, taking a 14-3 deficit and turning it into a 21-16 game to end the third quarter.
"I was really excited about the character of the kids…we're striving as a program to be an elite team, a BCS type caliber team," said Marrone. With USC coming into the match-up as the number-two-ranked team in the nation, Syracuse has become a stranger to national recognition in the twenty-first century.
"The opportunity to play a team like USC, which is one of the top teams in the country, to be able to go out there and compete and, in my opinion, win a lot of plays during the course of the game is really exciting for me. I think the so-called experts had us picked to lose by 25 or 26 points…at the end of the day it was 13." The Orange had cut the naysayers prediction in half, but Marrone believed his team could have gotten even closer. "I feel that we could have done better than that."
"We won a lot of downs out there and we looked like a pretty darn good football team," Marrone continued. "…It wasn't enough at the end of the day to beat a team that has the talent that USC has." Marrone referred to that talent, speaking of Barkley, Lee, and Woods.
Barkley ended the game with six touchdowns to one interception, completing 76% of his passes. 21 of his 23 completed pass attempts were split among Lee and Woods. Lee caught 11 balls for 66 yards. Woods finished with 10 catches for 93 yards.
Of Barkley's six touchdown passes, Lee and Woods were on the receiving end of five cumulatively, with Lee grabbing three and Woods with two.
Speaking on the game as a whole, Marrone summed up how Barkley had such a prolific day, despite Syracuse getting to USC defensively on some plays. "We won a couple. The one's we lost were touchdowns," Marrone expressed. "But it wasn't from a lack of effort on our kids' part. It wasn't from a lack of schematics where they (the defense) weren't in position. Just a matter of a Heisman trophy-like quarterback seeing what he wants to see and knowing exactly where to go with the ball."
But, Syracuse has their Heisman trophy-like quarterback to be proud of despite the loss. Nassib threw for 322 yards to Barkley's 187. In two games this season, Nassib has accumulated 792 passing yards, 470 against Northwestern to go with 322 versus USC. If Nassib continues his output against Stony Brook, he will surpass 1,000 yards passing with nine games left on the schedule. He has thrown for six touchdowns overall. Two of his three interceptions came from batted passes, while only one was directly intercepted when Nassib threw to the chest of USC's Bailey. His completion percentage is just under 70%, and would be higher if his receivers had held onto more balls that hit them in the hands or sailed through their hands.
Nassib has been able to lead numerous scoring drives, aided by his ability to spread the ball. Against Northwestern, Nassib completed passes to nine different players. In this game versus USC, Nassib connected with eight separate targets.
One of those targets had his season debut in this game, when wide receiver Alec Lemon stepped out onto the field after undergoing shoulder surgery and then being sidelined for what is believed to have been a hamstring injury. He came in for the final drive of the first half, getting an 18-yard reception to help Syracuse to their first scoring drive and played throughout the entire second half.
Lemon caught five passes for 34 yards, the final catch giving him 134 receptions for his career, making him fourth all-time in Syracuse University football history.
"I didn't even know that. I mean I did know that before this season but I didn't even think about that," said Lemon. "Just going out there trying to win the game, [we] came up short, so breaking those records doesn't mean anything unless we win."
Nevertheless, Lemon and his teammate, Nassib, continue to rise their names above other alum in Syracuse football history. Nassib surpassed 6,000 yards passing for his career in this game, standing at 6,245 passing yards which makes him third all-time for the Orange.
His two touchdown passes in the game bring his career total to an even 50, breaking him away from a tie at 48 with Syracuse alum Marvin Graves, which he achieved with his four touchdown passes in the previous game against Northwestern.
"I'm glad he's on my team," said Lemon with a smile. "He's a great guy. The stuff that he does is unbelievable. The confidence he has in us is what gets us going, pushing, and going further."
Despite the Orange beginning their current season at 0-2, the team has come back with an opportunity to win in the second half of both games. The offense has posted 70 points in two contests combined, getting the team off to a more productive start, offensively, than last season. Though the Orange have lost both games in which they played against USC in the last two seasons, this loss was within two touchdowns as opposed to a three touchdown defeat from the season prior.
The score of this game, however, really does not tell the full story of how Syracuse played. Defensively, the Orange showed more speed. Though they gave up big runs, they prevented touchdowns on those runs. The defense did not get outrun for wide open touchdown passes by Barkley. Coverage has gotten better to couple with speed.
Add in linebacker Dyshawn Davis attacking the run more, and his fellow linebackers Siriki Diabate and Marquis Spruill anticipating plays and making quick tackles, many for a loss, against one of the nation's top offenses.
Syracuse did lose this game, but make no mistake, they did not go quickly and quietly as some may have expected. They stayed in it. They fought. And they did it against better overall offensive talent than they will see for the rest of the season.