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Syracuse Liberty Football

Syracuse's Adrian Cole bats away a pass intended for Liberty wide receiver Kevin Shaa during a game in Lynchburg, Va. Saturday.

Syracuse opened its season with a decisive 24-0 victory over Liberty Saturday, though for a team that opened the season at No. 22 in the Associated Press’ Top 25 rankings, it wasn’t as clean a win as the score would suggest.

This season, The Citizen will be providing post-game report cards following each Syracuse football contest.

The Orange will be graded via, well, oranges. Five orange slices for whomever was a standout performer for Syracuse, four for a solid performance, and so on.

Here’s how Syracuse graded against Liberty in its first game of the season:

FIVE ORANGE SLICES to the Syracuse defense.

Coach Dino Babers, who has long been associated with high-tempo offenses, teased before the season that it would be Syracuse’s defense, not the offense, that would carry the load this season.

So far, so good. The Orange forced four turnovers, recorded eight sacks and held Liberty to 3-of-16 on third downs. The goal for any defense these days is to get the ball back to the offense as much as possible, and Syracuse’s defense held up its end of the bargain.

FOUR ORANGE SLICES to running back Moe Neal.

On a day which Syracuse’s offense stumbled, Neal was one of the few highlights. The senior tailback accumulated 89 yards on 14 carries, which included a 42-yard rushing score with 12:35 to go that put Syracuse up 24-0.

Neal was also a threat in the passing game, picking up three receptions for 54 yards, which led the team. In 2018, Neal wasn’t much of a factor as a receiver — only 13 receptions for 128 yards — but he’s on his way to smashing that total in 2019.

THREE ORANGE SLICES to Liberty head coach Hugh Freeze.

Freeze, a first-year head coach at Liberty, is recovering from back surgery and was forced to coach from a hospital bed in the coaches’ box.

Obviously not an ideal situation for Freeze or his players, but credit to the former Ole Miss coach for gutting it out.

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TWO ORANGE SLICES to Syracuse’s receiving corps.

While it’d be a boon if Neal can continue to contribute to the passing game, it’s not a long-term recipe for success for a running back to lead the team in receiving.

Despite losing Jamal Custis, Syracuse’s leading receiver in 2018, to the NFL, the Orange return a trio of experienced receivers that should soften the blow. Sean Riley, Taj Harris and Nykeim Johnson each had over 500 receiving yards last season.

That trio was quiet against Liberty, combining for 78 yards on seven catches.

ONE ORANGE SLICE to Tommy DeVito.

As great as the defense has the potential of being, if Syracuse is to contend in the ACC, the Orange will need a better performance out of their starting quarterback. DeVito finished 17-for-35 with 176 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Turnovers are going to happen, but DeVito needs to be smarter with the ball. His second interception came with Syracuse on second down at Liberty’s 17-yard line in the final minute of the first half; DeVito rolled left out of the pocket and threw into double coverage in the end zone, and the pass was picked off by the Flames’ Bejour Wilson.

That play took at least three points off the board for Syracuse. Against Liberty, the Orange can get away with mistakes like that, but Syracuse won’t have such a margin for error in two weeks against Clemson. DeVito needs a get-right game against Maryland before the Orange take on the defending national champion.

NUMBER OF THE GAME: -4

That’s how many rushing yards Liberty was credited with. While it’s slightly deceiving — in college football, sack yardage subtracts from the rushing total — that’s a major positive for Syracuse. Liberty’s rushing leader, Frankie Hickson, was held to 29 yards on 11 carries.

UP NEXT

Syracuse (1-0) travels to Maryland (1-0) to face the Terrapins. Maryland steamrolled Howard University 79-0 in its opener.

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Sports reporter Justin Ritzel can be reached at 282-2257 or at justin.ritzel@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @CitizenRitz.

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