NEW YORK — The Syracuse football team marked the centennial of the first game ever played at Yankee Stadium by ripping some pages from a gridiron playbook written in the 1920s to finally snap out of their near two-month long losing streak.
Dan Villari, normally a tight end, ran for 144 yards and a touchdown as the Orange racked up 382 yards on the ground in a 28-13 victory over Pittsburgh inside Yankee Stadium late Saturday evening. Syracuse’s regular quarterback, Garrett Shrader, returned from missing last Friday’s defeat to Boston College due to injury to run for 96 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown scamper on a fourth-and-1 midway through the third quarter to give the Orange the lead for good at 14-13.
Today’s game was played at the home of the New York Yankees to commemorate the first college football game played at the original “House That Ruth Built,” a 3-0 victory by Syracuse over Pittsburgh on October 20, 1923. In line with those times, and through necessity because of injuries and desperation to get back in the win column for the first time since September 23, many of Syracuse’s plays were run from the Wildcat formation, a derivative of the single-wing offense first developed by legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner back in the 1920s. Whether it was Villari, Shrader, or LeQuint Allen taking shotgun snaps, the Orange relied on a road-grading offense to, first, take the lead, and, second, play a ball-control game that wore down the Panthers’ defense.
“We wanted to go old school, to go back to 100 years to a 3-0 win, Syracuse versus Pitt in the old Yankee Stadium and see if we could stir up the ghosts,” Syracuse head coach Dino Babers said.
Babers decided to install the “new” offense starting on Tuesday of this week, and by the end of this weekend, the Orange set a new single-game-high in rushing by more than 100 yards than its previous high watermark this season (271, vs. Colgate and Purdue).
“We asked them to do something that was drastic, and something different. And you can’t pull that off without belief,” Babers said. “They all got on board and we moved in the same direction. Even though we were behind at halftime, there wasn’t a doubt in anyone’s eye and they still believed. It was really nice to give them something like that before they graduate.”
Villari, who initially came to Syracuse as a quarterback, returned to his roots under center, and took many of his carries right up the middle, gashing the Pitt front line chunks of yards at a time. After the Panthers’ third turnover, coming on the first play of the fourth quarter on a botched hand-off in the backfield, Villari rumbled up the middle 27 yards for a touchdown to provide the final score of the game just 41 seconds into the final stanza.
After being outgained 113-35 in the first quarter, and being down 7-3 after the game’s first 15 minutes, Pitt’s offense woke up in the second quarter and took the lead on an 80-yard drive that was capped off by Christian Veilleux’s 10-yard touchdown up the middle to Konata Mumpfield for a 10-7 Panthers lead. Ben Sauls kicked a 35-yard field goal with six seconds remaining in the half to extend Pittsburgh’s lead to six at the intermission.
The second half for the Panthers, however, was marred by three turnovers, all of them turning into Syracuse touchdowns. The first one came on another botched handoff in the backfield by Veilleux, with the fumble recovered by Syracuse cornerback Jayden Bellamy. Nine plays later, Shrader faked a hand-off on fourth down and ran into open space to the right before finding the end zone to give Syracuse the lead back.
Syracuse moved the ball on its next drive to the edge of Pittsburgh’s goal line, but Allen was stopped on a fourth-down run that appeared to be a designed halfback option pass.
The Orange’s defense picked up the slack soon after, with Bellamy intercepting a Vellieux pass and returning it 23 yards for a touchdown to give Syracuse an eight-point lead at the 1:41 mark of the third quarter.
*Editor’s note: Above the byline is the photo gallery from Saturday afternoon’s game, with all photos taken by A Lot of Sports Talk photo editor Robert Cole. After clicking on the first photo to enlarge the picture, make sure to press the left and right arrow buttons to scroll through the rest of the pictures. There are 28 pictures in total.