Midway through the first quarter of Syracuse’s 45-26 obliteration of no. 9 Louisville on Saturday, Orange fans could be forgiven for being nervous.
Senior quarterback Ryan Nassib had looked out of sync almost from the start, plagued by Senior Day jitters. After an early deep connection with Jeremiah Kobena, Nassib had been misfiring all over the field, overthrowing open receivers or simply not identifying targets altogether. That included a wide-open Alec Lemon in the endzone on the game’s first drive, a 3rd down miss that forced the Orange to settle for a field goal and raised the familiar specter of ugly red-zone offense.
The Orange success thus far had come from its ground game, with Jerome Smith and Prince-Tyson Gulley both finding seams with ease. The Orange’s lone touchdown had come when Gulley swept right from 8 yards out, caroming into the endzone like a videogame character. But that kind of success wasn’t likely to continue unless the Orange could get things going through the air.
Louisville had just tied things up at 10-all on a screen pass to Corvin Lamb, who scampered 53 yards down the left sideline. The crowd of 40,000 was tense.
After a pair of run plays, Syracuse faced a 2nd and 6 on its own 34. Nassib dropped back, fired, and badly missed WR Christopher Clark on a crossing route.
And then something happened.
When a reporter asked about it after the game, Nassib couldn’t even remember the play in question. But a switch seemed to flip. Between one play and the next the jitters disappeared, and all of a sudden, Ryan Nassib was locked in.
He nailed fellow senior Alec Lemon for 28 yards up the right side. Then he rifled a pass to Marcus Sales for a gain of 6 on the left for the final play of the quarter.
A few plays later, on 3rd and 9 from 13 yards out, Nassib lofted a tight-spiraled parabola to the left side of the end zone, hitting Lemon in the hands on a fade route as he dragged his foot and fell out of bounds. The Orange went up 17-10 and never looked back.
“We played mistake-free football all game, and we played through the whole game and didn’t try to do too much, and we had fun doing it,” Nassib said after the game, characteristically laconic about his own performance.
No. 12 finished the game 15-23 for 246 yards—a stellar 16 yards per catch—with three touchdowns, including one to ersatz tailback Lewellyn Coker to cap the Orange scoring barrage. Coker turned the wrong way, stumbled, tipped the ball to himself, and finally hauled in Nassib’s 3-yard pass to put the Orange up 45-19 with just over 5 minutes to go. In the process of scoring his first career TD, the junior linebacker stomped any remaining life out of an already thoroughly demoralized Cardinals team.
Nassib’s favorite target was Lemon, though. The senior WR pulled in 9 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns. With the offensive line giving Nassib plenty of time to survey the field, Lemon got open at will, with an almost preternatural knack for being in the right place at the right time. Every time the Orange faced 3rd and long, Nassib seemed to find Lemon streaking over the middle.
After the clock wound down on their final game together in the Carrier Dome, the two shared an embrace on the field before heading to the locker room.
“Ryan and I, we’ve been through a lot. A lot of ups and downs,” Lemon said of the moment. “I gave him a big hug and told him I love him.” He told Nassib, “I wouldn’t be where I am right now without him, and he felt the same way. Ryan and I are great friends, and it was something special to share that moment.”
The Nassib led the Orange to what he called the biggest win of his career, beating a top 10 opponent for the first time since Virginia Tech in 2002 and jolting new life into the team’s comatose postseason hopes.
Nassib helped cement his case as one of the best quarterbacks ever to come through Syracuse. Midway through the game, he passed Donovan McNabb for 2nd on the Orange’s all-time passing yards list. He finished just six yards shy of Marvin Graves in 1st. Barring catastrophe, Nassib will obliterate Graves’ mark of 8,466 yards in his final two games.
Nassib also made a bit of Big East history, becoming No. 1 all-time in completed passes in the Orange’s last season in the conference, with 723.
“I’ve really seen him come along in these last couple weeks,” Marrone said. “It’s probably the best that he’s been throwing the deep ball.”
Reflecting on Nassib’s career and his senior season with the Orange, Marrone grew effusive.
“You know, at least from my standpoint, when you look at a student athlete [who is a] National Football Foundation academic award winner, one of fifteen, dual major in the Whitman School of Management, the community service that he’s done and the type of leader that he’s been for his team—as a community, as a university, as a football program, as an athletic program, how could you not be proud of what he’s done in the face of adversity? So I couldn’t be more proud of Ryan and what he’s accomplished, and it hasn’t been easy for him, and I really appreciate that. And I think that as he moves forward, and the success he has in the future, he’ll represent this community and this university the way we will all want him to.”
The Orange improves to 5-5 on the year, an improbable 4-2 in Big East play after a dismal start to the season. Syracuse is poised to make it back to a bowl game for the second time in three years if it can win one of its two remaining contests.
A bowl game might have seemed impossible before today, but if this version of Ryan Nassib and the Syracuse Orange shows up again, it’s not just possible. It’s likely.Corey Mallonee (Follow on Twitter @CoreyMallonee)