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Revenge Game: Orange look to cool Flames after last season’s Dome loss

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Syracuse Orange running back Sean Tucker (34) in the first half during a game against Liberty on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.

Dennis Nett | dnett@syracuse.com

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — I had a wedding out of town last week and couldn’t watch the game in real time… what did I miss? 

Only the best performance by the Orange this season? Oh, okay. 

Listen, I know this dominant performance came against an FCS level school in Albany, but after the way this season as begun for some, losing to those same caliber schools, take a blowout when you can get it. 

With that said, it’s time to turn the page (said in a Bob Seger voice) and focus on Liberty. The same team that came to the Dome a season ago and put it on Dino Babers and company. 

Give me Liberty, or give me death 

And last year, Syracuse got both Liberty and death. The Flames ran all over the Orange. Literally. SU’s defense gave up 338 yards on the ground en route to a 38-21 win in a fan-less ‘Loud House’ and that didn’t sit well with Syracuse. 

“We plan on sending a message on how we didn’t like how it went down last year,” said sophomore linebacker Mikel Jones. 

“For our defense, (stopping the run) is one of our biggest goals and we didn’t do that well that game,” Jones added. 

The lopsided result isn’t just a Syracuse sticking point either. Liberty Head Coach Hugh Freeze knows it’d be foolish to think they’re going to easily walk over SU like they did a season ago. 

“I’m sure they aren’t happy we were able to beat them at their place last year. So, I’m sure we’ll get their best attention,” Freeze said. 

Things are different than a season ago. For starters, while SU is dealing with some injuries, it isn’t as catastrophic as it was in 2020. So, you won’t hear a word from Babers about it. 

“I will never complain based on what happened last year. We’re banged up but we’re not like last year,” Babers said. 

Another thing he won’t complain about, his offensive line. The unit has noticeably progressed this season. Sacks are down and rushing yards are up. Granted, judging a team based on these early results isn’t the best way of trying to figure out how this one will play out Friday night. 

“It’s all relative to how good the teams are that you’ve played. And nobody really knows that yet. It’s too early in the season to know just exactly who we are,” Freeze said. 

Yeah, we’re talking about Willis 

And Malik Willis is exactly who the Flames are. The redshirt-junior is turning heads, both in the college and pro games. Willis, who had 240 total yards and two touchdowns in last season’s win in the Salt City, is lighting up opposing defenses once again. In three games, all wins for Liberty, Willis has 838 yards of offense and eight touchdowns.  

Long story short, it’s hard for Syracuse not to take notice. 

“He runs so strong. I’m not going to call him a running back, because he’s not, but he does not run like a running quarterback. He’s better than that,” Babers said. 

Willis’ unique playstyle is something Babers said his team cannot replicate in practice. And while that makes preparing for him almost impossible, it doesn’t hide what Syracuse believes they must stop Friday night. 

“He can move around the pocket very well and make something happen with his feet. So, I feel like we have to contain him this week,” Jones said. 

Starter and the reliever 

That’s the comparison Dino made Monday when talking about his quarterback battle between Tommy DeVito and Garrett Shrader. 

Both had similar numbers against the Great Danes, but as for who will get the nod and who will come out of the bullpen against Liberty, Dino is “still going through the evaluation process.” 

“Any time you have more than one guy that is capable of playing, it’s more of a starter (and) reliever. Both guys have to prepare. The defense is going to prepare for both guys, which helps us offensively. You put the starter in and if he can go nine innings and finishes the game, great. But if he can only go six or seven (innings) and we have to bring in the reliever from the Yankees, that’s fantastic. Then we’ll see who plays good and who gets to do it the next time,” Babers said.  

It’s hard to tell whether making an opposing defense prepare for two quarterbacks is just a football trope or a strategy that coaches feel is a net positive. And while Liberty’s Hugh Freeze joked he’d rather face a third option rather than DeVito or Shrader, he told the media both QBs present a problem because of the supporting cast around them. 

Here’s the glowing reviews he gave both Taj Harris and Sean Tucker: 

“(Harris) is one of the best receivers I’ve ever seen on tape. He’s that good.” 

“(Tucker) put together one of the best freshman seasons in the history of Syracuse football. We were impressed with him then and we’re impressed with him now.” 

What wasn’t impressive at all last season, besides the outcome for Syracuse, was the lack of a crowd. Freeze said it was eerie how quiet things were with no fans, and he felt everyone in the Dome could hear was he was saying last year. That certainly will not be the case this time around. But if the result is anything like it was a season ago, Babers will undoubtedly hear everything the fans have to say. 

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