Syracuse, on its worst losing streak of the season, will try to become bowl eligible for the third straight game despite losing three members of its defense.
Starting safety Phillip Thomas was suspended for one year for violating athletic department policy on Friday. But SU coach Doug Marrone downplayed his absence.
“It always gives someone an opportunity to step up and play,” Marrone said to reporters during his weekly press conference on Monday.
Marrone was referring to Jeremi Wilkes and Olando Fisher, who have seen time at safety. Freshman Ritchy Desir will also be an option.
Thomas had been one of SU’s top defenders this season, leading the team with 82 tackles (54 solo) in 10 games. He also led the Big East with six interceptions.
Marrone likened Thomas’ absence to an injury, similar to when Syracuse was missing Chandler Jones for the first half of the season.
“No matter what player there’s someone behind him who is looking for that opportunity, who has been working extremely hard for it,” Marrone said. “When those opportunities present themselves, no matter how they present themselves, you have to be ready to play.”
The Orange will also be without two defensive linemen, with nose guard Eric Crume and defensive end Micah Robinson both having season ending surgery. Both appeared in six games this season. Crume registered six tackles while Robinson had two.
The loss of the trio comes at a bad time for the Orange.
SU has lost three straight since toppling then-No. 11 West Virginia 49-23 on Oct. 21. Syracuse will host Cincinnati on Saturday before finishing its season at Pittsburgh.
“We have to become more physical and have a more mental physical toughness about ourselves,” Marrone said. “We’ve got to keep fighting.”
If they don’t, the Orange is in danger of missing a bowl game despite starting the season 5-2.
“It’s very important to have a winning record,” Marrone said. “There’s a lot on the line for us, these next two games, starting with Cincinnati.”