Syracuse makes gains in disappointing season
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — When Donovan McNabb was Syracuse’s quarterback two decades ago, he had a constant lament — that coach Paul Pasqualoni would not give him the green light to pass more often.
McNabb, who had just three 300-yard passing games in college, might have another lament today — wishing he could turn back the clock and play for current Orange coach Dino Babers.
The record might not show it yet, but there are signs the Orange (4-7, 2-5 Atlantic Coast Conference) are on the rise, and the up-tempo passing game with its furious pace has been a key.
Entering this season, Syracuse quarterbacks had posted only 34 300-yard passing games since the school began playing the game in 1889, and current starter Eric Dungey had six of those despite missing seven games in his first two years. The Orange rank 17th in passing offense (296.2 yards per game) and 24th in total offense (459.9) and are the only team in the country that has two players with more than 200 career receptions — seniors Erv Philips (215) and Steve Ishmael (208).
“Two years (under Babers) and everybody’s already breaking records,” said Ishmael, who needs 25 yards in Saturday’s season finale against Boston College (6-5, 3-4) to eclipse Marvin Harrison’s school record for career receiving yardage (2,728). With one more catch Ishmael will set a school season record for receptions, breaking the mark of 94 set a year ago by Amba Etta-Tawo.
“There are so many opportunities,” Ishmael said. “The coaches do a great job of coming up with the schemes that help us get open, and we have a lot of talented dudes under us, so it’s going to be amazing watching the next two years.”
Since Babers was hired before last season, his system has helped fashion upsets of two ranked teams — No. 17 Virginia Tech last year and then-No. 2 Clemson five weeks ago. The 27-24 win over Clemson , easily Babers’ biggest accomplishment as a head coach, sparked more positive publicity about a team that has endured an awful lot of heartbreak since the turn of this century. Since 2002, Syracuse has had only three winning seasons, two coming under Doug Marrone, now coach of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.
With Syracuse grouped in a division with perennial powerhouses Clemson and Florida State, Babers knew that life in the ACC would be much more difficult than his first two head coaching jobs. His second and final season at Eastern Illinois produced a conference champion led by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, and two years later he led Bowling Green to the Mid-American Conference title before departing for Syracuse.
“You don’t just step on the field and win,” Babers said this week. “There’s a process that we have to go through, and we’re going through that process, and we will win. And it will be exciting when we do, and everybody in the community will join together and it will be fantastic.”
Before that happens, the Orange will need greater depth. Injuries to the defensive backfield — standout safety Antwan Cordy, who missed 10 games a year ago because of injury, was hurt again in the season opener and hasn’t played since — as well as to Dungey have helped stall the progress.
Dungey, whose fearlessness and unpredictability at the helm cannot be underestimated, is ranked fifth nationally in total offense (343.3) and sixth in completions per game (25.0), but he has failed for the third straight season to remain healthy. A lower leg injury has sidelined him for the last two games, both lopsided losses that somewhat skewed the team’s defensive statistics, and Babers hinted that Dungey likely won’t play on Saturday as the Orange try to stop a four-game skid.
Kekis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Greek1947