College football: After flourishing start, injuries piled up and Orange slid downhill

Dec. 30—The Syracuse University football season played out like a three-act play, with plot twists so drastic at each turn, it would be scrutinized for absurdity if submitted as a script.

The Orange (7-6 overall) ended a polarizing campaign on Thursday with a 28-20 loss to Minnesota in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

Syracuse started 6-0 for the first time since 1987 to heighten expectations but lost six of its last seven games. A flurry of roster and coaching staff changes leading into its first bowl appearance since 2018 served as the surprise dramatic conclusion.

"The loss definitely does hurt but we got to remember that we did some great things this year," SU linebacker Marlowe Wax said. "A lot of people didn't have us going to a bowl game, so just giving thanks to the team and coach Babers, and all the other coaches we have, because we really did come together and do some great things this year."

Syracuse opened amid euphoria in its longest unbeaten start since finishing undefeated in 1987.

Syracuse rose as high as No. 14 in the national rankings, sold out the JMA Dome in consecutive games for the first time since that '87 season, and secured its preseason mission of bowl eligibility by the halfway point.

The Orange ranked as a top-10 defense in terms of points and yardage allowed behind the mantra of "The Mob," while SU was top 30 in total offense through its 6-0 start.

But the curtain dropped quickly when SU suffered a heart-breaking loss at Clemson, surrendering a fourth-quarter lead that foreshadowed a sudden downfall.

Injuries piled up — a recurring theme in seven seasons under head coach Dino Babers — as SU lost five straight games before salvaging a victory at Boston College to close the regular season.

Quarterback Garrett Shrader missed a game and a half with a foot injury and played compromised the rest of the way, halting a breakout campaign. Star running back Sean Tucker left multiple games but never sat out playing through a rumored ankle ailment.

All-ACC cornerback Garrett Williams was lost to a torn ACL during the skid as one of three week-one starters to suffer a season-ending injury on defense.

Syracuse ended the regular season ranked 29th in total defense and outside the top 65 in all major offensive categories.

After the ups and downs of the regular campaign, SU lost both coordinators to other programs — Robert Anae left for North Carolina State and Tony White for Nebraska — and three key defensive starters to the NCAA transfer portal in a series of unexpected moves.

The Orange missed nine week-one starters on offense and defense for the Pinstripe Bowl due to injuries and transfers, along with opt-outs by NFL Draft-bound RB Sean Tucker, OT Matthew Bergeron, and LB Mikel Jones.

"I think this team is still hungry, we're not average, we're above that, but I think that they're still hungry and still want to go after it," Babers said after the bowl.

"I think that we have a lot of talent coming back, we had a lot of talent moving on to the pros, but with the people that we had injured and the extra years they're getting back, and if they recover from those injuries, we have an opportunity to be very good next year."

Throughout the three distinct phases of the freshly concluded campaign, penalties remained a persistent issue that Babers acknowledged as the top priority approaching the 2023 season.

Syracuse finished last in the FBS with 8.7 penalties per game. The miscues cost them multiple times in late situations, most notably in the crushing loss to Clemson with the chance to move to 7-0, and again in the final minute of their season at the Pinstripe Bowl.

Looking ahead to the sequel, the Orange should have the chance to build on the positives from the 2022 campaign with continuity in its new coordinator hires and cornerstones returning on each unit next year.

Shrader expressed excitement to move forward with QBs coach Jason Beck taking on the offensive coordinator role. He returns with breakout tight end Oronde Gadsden II entering his junior year, freshman running back LeQuint Allen flashing star potential, and three starters back on the line.

New defensive coordinator Rocky Long invented the 3-3-5 defense operated by his former protégé, White, at SU the last three seasons. Wax and defensive end Caleb Okechukwu, the only two SU players with at least 10 tackles for loss this year, are expected back to lead the unit.