Orange Watch: Part I — 2013 Syracuse football pre-season game-by-game predictions

Item: Our annual chronological look at each game on the schedule, and if we think the Orange make it back-to-back bowl seasons for the first time since 1998-99. Part I is Penn State through N.C. State. Part II runs next Monday Aug. 26 and picks up with Georgia Tech through the end of the season.

Once the Buffalo Bills made quick work in hiring Doug Marrone just days after the decisive Pinstripe Bowl victory over West Virginia last Dec. 29, it prevented what would have been an intriguing matchup in this year’s season opener Aug. 31 at neutral MetLife Stadium against Penn State between longtime friends Marrone and Nittany Lions second-year rejuvenator Bill O’Brien, who’s future wives were onetime roommates at Boston College, and who coached together during their salad days at Georgia Tech in the mid-90s.

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Orange Watch predicts a 3-3 start in the first half of the season

Instead, the seventh coach in Orange history since 1949 will make his debut as Scott Shafer will match wits with O’Brien in front of a crowd that certainly won’t be Orange friendly, with thousands of Nittany Lions fans within a reasonable drive of the northern New Jersey stadium.

Like SU, Penn State’s pre-season has been devoted to naming a new quarterback among new some faces. That unknown in a game situation for both teams makes for an intriguing matchup on D, with both offenses aiming for any sort of consistency.

» Related: Excitement as Syracuse football camp opens

In the end, a 38 yard Ross Krautman FG with 1:48 left, just barely inside the left upright by the still muscle sore Krautman, will stand up as SU gets its first win (27-24) over Penn State since a 1988 victory at State College, and Shafer joins Frank Maloney (Oregon State 1974) and Paul Pasqualoni (Vanderbilt 1991) as post-World War II era Orange coaches victorious in their debut.

Since replacing the late Randy Walker as head coach at Northwestern under the extraordinary circumstance of Walker’s sudden death in the summer of 2006 at age 31, Pat Fitzgerald finally guided the Wildcats to their first bowl victory since 1948 last Jan. 1, and now in his eighth year is the school’s all-time winning coach and has built the program up to a level just below the likes of Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska and Wisconsin in the Big Ten.

Fitzgerald’s teams have beaten the ‘Cuse in two of the three meetings since 2008, including 42-41 in the Dome last season behind triple-threat RB Venric Mark (21 yard TD reception, 82 yard punt return TD, and 82 yards rushing) who’s back for his senior season. That spells trouble for SU and the ‘Cats hand Shafer and company their first loss 31-24.

Back home for the first time in front of the Dome crowd playing on Ernie Davis Legends Field emblazoned with the bright white “ACC” logo on each side of the 50 yard line, the annual FCS affair, this year versus Wagner, helps the coaching staff tinker and experiment with the play calling and substitution patterns allowing a look at more players on tape, leads to plenty of highlights on both sides of the ball in the 33-16 win, and sees a respectable performance from the team picked in preseason to win its Northeast Conference crown for a second straight year.

» Related: Previewing Syracuse v. FSU

And, the game also keeps the dollars in New York State with the nice paycheck the Seahawks take home on the bus to their Grymes Hill neighborhood in Staten Island.

Unfortunately, Tulane’s second year coach Curtis Johnson is probably not a big fan of our website. In late June, our colleague Wes Cheng wrote an early preview of the 2013 Green Wave as part of a series on all 12 ‘Cuse opponents, and he predicted an 11 point SU victory.

In this day and age it didn’t take long for that prediction (28-17) to make it back to a Tulane fan message board, and it was subsequently shared with Johnson the same day it was published at a booster club luncheon outside of New Orleans. Needless to say Johnson wasn’t happy with the forecast, drawing what one Tulane fan described as an “irritable reaction” by the coach.

Even with LSU transfer DT Chris Davenport playing as a graduate student (a la SU’s Drew Allen) to beef up a woeful D-line, and an easy schedule prior to coming to the Dome (Jackson State, South Alabama, at La. Tech), we’ll second the original 11 point prediction of a Syracuse victory to finish the non-conference portion at 3-1.

After a well-timed open week to conclude September, a milestone game comes next, the ACC debut against Clemson that features Commissioner John Swofford and others from the league office in Greensboro cramming into Daryl Gross’s cozy midfield hospitality suite to take in the action as a Top 5 Tigers team makes its initial Dome appearance.

What kind of crowd will fill in the building for this matchup? One wearing plenty of orange, although different shades, and expect plenty of folks rooting for the Tigers. This road trip has been hyped in South Carolina as one not to miss because of a new destination with a new league member, and because of somewhat near-by attractions including the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and Niagara Falls.

» Related: Syracuse.com’s Michael Cohen breaks down the 2013 season

On the field, Syracuse shocks everyone by changing to new Nike orange jerseys and white pants following pregame warm-ups and come out of the corner tunnel to a thunderous ovation. Heisman Trophy candidate Tajh Boyd will struggle early with the Tigers up 14-13 at halftime, then he’ll fall in love with the Dome’s fast, flat surface, scampering for two second half touchdown runs to spoil the upset bid of the ‘Cuse 28-16, and Orange Nation wonders if the orange jerseys will ever be worn again.

The next two weeks provide a common theme, back-to-back road games against the two ACC programs Syracuse has never defeated on the gridiron (SU has never played Duke in an ACC meeting, losing the lone game at Archbold Stadium in 1938, until the Blue Devils visit the Dome in 2014), with North Carolina State up first in Raleigh.

Whether it was All American running back Ted Brown in the 70s or fellow standout wide receiver Tory Holt in the 90s eluding ‘Cuse defenses, the Wolfpack have had SU’s number winning all six meetings, and they’ll make it seven straight in frustrating fashion for the Orange in OT.

After an inadvertently tipped ball interception return sets up a short Jerome Smith TD run to tie the game at 27 in the last minute and a half of regulation, the ‘Pack will score on a short QB keeper by Arkansas transfer Brandon Mitchell, and the Orange will be stopped on a 4th and three play to end the game 34-27, evening their record at 3-3.

Be sure to check back on Monday Aug. 26 as Orange Watch picks up from Georgia Tech through the end of the season.

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Brad Bierman

About Brad Bierman

Now in his fifth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.
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