The news of Keon Lyn's lower-body injury during the week, which required season-ending surgery, was crushing to a Syracuse defense coming off of its worst performance of the year in allowing Clemson to throw the ball for 455 yards. In stepped Julian Whigham at cornerback on Saturday against North Carolina State.
During the game Saturday, Dyshawn Davis re-aggravated an ankle injury in the second quarter and did not return.
In stepped Josh Kirkland at linebacker.
With the latter pair of injuries not as severe as Lyn's, the replacements stepped up throughout the Orange's big win over the Wolfpack, the program's first in an ACC game.
Whigham logged a trio of tackles on the stat sheet, but his impact to virtually shut down his side of the field in the passing game was much deeper. He was tested in man coverage and responded with physical plays at the line of scrimmage, something the secondary emphasized all week, and he used his length to stay on his opponents' hip all afternoon long. He was tested on a pair of deep passes and made plays on the ball each time, though he was called for pass interference on one occasion.
Kirkland, like Whigham, has played plenty this season but was thrust into a bigger role when Davis was lost for the game late in the first half. The hybrid defender not only gave the team his usual emotional boost in between plays, but he controlled the end of a defensive series for SU that proved pivotal in momentum.
N.C. State cruised on the opening drive of the second half, in a 7-7 game, and was nearing the red zone. Kirkland made one of his three tackles on first down. Helped to force an incompletion on second down, and took to a familiar skill -- rushing the passer -- in forcing the pocket to collapse on third-and-long to allow John Raymon to register a big sack. The distance lost by State made the ensuing field goal attempt a 51-yarder, which sailed left.
SU never trailed in the game, and that sequence could have gone either way before Kirkland's timely efforts. His position-mates weren't very surprised.
"The next guy has to step up, that's what we prepare for, Kirk brings intensity," Cameron Lynch said. "He wears his heart on his sleeve and he gives 100 percent at all times.
"That's what I like about him...I'm happy he made some big plays for us today."
Kirkland also added a pass break-up in the effort, one of three on the day by the Syracuse front seven. But his energy makes just as big an impact in the defensive huddle.
"He came in ready to play and he made some big plays," Marquis Spruill said while laughing. "He came in exited, juiced up and he's a very good player.
"He practices hard, studies the play-book and it showed today."
Davis' ankle injury is not believed to be series, per Scott Shafer, but the Orange is fortunate to have a guy like Kirkland waiting in the wings either way. The same goes for the secondary with Whigham and the versatile Wayne Morgan also holding his own in the rotation as the group moves on post-Clemson.
The Orange's defense will face a unique test next Saturday in Atlanta against the option attack of Georgia Tech.