Football

Syracuse erases last season’s painful memories with comeback win over Missouri, becomes bowl eligible

Taylor Baucom | Contributing Photographer

Syracuse cornerback Ri'Shard Anderson celebrates following Syracuse's 31-27 win over Missouri.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — This year, there was no free fall. Only resilience.

As Syracuse flooded Faurot Field inside Memorial Stadium late Saturday night, the joy of a bowl-clinching upset was made sweeter by last season’s failures. Five straight losses, increasingly poor performances, a despair-filled trip from the top of the Big East to bowl-less irrelevance.

It spelled turmoil within a program only one year removed from its first bowl appearance since 2004, and it pained a coach who blamed himself for every miscue.

“The last half of last season left a bad taste in a lot of young guys’ mouths and a lot of upcoming seniors, which is guys like me,” Syracuse defensive tackle Deon Goggins said. “We never wanted to be in that position again.”

Saturday’s win ensured that Goggins, a senior, never will be.

Relying on a never-say-die attitude that was absent one season ago, Syracuse (6-5, 4-2 Big East) erased a double-digit deficit on Saturday on the road against Missouri (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) to earn its sixth win and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. The 31-27 win, which came on a last-second scoring drive and stunned the crowd of 63,045, was the Orange’s fourth win in its last five games at a point in time where it imploded last year.

Instead of the disheartened and agitated Marrone from 2011, Saturday’s version of the Syracuse head coach was pleased and relieved. “If I have to start off with a statement — oof, what a game,” Marrone said, as he smiled throughout much of his postgame press conference.

He’s transformed a team that was once 2-4 overall into a legitimate contender in the Big East, and by beating the Tigers he guided the Orange to its first win over a team from the SEC since September of 2001.

“I can’t tell you how proud I am of these kids,” Marrone said. “The leadership, the stuff on the sideline when you look in their eyes, the confidence that’s building in them.”

And on Saturday, that confidence began to build after halftime when the Syracuse defense finally slowed down Missouri and quarterback James Franklin. The Tigers had stormed out of the gates in the first quarter, surging to a 17-3 lead by slicing the Orange secondary for chunks of yards at a time.

But a late touchdown drive by Syracuse closed the gap to seven before halftime, and the tweaks made by defensive coordinator Scott Shafer yielded zero third-quarter points.

“Coach Shafer is a great defensive coordinator that is great at getting our adjustments down so we can go out there and just play,” Goggins said. “And that’s what you saw in the second half, our adjustments and just going out in the second half and playing.”

By the 14-minute mark of the fourth quarter, the Orange had rallied back to tie the game at 17-17. And after the Tigers marched downfield for another touchdown, Syracuse matched them once again. Running back Jerome Smith sprinted eight yards up the middle for the tying score, which elicited an emphatic fist pump from offensive line coach Greg Adkins on the sideline.

Despite a hostile environment and an opponent with arguably more individual talent, the Orange responded not once, but twice in a 10-minute span.

“That comes with just leadership, great leadership,” SU safety Shamarko Thomas said. “I feel like last year was different from this year. We have great leaders in Ryan Nassib, Alec Lemon, Justin Pugh and Siriki Diabate and me. And it just came out and showed.”

So on a third-and-1 play with less than two minutes remaining, Thomas and Diabate anchored the biggest defensive stop of the game. With the Tigers already in field goal range, a first down would have allowed them to run down the clock and attempt a game-winning field goal. But the Orange stuffed Missouri running back Kendial Lawrence for a three-yard loss, forcing a field goal by Andrew Baggett.

It gave the ball to Nassib with 1:43 remaining and an opportunity to display the fortitude that Syracuse lacked over the final half of 2011. Seven plays later, the Orange found the end zone, with Lemon hauling in a 17-yard score to secure the win.

“It’s incredible,” Lemon said. “This is all the hard work that we put in to go to a bowl game.”

It’s work that many of the players have admitted was neglected last season. A blowout win over West Virginia midway through the year prompted relaxation, they said, and shifted eyes to the bigger picture instead of the immediate future.

Saturday night undid all that, erasing painful memories and ensuring the Orange will have a 13th game. It allowed Marrone to smile and Thomas to beam and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett to gush.

But more important than that it allowed Cameron Lynch to roll along the turf — imitating a certain type of ball — once the final Missouri pass was intercepted.

Said Lynch: “That was bowling, baby.”

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