Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) is tackled by Syracuse defenders Geoff Cantin-Arku (31) and Rob Hanna (19) during an NCAA college football game in Clemson, S.C., on Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ken Ruinard/Pool Photo via AP

Canadian linebacker Cantin-Arku enjoys a bittersweet first season as Orange starter

Canadian linebacker Cantin-Arku enjoys a bittersweet first season as Orange starter

Canadian linebacker Geoff Cantin-Arku’s first season as a starter at Syracuse was indeed bittersweet.

Wins were at a premium for the Orange (1-10), which finished their season with a 45-21 loss to No. 2 Notre Dame last weekend. It was Syracuse’s eighth straight defeat.

But the six-foot-four, 228-pound sophomore linebacker from Levis, Que., registered 63 tackles (52 solo, six for a loss) with four sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in his first full season as a starter. He was one of four Orange players to accumulate over 60 tackles and finished just off the team lead.

Not bad, considering Cantin-Arku spent most of his freshman season on special teams.

“I think this year I came into the program as one of the oldest guys in my room so they had a lot of expectations of me,” Cantin-Arku said during a videoconference this week for Canadian reporters. “I think I did good for my first year playing in the U.S. as a starter.

“I think I progressed during the season … every game I was getting better and able to make more plays. I think my coaches were happy about my year and are happy to have me back next year.”

Cantin-Arku’s best game came in a 38-24 loss to Duke on Oct. 10 when he registered a season-high 10 tackles (eight solo) with a forced fumble and fumble recovery. The Orange’s lone win was a 37-20 decision over Georgia Tech on Sept. 26.

Two of Syracuse’s losses came against then top-ranked Clemson (47-21) on Oct. 24 and 45-21 to No. 2 Notre Dame last weekend. Cantin-Arku wouldn’t be surprised to see both teams vying for college football’s championship.

“They’re the two best teams we faced this year and they have a good chance to play each other in the championship game,” Cantin-Arku said. “They’re both good teams, they both have great quarterbacks and great offensive lines.

“I feel they both have a chance to win the championship.”

Cantin-Arku had four tackles (three solo) against Clemson while recording three tackles (two for a loss) and two sacks versus Notre Dame. He said adjusting to the speed of the game as a starter was something he had to adapt to this season.

“Last year I was playing on special teams and I knew a little bit about the game,” he said. “But this year I really saw how fast the game is.

“You’ve got to make decisions and make sure you’re a good linebacker, You have to play more downhill here than in Canada … so the speed of the game, I think, was the most important and hardest thing to adapt to.”

Cantin-Arku said he’s an emotional player on the field but added next year he’d like to be better able to keep a lid on them at certain points of games.

“I think I need to stay focused during the game,” he said. “I’m a really emotional guy and I think sometimes I’d be better if I kept calm and kept playing.”

Cantin-Arku said a big reason why he left Quebec – and the opportunity to play for Canadian powerhouse Laval – for Syracuse was because he felt it would provide a better opportunity to realizing his childhood dream of playing in the NFL.

“I had a couple of other offers but when I visited Syracuse, it really felt like home,” he said. “It’s close to home for my family and I play good in the cold … It was a perfect fit for me.”

Especially considering Cantin-Arku is one of six Canadians on Syracuse’s roster, including five from Quebec. Having that little slice of home, Cantin-Arku said, has definitely helped.

“For sure,” he said. “When I first came to Syracuse. I didn’t really speak English well because French is my first language.

“Having other Canadians has been really helpful. We’re like family, we’re helping each other get better on and off the field. “

But playing football during the COVID-19 pandemic certainly created its share of challenges, not the least of which was multiple tests for players and football personnel each week. And then there was playing games without fans in the stands.

“It’s been a long season,” Cantin-Arku said. “We’ve three COVID tests a week, we had a lot of things to pay attention to and be careful of … it’s all been different.

“It was a lot different with nobody in the stadium. The last time I played without fans, I think I was nine years old so it’s been a long time.”

—-

INVITE ACCEPTED: Canadian receiver Josh Palmer will play in this year’s Senior Bowl.

The six-foot-two, 210-pound player from Brampton, Ont., accepted his invitation earlier this week. The game will be held Jan. 30, 2021 in Mobile, Ala.

The Senior Bowl is an all-star game that annually attracts the top U.S. college seniors. It offers them a chance to practise and play before officials from all 32 NFL teams as well as some from CFL clubs.

