Item: At first glance, the schedule, heavy with ACC road games on the backend, the ever-present weekly fear of inevitable injuries that occur in every game, and which sidelined some key players during August preseason camp, makes it hard to forecast the 2015 Orange gaining the six wins needed for a slot in one of the record 42 bowl games (including the College Football Playoff championship game) on this year’s list. But with an improved offense, a young defense that will get better each week, better special teams play, the schedule’s flip-side with zero travel in September and a decent chance to get out to a rare 3-0 start (for the first time since going 4-0 in 1991), halfway to the bowl minimum of six, this year’s squad could end up seeing a repeat scenario from 2013, needing a win in the season finale versus arch-rival Boston College in the Dome to seal a bowl trip and continue the development and improved recruiting of Scott Shafer’s first three seasons.
Part II – The second half of the season beginning with game seven follows in schedule order. The first half of the season which ran last week, is here.
Let’s see, in this decade alone Pittsburgh has now had eight head coaches (three of whom were one game bowl interim positions), or exactly one more than Syracuse has had dating back to 1949, Ben Schwartzwalder’s first season. Following in the footsteps of Dave Wannstedt, Mike Haywood (from Dec. 16, 2010 until Jan. 1, 2011 when he was fired after his arrest on domestic violence charges which were later dropped), Phil Bennett, Todd Graham, Keith Patterson, Paul Chryst, and Joe Rudolph, is Pat Narduzzi, a long time coaching fraternity buddy of Scott Shafer’s dating back to their days together at Rhode Island from 1993-95, coming over from Michigan State where he was the defensive coordinator for eight seasons. If the Panthers, who have a ‘big three’ on offense in quarterback Chad Voytik, running back James Conner, and wide receiver Tyler Boyd (one game suspension vs. Youngstown State in Saturday’s opener for a June DUI arrest), and a solid mix of returnees and newcomers on defense play up to their potential, they just might create some noise in the Coastal Division. As for the continuation of their longtime rivalry with the ‘Cuse, other than a 14-13 SU win in the Dome in 2012, Pitt’s won every game dating back to ’04. That dominance, however, is weakened a bit when down 23-14 midway through the fourth quarter; Terrel Hunt leads one drive ending in a 46 yard Cole Murphy field goal to cut the lead to six, then with just over 1:00 left he hits H-back Erv Phillips with a short pass and he scampers 22 yards for a touchdown to win it 24-23 mimicking the final score from the other ACC win over Wake Forest a month earlier. Don’t look now, but Syracuse is one win away from bowl eligibility in October with five tough games to play. (5-2, 2-1)
When will Syracuse beat Florida State again in football? Other than the Floyd Little-led (three TD runs of 24 yards and 193 yards total to set at a school career rushing mark since broken by five players) 37-21 victory in 1966 at Archbold Stadium over an FSU program that at the time was playing in only its 20th season of college football, the results have been scary; seven losses by a cumulative score of 38-10, with only one game closer than a touchdown, and it’s been 59-3 and 38-20 in the two ACC divisional matchups with the ‘Noles. It’s hard to imagine the trend changing this season for the Halloween game in Tallahassee, as Florida State returns 16 players (11 on defense) from a team that had 11 selected in the 2015 NFL Draft, and a record 29 players total, at least one from each position, taken over the past three NFL Drafts. That is some recruiting advantage. At this summer’s ACC Football Kickoff event, Orange player representatives Hunt and linebacker Zaire Franklin playfully mixed it up verbally with FSU preseason all conference cornerback Jalen Ramsey during the players photo opportunity, Ramsey telling the SU duo of a predicted Seminoles win, and he’ll be correct as the Syracuse offense struggles until it’s time for the FSU second-stringers, and the Orange ‘D’ wilts in the second half of a 35-14 Florida State victory. (5-3, 2-2)
The following press release quote from apparel maker adidas perfectly captures what it’s come down to in college football; the internal self-importance and boundless attitude towards introducing a new “branded” team uniform theme for essentially every game in order to keep the current major constituents happy, and wow recruits when they come to visit donning the various host schools’ jerseys happily posing in front of blown up photos of the home team stadium with a sellout crowd. When Louisville hosts Clemson Sept. 17, the Cardinals wardrobe will be, quoting adidas, “centered around an all-black theme, the jersey features oversized chrome and red metallic numbers, accented by chrome and metallic red wings on the shoulder pads. Additional detailing includes the use of Louisville’s signature Old English font to highlight player names on the back of the jersey, along with a matching oversized Old English ‘L’ logo on the pants. Further infusing the all-black theme with traditional Cardinals’ colors, an oversized red translucent Cardinal logo is prominently displayed on the black glossy and metallic red helmet.” Have your eyes stopped rolling yet? Who knows if the home team ‘Ville will be in black, red, or grey jerseys come its Nov. 7 meeting with the ‘Cuse, but one thing we do know is that the Orange will at times elusively chase after yet another athletic ACC quarterback in UL’s Reggie Bonnafon, who’s third scoring pass of the game in the fourth quarter clinches the Cards 30-18 win. (5-4, 2-3)
