It was not the ferocious USF D-line led by George Selvie that led the Bulls to victory in the Carrier Dome.
It wasn't a litany of penalties or poor defensive play by the Orange that led to their third loss on the season and first in Big East play.
It wasn't even exciting freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels who led South Florida to victory over Syracuse.
There is only one statistic that shows why the final score was 34-20 in favor of the USF Bulls:
The Syracuse Orange were victims of seven turnovers over the course of the game, effectively shooting themselves in the foot on promising drives and giving the Bulls great field position to work against the defense, and on occasion, points.
In a game that was otherwise controlled by Syracuse, fumbles by Mike Jones and Delone Carter, as well as five interceptions, proved to be more than the Orange could overcome.
Greg Paulus has become the main scapegoat in Syracuse's defeat after what was easily his worst performance of his young college football career. Five of Paulus' passes found their way into the hands of Bull defenders, one of those being Jason Pierre-Paul, who intercepted a screen and returned it 18 yards for the score.
When he was not throwing errant passes to South Florida, Paulus was a very effective quarterback for the Orange, throwing two very nice touchdowns to superstar receiver Mike Williams en route to a 25-of-46 performance that resulted in 269 yards.
Paulus also helped Syracuse overcome one of their biggest problems on the season: third down conversions. The Orange were able to convert a gaudy 9-of-15 and found little problem cutting through USF's stingy defense.
However, seven turnovers is something no team can easily overcome, and the Orange were no different.
Part of the problem for the Orange was in the run game. Syracuse has had trouble establishing the run game all season, and Saturday was no different, as the Orange gained only 95 yards on 30 carries.
Carter led the way with 43 yards on 13 carries, and Antwon Bailey and Paulus each added 26, but USF obviously wanted to force Paulus to beat them through the air, and it worked to their advantage with the resulting interceptions.
The other major issue that has plagued the Orange all season, the lack of a second option for Paulus, also reared its ugly head. Williams had another dominant performance with a career-high 13 receptions for 186 yards and the two touchdowns. However, the second leading receiver for the Orange was Bailey, who only had 27 yards.
Although Williams is rarely shut down by an opposing defense, when he is unavailable, Paulus' options are scarce.
The biggest Achilles' heel for the Orange all season, however, has been offensive line play, and that looked to be a giant issue coming into the game against one of the top defensive fronts in the nation. However, the offensive line put forth a valiant effort, only giving up three sacks—none to the highly acclaimed Selvie—and allotted Paulus time to work more often than not.
Syracuse's defense played well throughout the day, keeping the game close despite USF's consistently good field position. Middle linebacker Derrell Smith added to his All-Conference résumé with 11 total tackles, a forced fumble, and a sack on Daniels. Outside linebacker Doug Hogue added five tackles and a sack.
Both safeties played well, with Mike Holmes totaling seven tackles and a forced fumble, and Max Suter adding seven of his own and recovering a fumble. Star defensive tackle Arthur Jones made his presence known with two fumble recoveries on the day.
Daniels was able to find success against the struggling Orange secondary. The young quarterback compiled 208 yards through the air on 12-of-20 passing as well as two touchdowns, both to receiver Carlton Mitchell, who had 139 yards on six receptions, one being a key 85-yard touchdown that opened the second half.
The Orange outgained the Bulls 344-333, converted third downs at a higher percentage, went 2-of-2 in the red zone, and beat the Bulls in most other statistical categories. However, the turnovers stand out like a sore thumb and were Syracuse's undoing.
It is obvious that this team is quickly coming around under Doug Marrone. No Syracuse offense has had this kind of productivity since Donovan McNabb was under center more than a decade ago, and the defensive front seven has made running the ball against the Orange more than ill-advised.
However, one thing still prevents this team from taking the next step—they have yet to learn how to win. Great football teams can keep mistakes to a minimum, and when the game is on the line, they put it away. Knowing how to win is what makes this team 2-3 when it could easily be 4-1.
Right now, the Orange are still learning this long-lost art, and Coach Marrone will make sure they keep on studying until they've mastered the material.
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