First, defensive tackle John Raymon beat the odds by recovering from a severe knee injury faster than anyone expected.
On Saturday, he helped the Orange (3-4) beat the Demon Deacons by assisting on Syracuse’s second defensive touchdown of the day.
"I’m very excited," Raymon said this week on returning to football. "My team’s excited, my coaches are excited and I feel like we’re all in a good place and we’re all on the same page now. I’m happy I’m back."
Brandon Reddish forced a fumble during the third quarter after going untouched on a weak-side blitz. Rather than falling on the loose ball, Raymon dove on it and pitched it to Micah Robinson all in one motion. Robinson took the ball in stride for a 51-yard touchdown return, which gave Syracuse a commanding 27-7 lead. The Orange added another late field goal for a 30-7 victory against a woeful Wake Forest team in Winston-Salem.
"A great job by the defense scoring a couple of times there," Scott Shafer said. "We just told them to continue to push forward. We wanted to get victory number one. Our whole creed has been let's get to 1-0 in the second half of the season and get our first ACC victory and I'm proud that our kids got that done."
Raymon's agile play was the exclamation point in a game Shafer didn't always think he'd play in. Four months ago, Shafer said it would be a "longshot" for Raymon to play at all this season. But the day before the one-year anniversary of the injury, Raymon and the Orange defense dominated the Demon Deacons. Syracuse allowed an early touchdown, but pitched a shutout for the last 50 minutes and 29 seconds of the game. It propelled the Orange to its first victory in over a month.
"We're relentless," AJ Long said. "We're not going to give up. We had a tough stretch the first six games but now after this match, we're back on our horse. We're ready to go and get through the second half of the schedule."
Long's accuracy and inventiveness was good enough to get him a win in his first career start. He completed 22-of-32 passes for 171 yards. He wasn't dominant by any stretch, but he didn't turn the ball over once and kept the offense moving down the field.
"I thought he did a good job," Shafer said. "He's got things he has to work on. He'll be the first one to tell you. I thought he made some good plays out there and he'll just continue to get better week by week."
One specific goal from Shafer - better third down performance - worked out on Saturday. The Orange went 9-19 on third down, a modest improvement of its 36 percent total coming into the game. It allowed Syracuse to narrowly win the time of possession battle, even with two defensive touchdowns.
In fact, the Orange offense more than doubled up on Wake's in total yardage. In the first half, Long even managed to do what no one for Syracuse could do in the last nine full quarters of play - score in the red zone. He danced around a few Demon Deacon defenders for a four-yard touchdown with 7:50 to go in the second quarter. The last Syracuse red zone score came in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame, when Terrel Hunt rushed from seven yards out.
Running back Devante McFarlane also added a career-high 114 yards on 10 carries. Most of that yardage came on an 86-yard dash, the third longest in school history.
With the victory, Long became the first true freshman in team history to win his starting debut. The Orange may need another strong performance from him next week, when it faces the No. 24 Clemson Tigers. But Long said he doesn't feel pressured by having so much responsibility at such as young age.
"I don't see it as a struggle," Long said. "I see it as an opportunity. You didn't come here just to be a back up to somebody. You came here and you're working hard. You want to lead this team to wins. Thankfully, that's what we got done today."