Barring a repeat of the torn ACL he suffered late in his freshman season, along with two other significant injuries he sustained along the way, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson looks to be the face of the program that’s seeking to end Florida State’s recent run of playing for the ACC title, and he’s got plenty of young talent around him to give the Noles a run for their money, including wide receivers Artavis Scott (a game high seven receptions versus SU in last season’s 16-6 win) and Mike Williams (five catches against Syracuse in ‘14), but the running game has to step up, and a strong defense has to stay consistent. This divisional contest, along with LSU, sets up as one of the two Dome games against big name opponents this season that an upset could prove to be the breakthrough victory of the Coach Shaf era not only to guarantee enough wins to qualify for a bowl, but add a jolt to recruiting and overall program perception. Despite a gallant overall effort in front of a large, noisy crowd, SU falls short 28-27 when Watson takes it in on a two yard keeper with 2:00 to play, and the Tigers defense halts the Orange on fourth down and five close to
midfield. (5-5, 2-4)
“How to get off to a 4-0 start,” should be the title of North Carolina State’s scheduling philosophy. Troy, Eastern Kentucky, at Old Dominion, and at South Alabama will likely put the Wolfpack just two ACC wins away from a bowl game before October even rolls around, while also serving as ‘Exhibit A’ as to why there has to be more scheduling equity among the P5, autonomy conference teams. Compare the ‘Pack’s four non conference games with Virginia’s, for example, as we profiled last week, the Cavs meeting UCLA, Notre Dame, Boise State and William and Mary. That’s a big difference in competition, with the victories adding up to the same end of season bowl game prize, and in the case of Virginia, potentially a change with the head coaching position. State’s Dave Doeren, like Scott Shafer, is in his third year of program rebuilding from recruiting on up, and he also has one of those talented, multi-dimensional league quarterbacks in redshirt junior Jacoby Brissett (20-32 for 186 and 1TD in a 24-17 win over Syracuse last season). But with 3:18 to play and the Orange trailing 28-24, it is a rare Brissett miscue of a snap that leads to a SU fumble recovery by linebacker Parris Bennett deep in Wolfpack territory. That sets up the Hunt to Steve Ishmael combination for a quick hitting eight yard TD pass with 1:48 to play to win it 32-28, the one extra point coming after the PAT kick is blocked but deflects directly into the hands of kicker Cole Murphy who runs the ball in for a two point conversion. Suddenly, Syracuse is bowl eligible! The team charter home from Raleigh is a joyful one with unified cheers directed towards Shafer and his staff, and first year AD Mark Coyle. (6-5, 3-4)
With a bowl game invite locked up, all that’s left is the finale against designated rival Boston College, the annual season-ending game as dictated by the ACC, and some payback for last season’s 28-7 offensive mismatch. The two schools go head-to-head with similar profile recruits; Shafer and BC’s Steve Addazio have known each other a longtime and each have a win over the other as a head coach. The Eagles are 5-6 heading into the game, coming off a last second loss the week before against Top Ten ranked Notre Dame at Fenway Park, and seem lifeless going three and out on several first half possessions, trailing the Orange 13-0 at the half. Perhaps playing a little too confidently that this game was secure, the Orange offense goes into its own funk in the third quarter, and the Eagles score on a Sherman Alston 63 yard punt return to trail by six. After both teams fail to score on two possessions in the fourth quarter, BC has one last attempt to win the game driving to the ‘Cuse 7 yard line with 0:14 to play and no timeouts. A delayed handoff running play, designed to fool the SU defense thinking pass, is bottled up at the 5 yard line as time expires, giving the Orange a 13-7 win, and many in the announced crowd of 43,406 rush the field at the game’s conclusion to celebrate a rewarding regular season. (7-5, 4-4)
After the usual internal politics among various stakeholders; the conference office, ESPN, various bowl host committees and partners, and within administration and athletic department offices on campus, Syracuse is slotted into the Tier Two Quick Lane Bowl (Quick Lane is a national tire and auto center chain) versus Big Ten representative and recent out of conference foe Maryland at Detroit’s Ford Field three days after Christmas, Monday Dec. 28 with a 5:00 p.m. ET kickoff on ESPN2. The bowl matchup with the 6-6 Terps, who won at Rutgers in the regular season finale to become bowl eligible, brings angst among Orange Nation as UM beat SU in the Dome last season, and the teams meet again in the 2019 return game at College Park. The pairing also brings back memories of the long defunct Cherry Bowl game played between the two schools and won by Maryland 35-18 in Dick MacPherson’s fifth season and first bowl appearance, in Dec. 1985 (Maryland coach and Orange alum Randy Edsall (1979-80) was a Coach Mac assistant on that team). That game, a precursor to the current Detroit bowl enterprise at the NFL’s Lions home Ford Field, was played inside at the old Pontiac Silverdome 30 miles north of downtown Detroit and the current adjoining stadiums for the Lions and MLB’s Tigers. Watching the film and missed opportunities from last year’s 34-20 loss to Maryland, offensive coordinator Tim Lester devises a game plan that keeps the Terps defense guessing, and keys on cornerback William Likely who returned a Hunt pass 88 yards for six points last season, while the now grown up ‘Cuse defense shadows running back Brandon Ross, who scored on a 90 yard screen pass play in the Dome in ‘14, holding the UM back to just 58 yards on the ground. Hunt, enacting some revenge in his final game in a Syracuse uniform, connects with Ishmael and fellow (redshirt) sophomore Sean Avant for scores in a program satisfying 24-14 victory providing plenty of smiles all around Manley and crucial momentum into the off season of recruiting, conditioning, and fund raising. (8-5, 4-4)