football

Cohen: Nassib plays shining role in leading Syracuse to 2nd bowl game under Marrone

COLUMBIA, Mo. — From day one, he was Nathaniel Hackett’s project.

Gone was Greg Paulus, the local kid turned one-year wonder who tried and failed to bring football success to Central New York. Gone was Mike Williams, the program’s best receiver in quite some time who tried and failed to finish the season in a Syracuse uniform.

Left behind was Ryan Nassib, the quiet and unassuming Pennsylvania product who waited — and waited — for the Paulus experiment to run its course. And fresh on the scene in 2010 was Hackett, the son of a coach whose meticulous preparation and offensive genius prompted Tyrone Wheatley to call him a “mad scientist.”

Hackett the teacher and Nassib the pupil would be two of the principal faces in Doug Marrone’s mission to rebuild his alma mater. The innovation and cunningness of the former combined with the toughness and arm strength of the latter would reconstruct an offense that suffered through a decade of stagnation and resurrect a once-proud program.

At least that was the plan.

“This was my first job,” Hackett said late Saturday night outside Memorial Stadium. “When I got him the first time and he looked at me like I was crazy as this young guy coming in with this, ‘What the heck are you doing?’ stuff to now, where we are, where our relationships has been and him buying into me. It’s been a dream for a first job.”

Hackett beamed while speaking of his relationship with Nassib only minutes after the pair had conjured up another fourth-quarter comeback — two of them in fact — with the final touchdown in the closing seconds sealing an improbable victory over Missouri.

His quarterback had shined from start to finish on an unseasonably warm day in what is now Southeastern Conference territory. Against a blitz-happy defense and a rowdy crowd of more than 63,000, Nassib stood tall and produced a game for the ages. His passing was masterful, his command of the offense impeccable, and by game’s end he’d passed Marvin Graves to become the all-time leading passer at Syracuse.

And perhaps, quite possibly he had cemented himself as the best quarterback his school had ever seen.

“I would say, you know, he’s the face of the program,” wide receiver Alec Lemon said. “He does all the right things, everyone is behind him, he’s a leader and everything he does is right.”

On Saturday that meant orchestrating a seven-play, 81-yard scoring drive with 1:43 remaining in the game. Nassib threw for all 81 yards on the possession, connecting with Lemon on every pass, and remained unfazed while the Tigers threw all-out blitz after all-out blitz in his direction.

But in the bigger picture, doing everything right has meant performing with a consistency that his other teammates have often failed to match. As Lemon and fellow receivers Marcus Sales and Jarrod West have faded in and out of relevancy, as the faces along his offensive line have changed over the last two seasons and as his team’s defense plays Jekyll and Hyde from time to time, Nassib just continues to compile numbers bordering on unimaginable for a Syracuse quarterback.

Six games of more than 300 yards passing this season. Four games with three or more touchdowns. An upset of a top-10 team in the BCS standings.

And don’t forget the two heroic comebacks, first against South Florida and most recently against Missouri.

The student has impressed his teacher.

“It will never be noticed enough,” Hackett said. “Nobody will ever understand how good he really is and how hard he works and how passionate he is about this game.”

And because of his latest bit of magic — Nassib finished with 385 yards and two touchdowns against Missouri — he will have a chance to add a second bowl victory to his resume. Nassib broke loose with a brilliant performance in the Pinstripe Bowl in 2010, setting the stage for a follow-up season that many thought would end with a similar result — a bowl victory.

But 2011 brought severe disappointment in the form of five straight losses and a 5-7 overall record. It ate at Nassib, his receivers, his coaches. They yearned to amend for their failures — both personal and medical — by washing away the awful taste that lingered in their mouths for the better part of eight months.

At the head of the movement was Nassib, whose laid-back demeanor with the media is traded for fiery passion inside the Syracuse locker room. He is doing whatever it took for this team and this program to win, even if it means running a zone-read system where his mediocre foot-speed is less than ideal.

“What can you say?” Marrone asked rhetorically in his postgame press conference. “I don’t really know. Ryan is getting better and better each week.”

And after perhaps the best and most meaningful performance of his career — the Orange earned its first win over an SEC opponent since 2001 — Hackett’s project took the podium with a horse voice and his trademark smug smile.

This was his moment after a game he’d dominated. So the face of the program grinned.

Said Nassib: “It was fun.”

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