When the Atlantic Coast Conference preseason picks were announced, the Syracuse Orange didn’t pay attention. They knew where they were: the last.
Surprise! Midway through the season, the Oranges (5-0, 2-0) were unbeaten, making their best start since 1987 and ranked No. 18 in the AP Top 25.
“Every year is different, every team is different, and I just feel like they feel capable,” coach Dino Babers said. “Now we have to keep seeing. The proof is in the pudding, but so far so good.”
Last season, Syracuse finished 5-7 and suffered three straight three-point losses. So far this season, the Orange are 2-0 in the nails: 32-29 over Purdue when Garrett Shrader threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Oronde Gadsden II with 7 seconds left, and 22- 20 against Virginia thanks to an aa 31-yard field goal with 74 seconds left by Andre Szmyt – his fifth career game high.
So how did the most penalized team in the nation — averaging 10 per game, tied with Cincinnati — stay perfect? It’s a combination of things, and luck is probably one of them.
The offense led by new coordinator Robert Anae is tied for ninth nationally with No. 8 Oklahoma State, scoring on 23 of 24 trips (15 touchdowns, eight field goals) to the red zone .
The teeming 3-3-5 defense, aka “The Mob,” tops the ACC, giving up 271.6 yards and 14 points per game.
And Szmyt, under new special teams coach Bob Ligashesky, is back to his form of four years ago when he was voted the nation’s top kicker. Szmyt has only missed once in 11 field goal attempts.
The defense, led by linebackers Mikel Jones and Marlowe Wax and defensive back Garrett Williams, signaled early this season could be different in a dominant 31-7 season opener win over Louisville at home.
The Cardinals had beaten Syracuse three straight on their home turf, but this time Louisville quarterback Malik Cunningham couldn’t roll like last year, when he scored five touchdowns in the first half of the game. a 41-3 loss. He was intercepted twice and lost a fumble and the Syracuse offense converted two of the turnovers into touchdowns.
“I think the defense is really, really together,” Babers said. “I think that feeling is growing and I hope we continue to water it and nurture it so it can fully blossom into something that can carry us to the back end of the season.”
Syracuse also won both close games, ironically, with plenty of penalty kick assist. The Boilermakers were left with 13, the last four offenses canceled after taking a 29-25 lead with 51 seconds left, and Shrader took advantage.
Against the Cavaliers, Syracuse suffered its first turnovers of the season – one interception and three lost fumbles. But the defense threw a first-half shutout and Virginia tied the Orange with a dozen penalties, the most critical being a facemask infraction on a third and a 7 game that kept the winning drive alive .
“I think everyone on the inside expected it,” catcher Courtney Jackson said. “I think that really puts us in a good position for the rest of our season and gets things moving.”
In his second season with Syracuse after being traded from Mississippi State, the 6-foot-4, 228-pound Shrader has relied more on his right arm than his legs this season, the result of months of work in a new fast-paced system that accentuates short and medium shots. Shrader is 90 for 127 (70.9%) for 1,224 yards and 10 TDs, already a score more than last season, when he completed only 52.5% of his passes.
“He made himself very dangerous,” Babers said. “You have to pick your poison…with the guys he has around him. He took advantage of his situation and he’s playing at a very, very high level.
One of those guys is All-American tailback Sean Tucker, who averages 6.1 yards per carry and had a school-best 1,496 rushing yards last season. He rushed for 546 yards and five touchdowns and caught 19 passes for 184 yards and another score this year, although against the three Power 5 opponents the Orange beat he only averaged 3.36 yards on 60 carries.
Opposing coaches focused on limiting Tucker’s production by stacking the line of scrimmage and that allowed the 6-foot-5 Oronde Gadsden to emerge. A sophomore with little experience whose father played for the Miami Dolphins, Gadsden poses a tough challenge for single coverage and leads the team with 23 catches for 366 yards and three touchdowns.
Syracuse resumes play Saturday at home against No. 15 North Carolina State, then travels to No. 4 Clemson.
Babers is worried about depth, and the Orange have already lost a handful of starters to injury, including star linebacker Stefon Thompson and all-around guard Chris Elmore.
“Very concerned. Don’t sleep well,” Babers said. I don’t know what it will look like…in the end.
“The train is gone. We can’t put anyone else on it.”
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/ap_top25. Sign up for the PA College Football Newsletter: https://bit.ly/3pqZVaF