Offense wins Spring Game, 34-27

Austin Wilson, one of four quarterbacks to play Saturday, scored two second-half touchdowns to push the Offense past the defense.

It wasn’t quite football on Saturday at the Carrier Dome, but for the 4,071 fans in attendance who sat through a very long winter, the 2014 SU Football Spring Game was enough. The Offense beat the Defense, 34-27, thanks to two second-half touchdown passes from sophomore quarterback Austin Wilson. Four Orange quarterbacks saw action in all, though presumptive senior starter Terrel Hunt – who was just named the team’s Most Valuable Player for the 2013 season at Friday night’s awards banquet – was limited to just three series, going 12-for-15 for 95 yards.

A paucity of healthy linemen caused SU head coach Scott Shafer to institute a creative scoring system for the scrimmage, resulting in odd scores such as 10-4 and one sequence that included four straight punts. The scoring tweaks were fairly simple for the fans to follow, however: one point for a stop on defense, three points for a three-and-out, and six for a turnover.

Depleted numbers on the offensive line and spring game rules that slightly favored pass rushers – a quarterback needed only be touched to count as down – put an emphasis on quick decisions by the men under center. That offensive line depth was further tested when senior center John Miller went down on the first series with a knee injury. Though Miller would later return with a knee brace, SU had to make do with converted tight end Kendall Moore as its second-string center for most of the scrimmage, the physical embodiment of Shafer’s “Next Man Up” credo if ever there was one. The result was plenty of screen passes and few deep or intermediate pass attempts.

“It’s what the defense was giving us – a lot of checks and adjustments,” Shafer said. “Anytime you can throw a five-yard pass and it turns into a 70-yard gain, that’s a great play. I didn’t see a whole lot of mistakes.”

Though there were several drops on the day, the Orange’s receiving corps put together a solid performance, particularly junior Ashton Broyld (eight catches, 126 yards) and senior Jeremiah Kobena (three catches, 45 yards), who grabbed two touchdown catches apiece. Both Broyld and Kobena looked lethal in the open field, and Kobena was responsible for the play of the day: an 18-yard touchdown catch from Austin Wilson in which he caught a screen pass near the right sideline, broke a tackle and reversed field, outracing the entire SU defense before turning up the left sideline and sprinting into the end zone. Not to be outdone, Broyld capped the next drive by taking a similar pass from Wilson and breaking no less than four tackles as he darted up the right sideline for a 54-yard touchdown. Those plays produced more than a few questions about the Orange’s tackling, but Shafer will likely focus on the improved speed and big play ability of his two wideouts, neither of whom caught a touchdown pass in 2013.

“I told the [receivers] every time, you know, you make us look good,” Hunt said. “We’re just giving you guys the ball. We get the acclaim, but really, it should be them.” 

Sophomore Brisly Estime also added four catches for 104 yards, 64 on a catch-and-run that Estime took from the middle of the field all the way to the three-yard line. 

 “We made some plays in space, which was one of our goals,” Shafer said.

The defense put in a decent effort, stopping seven of the offense’s 14 drives, including three straight three-and-outs to begin the second half. Sophomore safety Darius Kelly also halted another drive with an interception, earning six points for the defense. Punter Riley Dixon scored for the defense prior to the second half, downing two of his four punts inside the 10-yard line and another inside the 5, good for a total of seven points.

It’s hard to tell how much stake to put in a spring game  – it’s essentially a glorified practice – but the demeanor of Hunt and Shafer suggested that the program will be able to build on the success it achieved at the end of 2013. Hunt stayed calm under pressure in leading the team to late wins over Boston College and in the Texas Bowl against Minnesota, and he looks at home with his role as face of the program heading into his second season as a starter.

“It’s way different,” Hunt said. “You go in playing with no worries on your mind. You’re not worried about ‘Am I going to get pulled?’ Now you’re going in full of confidence.”

Hunt sported SU’s newly revealed white game jersey as he spoke in front of the assembled media on the Carrier Dome field on Saturday. OrangeNation is getting used to the idea of Hunt under center too – his media session was interrupted when he stopped to peel off two of his orange wristbands for a young fan.

“Whether it’s the quarterback position or some of the other positions, it’s always nice to have an incumbent,” Shafer said.

Shafer could just as well be talking about himself.  2013 was something of a learning experience – it was his first head coaching gig at any level – and Shafer is now familiar with what it means to be an ACC head coach. He said he’ll spend most of May on the road recruiting before returning to Syracuse to prepare for the 2014 season.

There are still 132 days until Syracuse faces Villanova in the Dome on August 29. But for one day at least, the fall didn’t seem so far away.

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