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Strong Fall Short in League Opener

The Syracuse Strong won’t forget that game anytime soon.

The GDFL National Game of the Week between the East Penn Raiders and the aforementioned Strong lived up to the hype.

It started off like typical Syracuse games, with the offense getting out to a quick lead.

Superstar receiver Joshua Thomas had one of the best snags of the day which got the juices flowing offensively. That momentum led to a Jason Boltus to LaQuan Rouse touchdown which gave Syracuse a quick 6-0 lead.

Although it wasn’t Tom Standnicki who came trotting out for the extra point attempt, it was brand new placekicker, Zach Grulich. It would’ve been hard to miss him, not only because of his size 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, but his unusual technique and look. During every extra point and field goal attempt, Grulich ditched his cleat and opted to go barefoot on the kick. Although on kickoffs he slapped the cleat back on. He also donned the old school one-bar kicker facemask, simply brilliant.

Speaking of the kickoff, after a poor hurdle choice by East Penn and a timely hit, the Strong got the ball back immediately after the fumble. Boltus didn’t waste much time with the opportunity punctuating a consecutive passing touchdown this time to Zavon Watkins to increase the lead to 14-0.

Little did we know at the time, but that would be the final offensive touchdown of the game for Syracuse.

You have to give the Raiders a lot of credit, they went into this game and made a commitment to themselves: Rashad Burns will not beat us. That strategy worked.

Burns had one of his worst performances in a Strong uniform finishing with 16 carries for 22 yards. That was for a measly average of 1.4 yards per clip. Half of those 16 carries went for negative yards. East Penn stacked the box all night and every time Rashad got his hands on the ball he was immediately dealing with multiple defenders in his grill.

That put all the pressure on veteran quarterback Jason Boltus. After the initial start to the game, it appeared Syracuse was going to put this offense in cruise control, instead the car went into a tailspin. Something just seemed off all night and that resulted in another historically poor performance.

Despite throwing for 216 yards and two touchdowns, Boltus coughed up four interceptions (his first turnovers of the 2021 season).

The tone of the game was set by the turnovers:

- Syracuse had five turnovers in this game (four interceptions and a Burns fumble)

- Raiders coughed up seven fumbles (no that’s not a typo)

One of those fumbles was via a Dewayne “Flash” Gordon strip-sack and his fellow teammate linebacker Damion Blue executed a vintage scoop-and-score to put the Strong up 21-3.

Flash was set to be the team MVP after Week 2 and deservedly so. He had four sacks and three of those were strip-sacks. Gordon did everything in his power to keep Syracuse in front.

Ultimately Syracuse held a 21-3, but apparently 18 points wasn’t enough of a buffer. The Raiders made a furious rally which featured big plays: blocked field goal, interceptions, and their quarterback No. 7 Shoop getting outside the pocket. He extended plays, kept things alive, then found things when the plays broke down.

East Penn fought back and took a 22-21 lead with under four minutes remaining and had a beautifully scripted two point conversion drawing the defense to the left and then coming back right with a soft toss to put them up a three-piece.

Syracuse had one last chance to grab victory from the jaws of defeat, but instead they grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory. As the Strong were moving down the field Boltus tossed his fourth interception of the game. The Raiders got the one first down they needed to run out the clock and just like that Syracuse fell to 1-1 on the season with a 24-21 humbling loss to the East Penn Raiders.

Give all the credit in the world to East Penn. Sometimes football can be a very simple game. On Saturday night it was about who wanted it more and clearly the Raiders wanted it more.

They celebrated after the game like they had just won the Super Bowl.

As I was taking the long quiet walk of shame back to my car parked in the dark depths of the parking lot, I overheard a few Strong players recapping the game, “dude we were up 21-3, how the f*** did that just happen?”

Syracuse will have a week to let this loss marinate before they get their next opportunity vs the New York Rebels at Sunnycrest Field. For those curious, this won’t be the last time that the Strong and the Raiders clash. They’ll meet on July 10 but this time on the Raiders turf.

Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. Syracuse got punched in the mouth, how will this team respond? Will they fold like a used lawn chair and feel sorry for themselves? Or will they step up to the plate and play with reckless abandon next week?

We’ll have to wait and see.

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