Orange Watch: Part II, The best Syracuse games in Carrier Dome history

About to begin its 36th season of operation, the Carrier Dome era has produced so many games that revive memories throughout Orange Nation
About to begin its 36th season of operation, the Carrier Dome era has produced so many games that revive memories throughout Orange Nation

(Editor’s note: Over the summer, leading up to the 2015 football preview series in late August, Orange Watch will highlight various antidotes related to Syracuse athletics.)

Here’s our look at five of the most memorable Dome games in reverse order, and that includes at least one game from the Big Three sports, so let the disagreements begin. For numbers four and five in this series, read part I of this article.

3. Syracuse vs. Penn State football – October 17, 1987

It had been 16 long years since a Syracuse team, the 1970 Orangemen under Ben Schwartzwalder, had defeated Penn State, when the ’87 Orange roared out to a 5-0 start the best since Schwartzwalder’s 1959 national championship squad. Subsequently, the two week build up to the game (following an off week) in the Dome rivaled that of the Super Bowl with hype and countless stories proclaiming that this was finally going to be the year to knock off the Nittany Lions who were defending national champions.

The overflow crowd of 50,011 barely had time to be seated when the fireworks unfolded. After a touchback on the opening kickoff gave SU the ball on its own 20 yard line, quarterback Don McPherson, the eventual Heisman Trophy runner-up, ran the freeze option to his right and dropped back to hurl a pass to streaking freshman wide receiver Rob Moore in stride for an 80 yard score that took but ten seconds, a record that would be hard to match in any football game with the scoreboard reading 14:50 in the first quarter and the score 7-0, and leading to minutes-long total delirium under the shaking Teflon top.

It was an Orange crush from there in the eventual 48-21 rout, one of Joe Paterno’s worst defeats, as McPherson finished with a school record 336 yards passing, threw for two other touchdowns, and ran for two more scores including a dazzling fake on his 20 yard option left freeze of the PSU
defense in the third quarter.

Afterwards, in a classy move, several Syracuse players hoisted the 78 year old Schwartzwalder on their shoulders for a ceremonious victory ride off the field as head coach Dick MacPherson whooped it up alongside for all to see, and the celebration would last long into the night up on The Hill.

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2. Syracuse vs. Duke basketball – February 1, 2014

It’s not too often that tickets to a Dome sporting event go for some $3000 on the secondary ticket exchange marketplace, but that was the number attached to the some courtside seats being sought by presumably high end donors/season ticket holders to give up their spot to the highly anticipated, first ever Dome visit of Duke basketball in the ACC debut season, made more intriguing by not only the matchup of the two winningest coaches in Div. I history in Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, but as the game got closer at 20-0 and ranked No. 2, the Orange had a chance to get off to the best start in program history, and the season long amount of hype rivaled the condensed two week version of the aforementioned Penn State football game.

For the incredibly loud on-campus record crowd of 35,446, no matter the price paid for their ducat, the game was worth every penny. In what turned out to be an instant classic that lived up to those three months of hype, a 91-89 Orange-tinted thriller in OT that was seemingly won in regulation. SU led 78-75 with 0:4.6 to play following a pair of Tyler Ennis free throws, when on the Blue Devils final possession Rasheed Sulaimon avoided a foul attempt by C.J. Fair and instead hoisted up the tying three pointer at the buzzer.

In OT, Duke led 87-84 with 1:21 to play before the ‘Cuse, led by Fair and Jerami Grant who combined for 52 points, scored six straight to have just enough margin to hang on, and eventually finish off the best start to any season at 25-0.

1. Syracuse vs. West Virginia football – November 21, 1987

Capping off a 10-0 start as the best team in the East and a No. 6 ranking, all that was left to secure a rare undefeated regular season was to handle unranked West Virginia in the regular season finale. A couple of hours before the evening kickoff, Syracuse accepted the Sugar Bowl’s invitation to play the SEC champions (Auburn), but delivering the onsite bowl’s executives an undefeated team proved to be a fairy tale finish.

WVU outplayed the Orangemen for three quarters plus adding a huge layer of tension hanging over the sellout crowd of 49,866. The SU players were uncharacteristically mistake prone and perhaps thrown off knowing they were New Orleans bound win or lose. Each team scored twice in the fourth quarter as the game see-sawed, with the Mountaineers regaining the lead 31-24 setting up SU for one last drive.

With 0:15 left McPherson, who was intercepted four times on the night, hit tight end Pat Kelly over the middle for a leaping 18 yard score to make it 31-30, and immediately incite chats of “Two, Two, Two” from the fevered crowd.

There was certainly no decision to be made. The offense remained on the field for the two point conversion, all hands went up to signal for the crowd to lower the volume, and McPherson ran the option left as long as he could before about to be hit, and pitched back to a fleeting Michael Owens who scooted around the left sideline and into the end zone with his fist pumping to give SU a 32-31 win and end a spectacular 11-0 season in spectacular fashion and figuratively blowing the roof off of the top of the Dome.

Also considered:

Syracuse vs. Villanova basketball – March 7, 1981

Three overtimes later the Orangemen, as the No. 6 seed, won an improbable Big East conference crown on Leo Rautins tip-in with 0:03 to play in the third OT, but an 18-11/6-8 squad without an automatic bid was snubbed by the NCAA.

Syracuse vs. Miami football – November 21, 1992

The Syracuse Newspapers labeled the matchup between the No. 1 Hurricanes and the No. 7/8 Orangemen as “the biggest sporting event in the history of central New York,” as SU fell just three yards short of the monumental upset on the game’s final play in a 16-10 defeat in front of 49,857 disappointed fans.

Syracuse vs. Boston College basketball – January 22, 1984

Boston College’s Martin Clark made a great play to score the tying basket with 0:04 to play and was fouled, but missed the “and-one” free throw. SU’s Sean Kerins rebounded the miss, passed right away to freshman Pearl Washington who quickly dribbled to midcourt and lofted a half court shot that hit nothing but net, and he kept running right to the locker room in the 75-73 win over the No. 16 Eagles that produced a sustained roar from the practically disbelieving Dome crowd.

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About Brad Bierman 766 Articles
Now in his sixth 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.