SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) —
Andre Szmyt kicked the game-winning 35-yard field goal with no time on the clock as Syracuse used a late turnover to defeat Liberty 24-21 on Friday night.
The Syracuse defense came up with the only turnover of the game — and first of the season for the Flames offense — just when the Orange needed it most. After the Syracuse defense forced Liberty quarterback Malik Willis into fumbling the ball with just under four minutes remaining, Szmyt converted the turnover into the game-winning field goal seven plays later.
“I had a couple guys come over and say, ‘It’s going to come down to you’,’’ Szmyt said of his reaction to the late-game turnover. “This is my first game-winner in my four years.’’
Szmyt’s kick was the Orange’s first game-winning field goal in a game’s final minute since 2015 and handed the Flames (3-1) their first loss this season.
In Liberty’s read-option offense, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Willis ran the ball 17 times for 81 yards and completed 14 of his 19 pass attempts for 205 yards and three touchdowns.
“He is just a Mack truck,’’ Syracuse coach Dino Babers said of Willis. “Mr. Willis is amazing. He is the real deal.’’
Willis had rallied the Flames from a 21-7 third-quarter deficit to knot the contest at 21-all. But the Syracuse defense came up with two huge plays in the fourth quarter.
Liberty had the ball on the Syracuse 2-yard line with eight minutes left in the game. Syracuse stopped Willis on third down and then Liberty coach Hugh Freeze decided to go for it on fourth down rather than attempt the go-ahead field goal.
Syracuse stuffed Willis again to take over the ball.
“Analytics said go,’’ Freeze said. “Obviously, I’d like to have the call over again when it doesn’t work. I felt like we’d put it in our best player’s hand. They probably knew that, too. I hurt for him because nobody takes it harder than he does.”
Liberty did get the ball back, forcing Syracuse to punt with 4:21 left. But on the Flames’ second play, Syracuse’s Cody Roscoe and Marlowe Wax chased down Willis and caused him to fumble the ball and Syracuse linebacker Mikel Jones recovered at the 30-yard line. It was Syracuse’s sixth sack of the game.
“I didn’t know they had broke through,’’ Willis said. “I just never saw them.”
In a surprise move, Babers had inserted Garrett Shrader, a transfer from Mississippi State, as the starting quarterback. Veteran Tommy DeVito had started each of SU’s first three games this season.
Shrader only completed six of his 15 pass attempts, but he ran the ball 15 times and scored two touchdowns. But Syracuse’s offense relied on the production of second-year running back Sean Tucker, who rushed 32 times for 169 yards and one touchdown.
Liberty: The Flames were on the cusp of breaking into the AP Top 25 and missed out on a chance at a big win. The Flames could have notched a key win over a Power 5 conference opponent. The Flames have just one more game against a Power 5 conference team left on their schedule. Liberty will play at Ole Miss on Nov. 6.
Syracuse: The Orange made a quarterback change, but it’s not clear if it found an answer. While Shrader had his moments in his first start, his inability to connect on deep throws limited Syracuse’s offense.
Liberty: The Flames travel to UAB for a night game at Protective Stadium on Oct. 2.
Syracuse: The Orange hit the road for their conference opener against Florida State on Oct. 2.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25.
Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25