Opening fright: Syracuse squeaks past Villanova

Orange wins bizarre game on touchdown pass by Riley Dixon in double overtime.

Syracuse turned to an unlikely hero Friday night at the Carrier Dome.

After all, it’s not every day the punter throws an eventual game-winning touchdown on a fake field goal attempt.

Facing fourth and goal from the Villanova one-yard line in double overtime, punter and place-holder Riley Dixon connected with tight end Kendall Moore for a go-ahead touchdown. Moments later, Robert Welsh tackled Wildcat quarterback John Robertson on a two-point conversion attempt to help SU escape with a 27-26 victory.

Photo: Gerald Nicholas Annis
Joe Sarnese (#20) of Villanova looks on at the Orangemen during Friday's season-opening game. Syracuse went on to beat Villanova 27-26.

“We’re 1-0 and that’s all that counts,” SU head coach Scott Shafer said. “Was it pretty? No, it wasn’t pretty, but we found a way.”

Syracuse began the night looking for its 31st straight win against an FCS opponent, but that goal appeared more and more out of reach as the game progressed.

Prince-Tyson Gulley gave the Orange an early lead by scampering 65 yards for a touchdown on its first possession. But just as quickly as George McDonald’s new speed-it-up offense was off and rolling, it would later stall because of a game-changing mistake.

Late in the second quarter, Wildcat linebacker Dillon Lucas delivered a high tackle to Orange quarterback Terrel Hunt on a first-down scramble. Hunt took exception and appeared to punch Lucas’ facemask with his left hand.

By rule, Hunt was immediately ejected by game officials.

“We lost Terrel and it was a shame,” Shafer said. “The NCAA made it clear that they wanted to clean up that part of the game, so I had no problem with the decision. We moved on.”

With Hunt out of the game, backup quarterback Austin Wilson was thrust into the spotlight. The sophomore completed 11 of 17 passes for 89 yards in his first collegiate game action.

But perhaps most importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over.

“I think Austin responded very well,” said SU’s Ashton Broyld, who finished with five catches for 57 yards. “He led us to victory, and that’s all that we can ask for from him.”

With an inexperienced quarterback driving the offense, the Orange defense was expected to carry the team to victory. However, it couldn’t stop Villanova dual-threat quarterback John Robertson.

Robertson became the first player in more than a year to rush for 100 yards against the Orange, finishing with 115 yards on 34 carries. He also threw for 199 yards and led the Wildcats on a game-tying drive with only 7:14 remaining in regulation.

On his next drive, Robertson led Villanova all the way to the Syracuse 8-yard-line. However, rookie kicker Chris Gough shanked what likely was a game-winning 25-yard field goal with 12 seconds remaining.

That gave the Orange new life in overtime, and it took advantage.

After both teams traded field goals in the first overtime, three failed runs at the Villanova goal line brought up fourth down for SU in the second frame. Rather than take three points, Shafer took a risk and told Dixon to make a play.

He did, rolling left and firing a jump pass to give the Orange a 27-20 lead.

“It was pure joy seeing Kendall catch that ball,” Dixon said of his touchdown pass. “I think I blacked out on the play. There’s not a chance that I imagined this ever happening."

After the Wildcats found the end zone on their next possession, head coach Andy Talley decided to take his own risk and go for the winning two-point attempt. But Robertson was freight-trained by Welsh well short of the goal line.

Those left in the Carrier Dome let out a collective sigh of relief.

So did Shafer, who said the Orange has a lot to fix before facing Central Michigan on Sept. 13. Still, he gave his team credit for fighting until the very end.

“I’m mad,” Shafer said. "We know we have some things to work on and we will. But, there’s something good about saying it wasn’t the performance we wanted, but we got a victory. That’s what teams do.”

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