SYRACUSE, NY- When the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Syracuse Orange last played each other in college football, they were both in the original Big East Conference.
When the Big East was succeeded by the American Athletic Conference (The American, or AAC), the Orange wouldn't play a single game in it. They would promptly move to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), where they have remained. Rutgers would play just one season in The American, until they moved into their current conference, the Big Ten.
Entering Saturday's game in the Carrier Dome, Syracuse led the all-time series vs Rutgers with a record of 29-12-1. During Greg Schiano's first stint as Rutgers' head coach, the Scarlet Knights went 6-5 against the Orange. This would be the first game against Rutgers' former Big East foes since Schiano's return.
Naturally, in a game between two former rivals, the game was closely contested throughout. But Rutgers rode an outstanding defensive effort and two back-breaking miscues by Syracuse to a 17-7 victory.
Senior quarterback Noah Vedral turned in a good performance despite being intensely pressured by the Orange defense all game long. He was sacked four times, but still went 22-for-28 with 145 yards and a crucial touchdown pass that gave Rutgers the lead for good. Vedral's top target was Bo Melton, who caught nine passes for 44 yards.
The Scarlet Knights were outgained by the Orange 258-195. However, Rutgers led in time of possession, 35:56 to 24:04, and didn't turn the ball over at all. Meanwhile, Rutgers' defense terrorized Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito, who was sacked five times, lost a crucial fumble in the fourth quarter, and threw an interception on the Orange's final drive.
The first half was a hard-fought defensive struggle that was completely scoreless heading into halftime. Rutgers' offense was dead silent, with only 49 total yards and five first downs in the first 30 minutes. Syracuse had two great scoring chances, but failed to score on both of them. In the first quarter, the Orange drove to the Scarlet Knights' 14-yard line. Taj Harris tried to pick up a first down, but at the 5-yard line, Avery Young ripped the ball out, and Max Melton recovered to end the threat. In the second quarter, Syracuse drove just outside the red zone, but Andre Szmyt missed a 43-yard field goal attempt with nine seconds left in the half.
Both teams began to gain offensive traction in the second half. After a punt from each team, Vedral led Rutgers on a 13-play, 63-yard touchdown drive for the game's first points. Backup quarterback and utility player Johnny Langan converted on a 4th-and-2 with a 3-yard run, and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Orange head coach Dino Babers led directly to an 11-yard touchdown run by Kyle Monangai.
Syracuse responded in less than a minute. On just the second play on their ensuing drive, Harris made up for his fumble with a 51-yard catch to the Scarlet Knights' 24-yard line, and Sean Tucker followed with a 24-yard touchdown run to tie the game.
Two big plays by the Orange allowed them to tie it, but Rutgers took the lead with one of their own. After an exchange of punts, Rutgers drove to the Syracuse 30-yard line, before Vedral threw a dart over the middle to Jovani Haskins, who rumbled into the endzone for a 30-yard touchdown pass to give Rutgers a 14-7 lead. This time, the lead was permanent.
Syracuse was forced to punt on their next drive, but an atrocious 8-yard punt by Colby Barker, compounded by an illegal formation penalty, gave Rutgers the ball just outside the red zone. They seemingly let the Orange off the hook when Valentino Ambrosio missed a 29-yard field goal attempt, but they got the ball right back when DeVito fumbled while being sacked by Mayan Ahanotu, and CJ Onyechi recovered at the Syracuse 10-yard line. This lead to another field goal attempt for Ambrosio, and he drilled a 29-yarder to make it 17-7.
The Orange would continue to make mistakes towards the end of the game. Despite being in Rutgers territory on 4th down, Babers made the questionable decision to punt the ball to Rutgers instead of going for it. This decision immediately backfired when the Scarlet Knights' offense whittled 4:21 off the clock, all while forcing Syracuse to burn all three of their timeouts before punting the ball away. Syracuse's last drive was full of poor clock management, with several plays causing the clock to continue to tick down, before Max Melton intercepted DeVito with 41 seconds left. Vedral then kneeled to run out the rest of the clock.
What Does this Mean for Rutgers?
The Scarlet Knights are now 2-0 for the first time since 2014, which was their first season in the Big Ten Conference. Speaking of the Big Ten, Rutgers' final nine games of the season are against conference opponents, but perhaps for the first time since Rutgers joined, they have a superior record than perennial powerhouse Ohio State.
During the Rutgers-Syracuse struggle, the Buckeyes, who are ranked third in the country, were upset at home by the Oregon Ducks. The Ducks, while in the top 25, are not in the top 10, and their upset was in Ohio Stadium, which is an unthinkable achievement in itself.
While the Buckeyes certainly remain the conference favorite, this loss shows they are far from invincible. Although Rutgers has yet to prove themselves against a conference opponent, they can make perhaps the largest statement imaginable if they can upset Ohio State in their upcoming matchup on October 2 in Piscataway.
But before they could do that, Rutgers needs to finish their last non-conference opponent before heading to Ann Arbor.
Next Up For Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights will host Delaware on the Banks of the Old Raritan on September 18 at 3:30 PM (Eastern Time). Then, it's off to the Big House to play the Michigan Wolverines, the first Big Ten opponent of the season for Rutgers. That game will be on September 25, also at 3:30 Eastern.