Syracuse University football coach Dino Babers has challenged his offense to finish Saturday’s game against Holy Cross without allowing a sack for the first time this year, urging continued growth along the offensive line while escaping its final nonconference tune-up with a healthy quarterback hitting his rhythm.
The Orange (2-2 overall) will host the Crusaders (1-2) of the FCS Patriot League at noon today in the Carrier Dome for a game to be televised on the ACC Network.
SU is favored by 38.5 points and enters with a perfect 17-0 mark against FCS foes, formerly Division I-AA, since the separation of major college football programs into two divisions in 1978.
SU will be on the bye next week and return to continue Atlantic Coast Conference play with an ESPN Thursday Night game Oct. 10 at North Carolina State.
“You never know what’s going to happen in a football game and you never who is going to get hurt in a game,” Babers said. “It’s a serious game where good players are allowed to get tackled and allowed to get hurt, so we need to be focused and locked in so that we don’t make any mistakes and we can leave this game with the same amount of players that we start it with.”
The Orange offense broke out of its early-season slumber during a 52-33 victory over Western Michigan last Saturday in the Carrier Dome.
SU posted season highs across the board, including points and 545 yards of offense, after averaging 16.5 points per game through its first three outings.
Babers’ lone critique of the unit after that breakout performance was that three sacks were permitted to continue a troubling trend.
SU has allowed 17 sacks through its first four games, which is the second-highest mark in the ACC behind Miami (18). The Orange has been driven back a total of 110 yards on sacks this year, which is tied with the Hurricanes for the most in the conference.
The offensive front has been hindered by a key injury to starting center Sam Heckel, and Babers hinted at potential changes if the unit doesn’t display the improvement he is seeking before the bye.
“(We) saw some good, saw some bad, we’re still continuing to grow,” Babers said of his offensive line to date. “Like I said earlier on record, somewhere between games four and six, we’re going to find out if we have the right guys or the wrong guys. They have gotten better, but they’re not exactly where I want them to be right now.”
Heckel has missed the past three games due to an upper-body injury and is questionable to return today, and his injury has forced significant changes throughout the unit.
Airon Servais has shifted from his regular left tackle position to fill in for Heckel at center, Carlos Vettorello has moved from right tackle over to the left side in place of Servais, and backup Ryan Alexander has moved into the starting right tackle position.
Guards Evan Adams and Dakota Davis are the only offensive linemen that remain in the same starting spot they held for the season opener.
“I feel like they are taking it a game at a time and they’re definitely getting better as a group,” said SU senior running back Moe Neal, who enters the game just five rushing yards shy of reaching 2,000 for his career. “Servais and Evan Adams, they’re leading those guys and they’re getting better a game at a time. We’re getting better as a whole offense, which makes us play great.”
SU is also entering with injury questions in the defensive backfield. Star safety Andre Cisco and starting cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu are both questionable after surprisingly being ruled inactive a few hours before last week’s kickoff due to lower-body injuries. Sixth-year senior Antwan Cordy, who started in place of Cisco last Saturday before leaving with an apparent upper-body injury, is also questionable.
Earlier this week, Babers said that he expects each player to be back soon. He also stated that he is hopeful that defensive tackle McKinley Williams, an expected starter who missed the first four games due to a lower-body injury, could be cleared to return when the ACC schedule resumes after the bye week.