Syracuse seals loss in home finale with final play
SYRACUSE — The Syracuse University football team saved the most heartbreaking setback of a trying season for its final home game Saturday.
Redshirt senior quarterback Rex Culpepper spiked the ball on fourth down with a second remaining while attempting a comeback, and North Carolina State held on for the 36-29 victory over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The home finale was played without fans in attendance, as was the case all season, due to state COVID-19 restrictions.
The Orange (1-9 overall, 1-8 Atlantic Coast Conference) will finish the year next Saturday at second-ranked Notre Dame and will aim to avoid just its second one-win campaign since 1948. Syracuse also finished 1-10 in 2005.
Culpepper finished 23 of 45 for 254 yards and a pair of touchdowns while starting in place of injured freshman, JaCobian Morgan, in what may have been his final game at the Dome.
Culpepper threw for three first downs and ran for another on the final series to drive the Orange to the Wolfpack 7-yard line. He then took a sack on third down while scrambling to find an open receiver, and out of timeouts, SU frantically rushed to the line of scrimmage where Culpepper spiked the ball to turn it over on downs with a second left.
“Rex is an amazing person and you’re talking about a young man at his age that has already beaten cancer,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said. “This is a game, it’s always going to be a game, it’s a game that we love, but Rex is going to go off and do great things, Rex could do great things here next year. … It’s something you have to grow from, he had a heck of a game, and it’s just unfortunate that one play was bad.”
Taj Harris hauled in a career-high 13 catches for 146 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown to give SU a 29-20 edge after the extra point with six minutes left in the third quarter. Harris came down with a 26-yard catch near the sideline on a key 3rd-down play on SU’s final drive, which was overturned upon replay to keep its comeback hopes alive after originally being ruled incomplete.
The junior wide receiver, who moved into 10th in SU history for career receptions, was targeted on 20 of Culpepper’s 45 pass attempts. Syracuse needed his production with its run game stifled, finishing with just three net yards on 25 attempts. Leading rusher Sean Tucker gained just 18 yards on 16 carries.
“They played in a heavy run front the entire game because they did not want our tailbacks to have any success, they were forcing us to beat them with the throw,” Babers said.
The Wolfpack (7-3, 6-3) scored 16 unanswered points to pull off the victory. Quarterback Bailey Hockman found Thayer Thomas for a nine-yard touchdown, their third scoring connection of the game, to cut SU’s advantage to 29-27 after the extra point late in the third quarter.
Hockman then hit Emeka Emezie for a 26-yard score less than a minute into the fourth quarter to take a 33-29 edge, failing to convert for two points afterward. Syracuse cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu maintained tight coverage on the play, but Thomas jumped up and high-pointed the ball for the TD grab.
North Carolina State added a field goal with five minutes left before SU’s last-chance drive fell short.
Hockman completed 23 of 31 passes for 313 yards and a career-high four touchdowns, while Thomas tallied nine catches for 102 yards, including touchdowns of 15, 31, and nine yards.
Sophomore linebacker Mikel Jones hauled in his ACC-leading fourth interception to set up an early SU field goal. Melifonwu delivered a crushing hit onto a Wolfpack receiver just after a completion to pop the ball loose and into the arms of Jones, who has also recovered two fumbles this year for SU.
“I slipped so I was a step behind, but I got back up and just ran to the ball and made a play on the ball after (Melifonwu) made a great play,” Jones said. “Just doing my job, not being selfish, being where I’m supposed to be and giving my effort every single play.”
Freshman wide receiver Trebor Pena scored on a 98-yard kick return midway through the first quarter for SU to tie the game at seven points apiece, marking the longest return for the Orange since 2011.
True freshman linebacker Marlowe Wax wrapped Hockman up and forced him to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety in his first career start. Syracuse started a program-record six freshmen on defense after starting five in each of the last two games.
Wax joined freshmen defensive backs Rob Hanna, Ja’Had Carter, Garrett Williams, and Aman Greenwood, along with linebacker Stefon Thompson, as rookies starting for the SU defense.