Football

Iseman: Syracuse proves doubters wrong with 5-1 finish to turn season around after slow start

PHILADELPHIA — The first quarter ended with Syracuse down 10-0 after turning the ball over on its first two drives of the game. It was an ugly start to the end of the regular season.

And yet it meant nothing.

There was no panic from the players. The idea of “Here we go again” was never relevant. This was nothing more than a slow beginning to a game the Orange would eventually turn into a rout in its favor.

“We’ve been there, done that. We’ve been down like that before. We knew that we really hurt ourselves,” quarterback Ryan Nassib said. “We had two fumbles in the first two drives. … It was only a matter of time until we started clicking.”

This is a different Syracuse team than the one that took the field in the first half of the season. It’s battle-tested. The players learned from seemingly every mistake they made during a year that appeared to be destined to become another forgettable season. Syracuse went from a struggling team to one that’s among the best in the Big East by finishing the season 5-1.

On the way, the Orange proved plenty of people wrong, myself included. I didn’t think this team would finish 7-5, not the way it played at times during the year when it repeatedly beat itself by making inopportune mistakes.

But then SU showed me and everyone else that it would follow through on what the players said all year long. They would learn to take care of the football. They would stop making mistakes. And they would be tough to beat.

So when it was down 10 points to Temple on Friday, Syracuse recovered by forcing a turnover on the Owls. When Owls running back Montel Harris fumbled on a punt return, Syracuse made sure to recover the ball.

The Orange erased the early mistakes quickly and played flawlessly for the rest of the game.

“I think it shows a lot about the maturity of the team and the trust we have for one another,” Nassib said. “We knew the defense was going to come in and make some stops, and everyone on offense trusted each other to do their job, and when everyone does their job, that’s when plays happen.”

Head coach Doug Marrone and his coaches deserve credit for the way they adjusted their game plans as the season wore on. When the players started struggling, the coaches simplified everything. When ball security was lacking, the coaches corrected it quickly and turned the problem around. Syracuse’s turnover margin made an incredible jump from minus-10 midway through the year to minus-1 at the end of the season.

When the Orange’s running game powered the team to wins, Marrone stuck with it and that plan carried Syracuse to a postseason appearance. And defensive coordinator Scott Shafer showed an unparalleled ability to adjust his schemes on the fly.

Most of all, a never-give-up attitude became apparent in the Orange toward the end of the season. It’s how Syracuse scored 21 points in the fourth quarter on the road against Missouri to win 31-27.

And it’s why, on Friday, an early 10-0 deficit could’ve just as easily been a tie game and Syracuse would’ve played the exact same way — without panic and with plenty of fight.

“I think it’s a great win for these kids; they’ve worked so hard, they’ve gone through so much,” Marrone said. “And it just goes to show you a lot about their character and pride.”

So Syracuse went from a weekly question mark to a formidable team capable of beating every opponent on its schedule, even taking down then-unbeaten Louisville by 19 points.

Now the Orange is headed for a bowl game for the second time in three years after finishing this season with a winning record.

Syracuse is not the same team it was at the start of the year. This team is better.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence going against every team we play,” wide receiver Alec Lemon said. “We know we belong on the same field as them, if not beating them.”

Syracuse lost a few battles along the way, but it ended up winning the war.

Chris Iseman is an asst. sports editor at The Daily Orange where his column appears occasionally. He can be reached at cjiseman@syr.edu or on Twitter @chris_iseman.