Road warriors, but why?

Fourteen years ago. That’s the last time Syracuse won five road games. With a 13-10 win at Rutgers on November 13, the Orange not only became bowl eligible, they closed out a near perfect season away from home. The lone loss came at Washington – a 41-20 thrashing long in the rear-view mirror.

The Orange is among elite company. No. 1 Oregon, No. 4 Boise State, No. 6 Stanford, No. 9 Oklahoma State and No. 20 Utah are the only other teams currently with five wins on the road. Those teams have lost just six games combined during the 2010 campaign.

The problem for this Syracuse team all season long has been translating road wins into success at home. The Orange has returned from impressive road trips on three occasions to deliver underwhelming performances on the Carrier Dome turf.

In fact, the Orange has not won a game against a BCS opponent all year in the cozy confines of upstate New York. The team had a chance to salvage what has been a lackluster home showing on Saturday, but the offense sputtered for four quarters again, managing just seven points against former Big East rival Boston College.

Many wonder what could have been. A team coming off road wins at West Virginia and at Cincinnati was poised at 6-2 to compete for the Big East title and a BCS bowl berth with 3 of their final 4 games at home. Instead they stumbled down the stretch, winning just one of those games.

“I’d be a fool to say we hadn’t lost an opportunity, but an opportunity to win a game. I don’t think about the other stuff, every game is important. When you lose a football game you lose an opportunity,” Syracuse Head Coach Doug Marrone said.

The natural question one would ask would be what has allowed a team that has managed just three road wins since 2006 to put together one of the more impressive records away from home in recent memory?

It’s a combination of two things: the Orange has found a way to shut teams down on the road and put together necessary drives in key situations. Here is a look at how Syracuse’s road opponents have faired offensively this season:

Total Yards Allowed

  1. Akron – 166
  2. South Florida – 219
  3. West Virginia – 284
  4. Cincinnati – 277
  5. Rutgers – 280

It is possible that the Orange never had a defining moment at home – a single drive or play they could point to and build on to give them the confidence to win. On the road, it’s been a different story. They’ve had plenty to choose from.

  • QB Ryan Nassib orchestrated a 14-play, 98-yard fourth-quarter drive at South Florida to give the Orange a 13-9 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
  • The Orange defense shut out then No. 19 West Virginia in Morgantown for the final 45 minutes to take the Ben Schwartzwalder Trophy for the first time since 2001.
  • The defense figured out how to force turnovers on the road: 10-of-16 have come on their opponent’s turf. None hurt an opponent more than the three at Cincinnati, which translated into 17 Orange points en route to a 31-7 win at Nippert Stadium.
  • A 24-yard field goal from Ross Krautman with just over a minute left broke a 10-10 tie at Rutgers and gave the Orange their fifth road win of the year.
  • If we are to praise the Orange for their undefeated record on the road, it is more than fair to question what made them so off-kilter at home.

    Did a Big East season with no bye week take its toll? Were there too many injuries to overcome?  Was it easier to play spoiler on the road? Were expectations too high at home? Maybe.

    But Ryan Nassib looks lost. The fans at times have gotten agitated. Doug Marrone could be the new Speaker of the House with his conservative play calling. But according to the head coach, this Jekyll and Hyde season has to do with something else.

    “Lack of execution at home really,” Marrone said. “Focus and level of play prior to the week in practice (has been good all year). When we get on that field the level of intensity is the same we just don’t execute.”

    The good thing is execution is something that can be fixed over time. The fact we’re even having this debate and arguing what might have been is a testament to what this team has accomplished.  The reality is the Syracuse Orange is a 7-5 football team headed to a bowl game for the first time since 2005.

    And the best thing about it? That game will be on the road. Let’s just hope that on this neutral field, the Orange is not picked to be the home team.

    Micah Tannenbaum is the football editor for The Juice Online.