With one win in six games, Syracuse sits in a four-way tie one step above the cellar of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Still, hope springs eternal in this pandemic-stricken season, even after the Orange's latest setback — a 47-21 loss at top-ranked Clemson. After falling behind 17-0 in the first quarter Saturday, the Orange rallied and were within 27-21 until late in the third quarter.
“I was really proud of how they played. They looked like two different football teams,” Orange coach Dino Babers said Monday. “They had some misses early, but I also thought they had some growth in tackling. I didn’t feel like we were totally mismatched on the effort part of it. Physically, I thought we did some things well, but they’re bigger, stronger, older, and eventually they wore us down."
Redshirt freshman defensive back Garrett Williams provided a big boost, intercepting a tipped pass from Trevor Lawrence and returning it 39 yards for his first career touchdown late in the second quarter. That had never happened before to Lawrence in college, and it sparked a 21-10 Syracuse surge that moved the Orange within six points. Clemson was a more than seven-touchdown favorite.
“As a team, I think we’re really confident,” said Williams, who also had two pass breakups and a team-high eight tackles. “We’re upset about the fact that we didn’t finish the game because we had an opportunity to beat them. And even though we didn’t finish the job, I think it gives us a really good thing to come back from.”
Syracuse (1-5, 1-4 ACC) hosts Wake Forest (3-2, 2-2) on Saturday. The rest of the schedule includes home games against Boston College and North Carolina State and road contests against Louisville and No. 4 Notre Dame.
Despite that newfound hope, there's no denying the steep learning curve for young players in starting roles, such as freshmen defensive backs Ja'Had Carter and Rob Hanna. They're among 13 Syracuse players who have started their first college games this season.
“You really want to pick and choose when you want your little brother to come play tackle with the big boys. You don’t want to make him grow up in one football game,” Babers said. “We’ve just got to see how it goes.”
Before Clemson was a 38-21 loss to Liberty, an independent Syracuse defeated 24-0 a year ago on the road. The Flames ran roughshod over the Orange defense behind a seldom-used running back, averaging 7 yards per carry and racking up 338 yards and scoring four times on the ground. It was the Flames' first triumph over an ACC team in only their second season as a member of the Bowl Subdivision. The Orange also lost 38-24 to Duke, still the only win of the season for the Blue Devils, who rushed for 363 yards and two TDs.
“I’m striving for these young people and for ourselves to be consistent because that’s what you need to do,” Babers said. "You need to have a steady stream so that people can make decisions off you. We’re trying and moving that way as fast as we can, but with the drastic age groups that we have, it’s taken us a little bit longer than what I would have anticipated.”
Williams is leading by example in his first season as a starter. He has 34 tackles, third on the team, and before the Clemson game was ranked No. 1 in the nation among defensive backs by Pro Football Focus for not allowing a touchdown in 30 targets. He's been a solid addition to the secondary and very much needed since All-American safety Andre Cisco opted out after suffering an injury before the third game of the season.
Cisco's dedication to his craft led to impressive accomplishments — 12 interceptions in his first two years, tops in the nation; and preseason, first-team All-America honors in 2020.
Williams is following in Cisco's footsteps.
“I knew early on that I was going to be part of the mix because I knew how hard I had worked leading into it,” he said. "I didn’t know whether I’d be starting or not, but I knew I’d leave them no choice but to have me in the game in some capacity. I feel confident in what I can do.”
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