Paranoia, denial, and fear amongst the crowd; all brought on by a very “Robinsonian” half of football by the Orange men of Syracuse.
In what was supposed to be a mere tune-up game for the next week’s match with the South Florida Bulls, through two quarters of play Syracuse somehow found themselves in a legitimate contest with the Maine Black Bears of the FCS.
How could this be happening again?
It was an all too familiar scene for Syracuse fans, just another letdown after a big win. The first half was exactly the kind of performance that had stopped the Orange from putting together even a simple two-game winning streak since 2006.
As I sat in stunned silence, watching the game and attempting to block out the nervous chatter of the surrounding fans in section 328, I couldn’t help but to think back to 2007.
Coming off a huge upset win over the 36.5-point favorite Louisville Cardinals on the road, there was an overwhelming feeling that perhaps the team had turned a corner. And why not?
After all, the Cards were the defending Big East champions, they carried a 20-game home winning streak into the meeting and they were led by one of the top quarterbacks in college football, Brian Brohm.
The hope that the win had created came crashing down just as quickly as it had appeared though, when Syracuse traveled to Miami of Ohio the following week and lost to the Redhawks of the MAC conference, 17-14.
The first half against the Black Bears was eerily similar to that uninspired performance.
Once again, Syracuse followed up a game in which they displayed the kind of explosive offense that hasn’t been seen much in recent years, with the far more familiar look of total ineptitude.
Greg Paulus and company had torched Northwestern for 471 total yards and 37 points only the week before, but as the team went into the locker room down 17-13 at the half, fans were left wondering where last week’s offense had gone.
It certainly didn’t help to ease the almost tangible fear that gripped the crowd that the Black Bears had been completely unpredictable either.
Fake punts from deep in their own territory, an onside kick in the second quarter, a pooch punt in the third quarter when everyone in the Dome had finally accepted that this team just wasn’t going to give up their possession on fourth down. It was like watching a 10-year-old play a game of Madden.
The first two periods had acted as a startling reminder that this team is not quite where it needs to be yet; but fortunately for the sanity of the Orange faithful, the second half may have been a sign of better things to come.
After halting Maine’s threatening first drive of the half, the offense finally gave the fans something to cheer about. Greg Paulus orchestrated an 86 yard drive on eight plays that resulted in the first of Delone Carter’s three rushing touchdowns in the half.
To follow that, the defense came back out and stuffed the Black Bears almost immediately, giving up one first down before forcing them to punt from their own 16-yard line. The crowd rose to their feet and applauded as if to say, “Great job, now keep it up!”
Syracuse ended up scoring touchdowns on each of their first four drives of the second half to turn what had been a frighteningly close game into a rout.
The defense returned to the form that they displayed in the first three weeks of the season which had the fans excited and the opposition fearful.
With unrelenting pressure, some bone-crushing hits and a key interception, they kept the Bears off the scoreboard nearly the entire second half before giving up one meaningless score with just over two minutes remaining.
By then the mood of the crowd as well as my own had shifted from tense to jovial as it was clear the Orange would cruise into their first .500 record since 2006.
As I watched the team sing the Syracuse University Alma mater after their 41-24 victory, I was happy to embrace the familiar sore throat and fatigue that comes from screaming and jumping around the stands like a madman.
After pondering the game for another day and night, I believe this was probably the most informative of Syracuse’s first four games of the season.
They clearly demonstrated in their meetings with Minnesota, Penn State and Northwestern that they are a vastly improved team, and that can’t be taken away by one close encounter with disaster.
What they did prove is that, while they are a much better football team, they still have a long way to go in changing the losing culture that has surrounded the Syracuse University football program these past several years.
Winning is something that has to be learned through experience, and until they achieve more of that success, it’s a near certainty that they’ll struggle considerably at times, even against inferior opponents.
However they did demonstrate a killer instinct that appeared to be severely lacking in the Greg Robinson era. Despite the struggles to begin the game, the Orange came back in the third quarter, retook the lead and placed their foot squarely on Maine’s throat.
Perhaps they needed only to be reminded that on this rare occasion, they were the superior team.
They had the rare opportunity to play the role of Goliath, and once they got serious they crushed the diminutive David. It’s something they’ll learn from and this game will leave them more equipped to succeed in the future.
For now, we’ll all just have to be happy with being even in the win and loss columns for the first time in years. Bring on South Florida next week and a return to the normalcy of our role as David trying to conquer another mighty Goliath.