By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
A malfunctioning clock, a quarterback controversy, a jump pass and a safety: No. 25 LSU’s 35-26 win over Syracuse had everything football has to offer, at its best, and otherwise – except for a crowd to see it until the end.
LSU (3-1) used the first play from scrimmage of each half – first on defense, then on offense – to overcome the Orange in less than dominant fashion, a victory in question almost until the very end.
“I know it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t exciting, but I’m glad we won,” said LSU head coach Ed Orgeron.
On the game’s first play from scrimmage, Greedy Williams picked off Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey, returning it 28 yards to the Syracuse 1, where Derrius Guice – limited to just 14 yards on eight carries, with a nagging injury from last week’s defeat at Mississippi State – in the game’s first score after just nine seconds. Williams nearly scored himself, stopped only by a blatant facemask from Dungey.
“I seen the quarterback out the periph,” Williams said. “I thought he was going to pull up and let me in, but he obviously wanted to pull my facemask.”
Drake Davis needed a mere 15 ticks after halftime to score himself. After being battered and bruised by a relentless Orange front for the game’s first half-hour, Danny Etling (10-of-17, 188 yards, 2 touchdowns) play actioned and found his target on a deep post. Davis (2 receptions, 98 yards) bobbled briefly but secured the pass for an 87-yard connection, his second touchdown of the season and a 21-3 lead.
Etling started the game 4-of-10 for 29 yards, taking several hits and often harried due to leaky protection, but finished 6-of-7 for 159 yards, once the offense made the requisite adjustments.
“We just kind of figured out what they were doing,” said Etling. “There were some mistakes. We got a feel for what they were doing. I started to settle in, the receivers started to settle in. We got settled down.”
Despite nearly a full half of football to play, the LSU fans began filing out after Davis’ score. As the Tiger Stadium crowd thinned, with more seats empty than occupied, Syracuse’s rally began, outscoring LSU 23-7 over the next 22. Cries of “Let’s Go Orange” rang out from the Syracuse faithful, never louder than when Dungey – just a couple of plays after using a jump pass to pick up a first down – found Steve Ishmael for a 22-yard score to trim a deficit once at 18 points down to just two, 28-26, with 5:40 to play.
Tiger Stadium. Two point game in the fourth quarter. pic.twitter.com/SuDuicoqRu
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) September 24, 2017
After a failed onside kick from Syracuse, Etling returned, and his final contribution – shortly after an eight-yard scramble and a big third-down pickup by reserve tailback Nick Brossette – was to hand the ball to D.J. Chark, who took a jet sweep 20 yards for the deciding score.
For most of the first half, Williams’ near pick-six was all the offense LSU could muster. After Guice put the Tigers up 7-0, LSU finished four straight drives with punts. The Cuse defense exploited the Tigers’ offensive line, with Etling under constant duress from Syracuse’s front and the running game stuck in first gear. The Tigers finished with 151 yards rushing, but needed 38 carries to get there.
“There was too much penetration,” said Orgeron. “We had penetration all night. Danny was under duress all night. Without watching the film, I’d say Syracuse’s line won.
“The long ball saved us tonight. We couldn’t get much going in the run game.”
LSU’s defense held strong, holding Syracuse to just a first-quarter field goal, the culmination of a 17-play, 52-yard drive on the Orange’s second possession. Unlike the Tigers, Syracuse (2-2) was content to dink-and-dunk most of the game, picking up 24 first downs to LSU’s 18, but averaging just 4.7 yards per play to LSU’s 6.2.
The Tiger offense found its stride on its final possession of the first half, spreading the Syracuse defense out with four-wide sets and getting the ball out of Etling’s hands quickly. The senior quarterback hit on 4-of-5 passes for 66 yards, the final toss a strike to Stephen Sullivan on a slant. The sophomore wideout did the rest, coasting 43 yards for the score – an improvement from his last outing in Tiger Stadium, when he dropped a similar would-be score.
“It was exactly the same play from the Chattanooga game,” Sullivan said. “It’s the same one I dropped. I just had to make sure I caught that one.”
Not to be outdone, Davis raced out of the locker room with his 87-yard bomb. The game and play clock were both malfunctioning, leading the back judge to keep time until the problem could be mended midway through the quarter. But Etling’s dime to Davis, loosed just over the back judge’s starting position, was timed perfectly, and the juggling act required to complete the catch never concerned Davis.
“I’m about to score a touchdown,” Davis recalls thinking. “I’m about to make Coach Canada happy.”
Syracuse answered back, in a trend that would continue nearly to the game’s conclusion, this time thanks to a bit of trickery. Wide receiver Devin Butler took a handoff from Dungey, before rolling back to his left and tossing a 30-yard touchdown pass to Ervin Phillips, cutting the deficit to 21-10 with 12:20 to play in the third quarter.
Though Etling and the offense had hit its stride, LSU went to Myles Brennan under center on the next drive, and the freshman keyed a six-play, 91-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a 20 yard Darrel Williams run to the left. The play before, Williams took Brennan’s third down toss into the flat 43 yards.
“We wanted to give Myles Brennan some reps when the game was on the line, see what he could do,” said Orgeron, who added Etling remains the starter. “He did well in some situations, got to get better in others.”
Williams’ next carry netted points, as well, but not for LSU. Backed up to its one-yard line for the second time in the game, the Tigers let Syracuse’s Parriss Bennett break through the line and drop Williams in his own endzone for a safety, pulling within 28-12 at the 3:29 mark of the third quarter. Ten plays later, Dungey ended the third quarter with a 14-yard rushing touchdown, rolling right and running right past Arden Key to pull Syracuse within nine, 28-19, heading into the fourth quarter.
Brennan opened the fourth quarter by converting a pair of third downs. The third third down of the drive, however, he misfired, throwing an interception for the team’s first turnover of the season and prompting Etling, who had completed 6-of-7 for 159 yards and two scores on the seven passes prior to his benching, to warm up on the sidelines.He returned to turn yet another pressure into a positive gain, setting up Brossette’s crucial third-down conversion and Chark’s clinching touchdown.
“I didn’t think much,” Etling said, asked what he thought of the coaches taking him out for Brennan. “I just do whatever the coaches say and move on from that…The coaches put the ball in my hands (at the end), so I was going to make sure I got us out of there with a win.”
LSU returns to action next week with a home matchup against Troy. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. on ESPNU.