Playing in what I considered a "Fork in the Road" game, Syracuse barreled out of damn control and ran right off the stinking road in Tampa last weekend. No tire tread left on the pavement. Nope, SU veered off the path and didn't bother to slow down before crashing. Fork in the road? The Orange didn't take it, the Orange slammed right into it.
A swing and a miss. The whiiffffff. South Florida took what felt like a blowout for a while and turned it into a full-fledged blowout, quickly.
Now, let me be clear on two things here. First, I didn't exactly think of "@ USF" to be a classic big game. The Bulls aren't LSU or an ACC opponent, and a loss wouldn't totally spell the end of the season. Still, I looked at what could be gained for Syracuse in that game. A victory would have pushed the team closer to a bowl berth and, even more,it would have given more hope to an all too often hopeless fan base. Four wins in five games? Holy shit, let's go Orange!
Secondly, while SU practically flat-lined at Raymond James Stadium, remember the scoreboard read 24-3 at one time, the Orange did eventually show up. Eric Dungey and Jordan Fredericks in particular started to shake off the malaise of playing in a more-than-half-empty stadium after halftime. In fact, I figured the scoreboard would have it "USF 24 Syracuse 17" at the start of the fourth quarter. Of course, it didn't, but Syracuse did show signs of life.
It was an odd fifteen minutes of game play, that third quarter.
But looking at the whole picture from Tampa, opening kick to final buzzer, it certainly seemed like an abject failure for Scott Shafer and company. The offense took two quarters to finally produce some positive plays and the defense continues to be shaky at best and stuck in glue wearing cement boots at the worst. And remember, the Orange had an entire extra week to prepare for South Florida -- previously one-win South Florida. Sure, SU gave LSU a close one, and the team still will have more than enough opportunities to earn six total wins, but there is something so deflating about that L to the Bulls.
Not just for that particular game, but in projecting ahead to what could be. At 3-1 Syracuse was a team full of holes and relying on probably too many inexperienced players playing key roles. We saw the Orange need the kitchen sink to nip Central Michigan at home. There were issues then, there are issues now. But to quote John Madden, winning is the best deodorant. That sieve secondary? Meh, it'll come together, and it's mostly bending but kind of rarely breaking. And the learning-on-the-job QBs? Well, they're young and besides Dungey looks like he has that "It" factor. The poo-poo smelled like roses while we all waited for everything to gel.
And then it didn't. Not for the majority of those sixty game minutes in Tampa.
*BAAANNNNNG* *CRUNCH* *CRASH*
Sooooo what is next, where does Syracuse go from here? Getting mostly blown out of a game it (on paper) looked like it should win.
Vegas has Virginia, AKA one-win-and-we're-about-to-fire-our-coach Virginia, as a seven-point favorite for Saturday's game. I know, I know, Vegas makes point spreads to ensure it will make money, but there is a level of expertise here, too. The Sharps had USF as the favorite and they ended up being right (off by about 20 points, but right nonetheless). And I'd bet the Orange will be underdogs in at least five of the last six games after this Saturday in Charlottesville. Again, judging a season by potential point spreads is a really bad way to follow sports. Still, it's not exactly a bad barometer to get a gauge on what a team can do, either.
A week ago, I thought I knew what Syracuse could do -- a fairly young team that could push its way to a couple of more wins than most figured. Even that game against CMU, or Wake Forest the week before: A standard loss for SU turned into a surprising win. The Orange did just enough. That was refreshing. This time last week I thought that was almost the battle cry for Syracuse football 2015: We'll do what it takes to beat the teams we should beat and maybe we'll take down a few teams you don't give us a chance against.
This week, though, I guess all those issues or questions that could be brushed under the rug because the team was winning are tougher to ignore. It's a little stinky in these parts. That doesn't necessarily mean it'll be all doom and gloom from here out. A bowl game could still be in the offing. A win over Virginia may happen. It's obvious the Cavaliers aren't exactly world beaters. And maybe I'm focusing in too much on one bad game for team I've already labeled as "young" and "inexperienced." It's not like growing pains won't happen. If you compliment Syracuse's winning with so many kids at important positions, then you're allowed to use that as a crutch, too. Hell, that game at USF was the first road game of 2015, after all.
Really, maybe that was all just a simple hiccup. Maybe SU will come out and figuratively punch Virginia in the face on Saturday. A convincing wire-to-wire win would all but erase the memories, the low-lights of last weekend. No question about that.
But I guess those kids, this entire team from Shafer on down really, is dealing with the history of this program. All too often we see Syracuse lose one of those "big games" and then eventually it will fall back to Earth and everything else will fall into place. Careening off the road is the sad norm it seems. Around these parts, it's not too crazy to harp on one really bad game out of five, drawing conclusions that this is in fact the same old Syracuse.
Seven or eight wins? A bowl game? Ha! Did you see that drubbing in Tampa?!
There's oh so much painful precedent when it comes to all of this. So many missed lanes and missed exits. Last weekend was another wreck in a long line of accidents. The car isn't totaled, though. Not yet anyway. It's salvageable, but can it get up and running in time for Saturday?