Football

Gery: Syracuse’s potential realized in upset over Louisville

For nine games, frustration defined Syracuse’s season.

Penalties, turnovers and mental mistakes repeatedly held back a team that head coach Doug Marrone felt was better than its record indicated. Marrone said it after a demoralizing loss to Minnesota dropped the Orange to 1-3. He remained steadfast in his belief even after the same gaffes cost Syracuse in its fifth loss of the season to Cincinnati.

On Saturday, the Orange players finally backed up their coach’s words with a 45-26 rout of No. 11 Louisville in the Carrier Dome.

“We always knew we were good,” linebacker Siriki Diabate said. “We always knew that once we played mistake-free and we don’t turn the ball over, we could beat any team in the country.

“And that’s just what we did today. We came out and just did the same the coach was preaching all year.”

But heading into the matchup with Louisville, Marrone channeled all that frustration and heightened the message. The day after his team’s 35-24 setback to the Bearcats, the head coach told his players the undefeated Cardinals were beatable. Take away the penalties — the holds, the personal fouls, the late hits — and the turnovers, and the Orange could pull the upset.

“They’re not Goliath and we’re not David,” SU center Macky MacPherson said Marrone told the team. “We’re Syracuse, we’ve lost some close games, lost some heartbreakers, we’ve beaten ourselves more than we feel like anyone else has beaten us.”

Four of Syracuse’s losses came in part due to the team’s undisciplined play.

A 42-41 loss to Northwestern in the opener saw the Orange turn the ball over three times and commit 12 penalties for 72 yards. SU fell short by a touchdown against Minnesota— a team that has lost four of its last six games — due largely to four turnovers and 10 penalties. Four more turnovers cost SU in a 23-15 setback to Rutgers on the road. And in its last loss to Cincinnati, the team committed 12 penalties for 104 yards and gave away two fumbles.

The penalties killed momentum. They limited the playbook and destroyed SU’s confidence. Marrone pointed to the turnovers after each week, blaming himself for failing to prepare the team.

The frustration built with each loss. And with only three games remaining, Marrone expressed that frustration in the week leading up to the Louisville game.

“We communicated early on what is that frustration and identified by not being able to make plays,” Marrone said. “Then we identified going through a process of how we can make sure that we don’t make those types of mistakes that we weren’t able to come back to.”

And Marrone’s speech to start the week set the tone.

If Syracuse played to its potential, Marrone saw a team that could not only compete with Louisville, but one that could also come away with a victory.

MacPherson credits Marrone for preparing the team during the week. The game plan was there. The practices were crisp. SU was ready for the challenge.

“I can tell you this is the first time I wasn’t nervous all season,” MacPherson said. “I stepped out there and I thought to myself, ‘We’re just going to go out there and play football just like it’s practice,’ and that’s really what happened; first play of the game was exactly what we practiced for three days in a row.”

With only two games to play, Syracuse needs to be that prepared and focused every day the rest of the way. Since training camp, Marrone has stressed a day-by-day approach. The players reiterated that after the game.

While they are all aware that they only need one more win to reach a bowl game — a position that didn’t seem possible during their five losses — they choose to stay focused on this Saturday’s Missouri game.

“We knew we could do it,” Diabate said. “Sometimes we might fall short and even make some mistakes, but we know what we can do once we put it all together.”

Syracuse did that for the first time all season with the 19-point win over Louisville. Now the challenge is to match that effort in the final two games.

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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