SYRACUSE — The Syracuse University football team beat Florida State for the first time in 52 seasons last year to represent the launching point of a momentous campaign, but on Saturday, the Orange will enter its matchup against the Seminoles looking to ease the angst of what has thus far been a disenchanting season.
Florida State will host Syracuse in a matchup of two the most disappointing teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla., to be televised on ESPN2.
SU came into the season as a nationally ranked program for the first time since 1998 aiming to build upon its first 10-win season in 17 years. Now more than halfway through its schedule, the Orange is the only ACC team without a conference victory and is one of four FBS squads that has yet to beat an opponent from a power-five conference.
Both the Orange (3-4 overall, 0-3 ACC) and Seminoles (3-4, 2-3) are coming off back-to-back disheartening conference losses and enter with an air of mystery surrounding their respective starting quarterbacks for each team’s much-needed, bounce-back bid.
“We’ve got to keep our heads up,” said SU senior defensive lineman Kenneth Ruff, who appeared to recover a fumble to set up a potential game-tying drive late in last Friday’s 27-20 loss to Pitt before the play was overturned. “We know there’s a lot of negativity from the outside, a lot of disappointed fans right now, and we have to fight through that and persevere as a team.”
Much of the blame for SU’s struggles has been attributed to repeatedly poor pass protection, and the Orange offense has surrendered an FBS-worst 35 sacks.
Protection miscues reached a breaking point during last Friday’s setback when redshirt sophomore quarterback Tommy DeVito was removed by coach Dino Babers after being dealt a devastating hit to the shoulder as he ran to avoid pressure. Senior Clayton Welch took over and fueled a comeback bid by leading two second-half scoring drives, including a 94-yard touchdown pass to Taj Harris, and threw for 176 yards while adding a team-high 36 rushing yards.
Fourth-year coach Dino Babers has reiterated throughout the week that DeVito would remain the starter if healthy enough to perform, but didn’t provide a further update on his status. DeVito has appeared to be playing through pain for much of the past three games, and neither QB spoke to the media this week.
The embattled SU offensive line will undergo at least one lineup change after the team announced that Ryan Alexander, a graduate transfer from South Alabama who had started the last six games at right tackle, has left the program. No reason was given for Alexander’s departure in the team-issued press release.
Babers intimated earlier this week that changes could be in the offing for the unit that has largely under performed, but cautioned against placing all of the team’s protection woes on its line.
“It’s all spread out, to put it on one position is always something that you’ve got to be careful with, especially when you go back and watch the tape,” Babers said. “But the thing we have to do is we have to grow and we aren’t growing fast enough for me.”
The Seminoles, meanwhile, have routinely utilized quarterbacks James Blackman and Alex Hornibrook in a timeshare for much of this season and the pair has combined to complete 66.2 percent of their passes, which ranks as the best team completion rate in the ACC. Blackman played exclusively last week, marking the first time since Sept. 19 that only one member of the duo made an appearance.
Second-year coach FSU Willie Taggart — who has been under pressure by national media and Seminoles supporters for his 8-11 record at the perennial power — declined to provide details on his QB plans during his media availability this week and wouldn’t deem Blackman the starter when asked directly. The Seminoles have leaned heavily on star running back Cam Akers, who leads the ACC with 11 total touchdowns and ranks second in the conference with 110.4 rushing yards per game.
The Orange will be aiming for its first road win at Florida State in its sixth attempt after ending a 10-game losing streak in the series last year, a victory that prompted a viral postgame speech from an exuberant Babers and helped spark a 10-win campaign that set lofty and so far unfounded expectations among SU supporters.
“I don’t think we’re going to fall apart,” Babers said. “I think we’re going to come closer together, and we just need that first break. We don’t know when that’s going to happen, but we’re looking to the horizon and we have faith that it’s going to happen.”