Football

Close call against Stony Brook proves Syracuse has a long way to go in 2012

The drought was finally over, but the tone was anything but celebratory.

Following Syracuse’s 28-17 win over Stony Brook on Saturday — its first in 11 months — head coach Doug Marrone already wanted to turn the page by the time he stepped to the podium.

“I’ve stood here during practice and I talked about we have a lot of work ahead of us and we have a long way to go,” Marrone said. “And I think it was evident today.”

The end of Syracuse’s seven-game losing streak should’ve been a step in the right direction, a confidence booster and a chance to prove it was a Big East contender, despite starting the season 0-2.

Instead, it was a step back. Stony Brook is a Football Championship Subdivision program that battles Gardner-Webb and Liberty for supremacy in the Big South. The Seawolves have talent, sure, but no one’s going to mistake them for Rutgers or Louisville, or even Temple.

Still, the FCS school from Long Island led the Orange by three points at halftime and remained a touchdown away from pulling the upset deep into the fourth quarter. It served as a reminder of why Syracuse was picked to finish seventh in the Big East this season.

Perhaps a reminder Marrone and his players needed. The message Marrone repeated during preseason camp — the one he opened with Saturday — disappeared following two tough losses.

After the Orange nearly completed a 22-point comeback in the opener against Northwestern, he focused on the positives and said, “We feel we’re going to be a good football team.” Following the 13-point loss to Southern California, Marrone spoke with excitement.

On Saturday, Marrone’s optimism was replaced with the same skepticism and concern he expressed for three weeks of preseason camp.

“We’re 1-2,” Marrone said. “We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

A week after Marrone said his program was striving to be an “elite team, a BCS-type caliber team,” Stony Brook provided a reality check.

Yes, the Seawolves are among the top FCS teams in the country. Running backs Miguel Maysonet and Marcus Coker are NFL prospects. So is 6-foot-8-inch, 345-pound right tackle Michael Bamiro. Wide receivers Adrian Coxson and Kevin Norrell both played for Football Bowl Subdivision programs before joining Stony Brook.

But none of them play defense.

And it was that unit of no-names — which finished last in the Big South in passing defense in 2011 — that kept the Seawolves within striking distance in the fourth quarter. The Seawolves neutralized Ryan Nassib and the second-ranked passing offense in the nation for the entire first half on Saturday.

That’s why Syracuse’s goal to become elite remains a fantasy at this point. Elite teams don’t struggle to put away FCS opponents. Even SBU head coach Chuck Priore knows his team isn’t on Syracuse’s level.

“Certainly they should be a better team,” Priore said. “I think they were at the end of the game. That’s why the score was what it was.”

By the end, the scoreboard read 28-17. But for most of the game, it told a different story.

At halftime, Stony Brook led 17-14. Heading into the fourth quarter, Syracuse had only managed a touchdown to move ahead by four. And it wasn’t until there were less than six minutes that SU sealed the win.

“A win’s a win,” SU running back Jerome Smith said.

But it certainly didn’t feel like it as Marrone and his players tried to explain why it took so long to finish off the Seawolves.

Twice, SU had the ball inside the 5-yard line. And both times, the Orange came up empty.

Smith failed on the final three plays during the second trip. On the last fourth-and-goal try, the running back could only flip the ball behind himself in disgust. And after the game, Smith was visibly frustrated as he discussed the goal-line failures.

The red-zone struggles join an offense that doesn’t start to play until the third quarter and a defense with tackling issues on Marrone’s growing list of concerns moving forward.

After 11 months, Marrone and his players were happy to come out on top. But the joy was tempered by SU’s lackluster performance.

“It’s one in the W column,” SU center Macky MacPherson said. “That’s what we needed after a game like this.

“We have a lot of work to do. The good thing is that we know what we have to work on.”

Until the Orange actually fixes those problems, though, it will remain an afterthought in the Big East and BCS discussions.

Ryne Gery is the sports editor at The Daily Orange, where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at rjgery@syr.edu

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