Syracuse Orange's Real Season Set To Begin after Escaping Lions' Den

Dan Kelley@DanKelleyWritesCorrespondent ISeptember 14, 2009

STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Greg Paulus #2 of the Syracuse Orangemen looks to hand off the ball during the first half against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium  September 12, 2009 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Only the fans wearing the brightest orange-colored glasses imaginable would have given the Syracuse football team a chance in their week two matchup with Penn State.

In the end, the Orange were once again crushed beneath the mighty paws of the Nittany Lions, placing them in a familiar 0-2 hole to start the season.

Unlike the thrashing that the Lions gave Syracuse in the Dome last season though, there were a handful of positives that the Orange can take from this game.

For the second straight week, the defense showed that they are a vastly improved unit from last season.

The same group that gave up an embarrassing 55 points to the Nittany Lions in the Dome last year cut the scoring in half, allowing a much more respectable 28 points to the No. 5 team in the nation.

Even Penn State quarterback Daryll Clark praised the Orange defense following the game.

"We were tested in certain situations," Clark said. "Our defense did good once again and bailed us out of a couple of situations where if Syracuse scores we're in a difficult game. Their defense did a good job.

"They're definitely a different Syracuse team than we played last season. They are really going to do good in the Big East this year. Definitely."

Clark did show why he is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, completing 20 of his 31 pass attempts for 240 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception during the game.

However, the Orange defense made it extremely tough for the Lions on the ground.

Penn State’s feature tailback Evan Royster, who rushed for over 1,200 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground a year ago, was held to a pedestrian 41 yards on 12 carries, giving him an average of 3.4 yards a carry.

As a team, the Lions were even worse, running the ball 35 times total for 104 yards, for an average of only 2.2 yards per carry.

Like Daryll Clark, Royster came away impressed with the change in Syracuse’s defense.

"You could really see a change in their attitude from last year," Royster said. "Last year, they really didn't seem to think they could win. This game they came in thinking they could win, and you could really see it."

On the other side of the ball, the Orange had a tougher time of it.

Greg Paulus was again efficient in completion percentage, hitting on 14 of his 20 passes (70 percent), but was unable to manage anything deep. Thanks to the constant pressure from Penn State’s defense, as well as some untimely dropped passes, he managed only 105 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.

The uplifting news for the Orange offense: There’s not a single team left on the schedule with a defense that can match Penn State’s.

From here on out Syracuse’s schedule is much more manageable.

Syracuse will finish up its three-week gauntlet of Big Ten opponents this Saturday when the Orange host Northwestern. After that they’ll get a break from BCS competition against MAC opponent Akron and FCS team Maine.

Syracuse’s home game with Northwestern presents a great opportunity to pick up a win over a BCS opponent out of conference.

The Orange traveled to Northwestern last season and lost 30-10 in a game that was actually closer than the score indicated.

The Orange had success on the ground against the Wildcats in that game, with the trio of Curtis Brinkley, Delone Carter, and Doug Hogue combining for 117 yards rushing on 21 total carries. Carter in particular looked solid in his limited time, running the ball six times for 45 yards (7.5 ypc) in his first game action after missing the entire 2007 season with a hip injury.

The Orange offense was held back by a poor outing by then-starting quarterback Andrew Robinson and a defense that was not nearly as stout as this year’s edition. Gone are starting quarterback C.J. Bacher and running back Tyrell Sutton for Northwestern, who both torched the Syracuse defense in the win.

Thus far in 2009 Northwestern looks beatable. In their opener they beat Towson handily, but did show vulnerability on defense, allowing two touchdowns to their FCS foe.

This past week, the Wildcats jumped on Eastern Michigan early and took a 21-3 lead to halftime. In the second half, however, the game came apart at the seams for Northwestern.

They were held to only six points in the latter half of the game, and allowed Eastern Michigan right back into it. The Eagles ran all over the Northwestern defense for 172 yards on the day, and the Wildcats were forced to kick a last-second field goal to leave victorious, 27-24.

If the Orange can avenge last season by defeating the Wildcats in the Dome, their 1-2 start will look pretty good considering the state of the program last season and the difficulty of the schedule to start this year. A 1-2 record is probably as good as even the most optimistic prognosticators would have expected for the rebuilding Orange to start off.

Then with Akron, Maine, and a Big East conference that already has had a number of its teams show vulnerability ahead, Orange fans could finally see some wins from their formerly downtrodden program.

Despite the 0-2 start, I’m standing by my prediction of five wins for the Orange this season. In fact, I feel better about it than ever.