Palmer has 26 catches for a team-high 367 yards and four TDs for Tennessee (2-6). The Volunteers face Vanderbilt (0-8) on Saturday before finishing their campaign Dec. 19 versus Texas A&M. Both contests were rescheduled from November due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

—-

HONOURS FOR OGBONGBEMIGA: Canadian linebacker Amen Ogbongbemia’s outstanding performance in Oklahoma State’s 29-22 loss last week to TCU certainly didn’t go unnoticed.

The six-foot-one, 235-pound redshirt senior linebacker from Calgary was named the Big 12’s top defensive player of the week after registering a school-record 12 tackles (nine solo, one for a loss). The 12 tackles also tied a Big 12 single-game record.

Ogbongbemiga also forced three fumbles (recovering two), resulting in Pro Football Focus also naming him as its national college defensive MVP. The three forced fumbles in a game was the most by a FBS player this year and one short of the NCAA record.

Ogbongbemiga was also named a national semifinalist for the 17th annual Lott IMPACT Trophy, which goes to U.S. college football’s defensive player of the year. He’s one of 24 players up for the honour.

Ogbongbemiga has a team-high 74 tackles with five for a loss, 2.5 sacks, three quarterback hurries, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Oklahoma State (6-3) ends its regular season facing Baylor (2-6) on Saturday.

It’s unclear if Canadian running back Chuba Hubbard will play for the Cowboys,. The native of Sherwood Park, Alta,, has missed the last two games with an ankle injury.

—-

WIN STREAK: After a difficult stretch, the Penn State Lions find themselves on a win streak.

After opening the season with five straight losses, the Nittany Lions (2-5) have won two straight, including a 23-7 decision last weekend over Rutgers, Penn State will chase a third consecutive victory when it takes on Michigan State (2-4) on Saturday.

Jesse Luketa, a six-foot-three, 242-pound junior linebacker, had 10 tackles (six solo, one for a loss) and a fumble recovery against Rutgers. On the season, Luketa has 45 tackles (26 solo, two for a loss) with a fumble recovery.

Safety Jonathan Sutherland, a five-foot-11, 202-pound redshirt junior also from Ottawa, registered four tackles (two solo). He has 10 tackles (five solo, 0.5 for a loss) with two pass breakups this season.

—-

SPOILER ROLE: Illinois can add to Northwestern’s woes Saturday.

No. 14 Northwestern (5-1) is coming off a 29-20 loss to Michigan State last week. The Illini (2-4) will also have redemption on their mind following a 35-21 loss to Iowa last week.

Chase Brown, a five-foot-11, 195-pound junior running back from London, Ont., ran for 83 yards on 18 carries against Iowa. Brown has rushed for 440 yards on 79 carries (5.6-yard average) with two TDs this season.

Twin brother Sydney, a starting defensive back at Illinois, had three tackles against Iowa. This season, the six-foot, 200-pound Brown has 36 tackles (20 solo, 0.5 for a loss) with a forced fumble.

—-

THIRD TIME: For the third time this year, Canadian receiver Jared Wayne had a season-high five receptions in a game with the Pitt Panthers.

The six-foot-three, 195-pound sophomore from Peterborough, Ont., had five receptions for 60 yards Thursday night as Pittsburgh (6-5) captured a season-ending 34-20 win over Georgia Tech (3-7). It was the makeup of a game that was postponed last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

That left Wayne with 21 catches for 326 yards and a TD this season.

—-

RECORD PACE: Top-ranked Alabama (9-0) visits Arkansas (3-6) on Saturday on quite a roll.

Not only is the Crimson Tide unbeaten, but last weekend’s 55-17 win over LSU extended its streak of scoring at least 35 points to a college football-record 22 straight games. The squad has also scored 40 or more points in an SEC-record eight consecutive contests.

Sophomore receiver John Metchie III had four catches for 58 yards against LSU. The six-foot, 195-pound former Brampton, Ont., resident has 35 receptions for 648 yards (18.5-yard average) with six TDs this season.

—-

TRAP GAME: It’s a classic trap game.

Last weekend, upstart Coastal Carolina captured an impressive 22-17 win over BYU. The Chanticleers (10-0) not only remained unbeaten and improved to No. 11 in The Associated Press top-25 rankings, but handed the Cougars (9-1) their first loss of the year.

On Saturday, Coastal Carolina faces Troy (5-5).

Enock Makonzo, a five-foot-11, 195-pound redshirt junior linebacker/defensive back from Lachine, Que., had four tackles (one solo, one for a loss) and two quarterback hurries against BYU. This season, Makonzo has 59 tackles (37 solo, nine for a loss) with two sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and three quarterback hits.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 11, 2020

The Canadian Press

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