Not long after Syracuse suffered an agonizing 23-20 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday, a visibly frustrated Scott Shafer fielded questions while standing at the podium in the Carrier Dome's press room.
It was the same place SU's head coach stood after a Sept. 19 overtime victory against Central Michigan, which put Syracuse at 3-0. That win was an especially unconvincing one -- the Orange nearly squandered a 14-point lead -- but Shafer continually reiterated that Syracuse was 3-0 for the first time in 24 years. He deflected any and all criticism of his team, even before he received any, because, hey, his team was 3-0 and that was all that mattered.
"Let's not lose that with our questions," he said that day. "You guys with me? ... Let's not twist it, turn it, let's give these kids credit."
Well, five weeks later, Shafer's team is now 3-4. Sure, you could probably convince me that for much of Saturday, Syracuse played as well as it has all season. But, if we're using Shafer's logic, 3-4 is 3-4. In recent weeks, SU has lost some of its most winnable games. And only one thing is guaranteed to change: the schedule is about to get more difficult.
This is by no means a call for Syracuse to fire Shafer. The season is still relatively young -- most of the ACC schedule remains -- and there's theoretically time to turn it around.
But today was a game the Orange probably should have won. I didn't say that before the game, but SU held a lead in the fourth quarter. And for the second straight week, the Orange squandered that fourth quarter lead, thanks primarily to one huge drive by the opposing team.
Last week, at Virginia, Syracuse allowed the Cavaliers to drive 88 yards on 18 plays at the end of regulation and kick the overtime-forcing field goal. This week, Pittsburgh used 19 plays to drive 95 yards, draining the final nine minutes and 20 seconds of game clock. Chris Blewitt kicked a 24-yard field goal as the clock hit zero, sending the Panthers home as winners.
Admittedly, Syracuse did a lot of good things in the loss. Eric Dungey was fantastic in the first half, though he struggled after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit early in the third quarter. SU offensive coordinator Tim Lester finally got the memo to get the ball to the Orange's best playmakers; Brisly Estime, Jordan Fredericks, Steve Ishmael and Ervin Philips combined to touch the ball 33 times on plays from scrimmage. The defense gave up a lot of yards, but allowing 23 points is a lot better than allowing 44 or 45 points.
Still, the game wasn't without questionable coaching decisions. After scoring a touchdown with 26 seconds remaining before halftime, Syracuse ran a pooch kick on the ensuing kickoff. That gave the Panthers the ball at their own 43-yard line, and a personal foul penalty put the ball on SU's 42-yard line. A few plays later, Pitt kicked a field goal as the first half clock expired.
Obviously, the penalty helped the Panthers inch toward field goal range. But even without it, they would have had the ball at their own 43-yard line with more than 20 seconds to play and a timeout. That's enough time to get into field goal range. Plus, Ryan Norton has been a touchback machine for the Orange. Just kick it deep. If you do, you probably save three points -- the difference in the game. And maybe you win in overtime.
But Syracuse lost. And worse, it lost a game it desperately needed to win.
Before the season, most of us highlighted four games that would probably be toss-ups for SU: Boston College, Pittsburgh, at South Florida and at Virginia. Most of us also agreed that to make a bowl game, the Orange would need to go at least 3-1 in those games.
Well, Syracuse has played three of those teams -- all but Boston College -- and lost all three games. Now the Orange enter the gauntlet of their schedule, which features, in order, Florida State, Louisville, Clemson and N.C. State. Suddenly, the potential for a 3-9 season following a 3-0 start seems incredibly realistic.
To their credit, Shafer and his players don't seem to think the season is lost. After Saturday's game, Shafer, Dungey and linebacker Zaire Franklin all unanimously agreed that Syracuse is close to putting it all together.
But with the most crucial part of the schedule now in the rearview mirror, the Orange's window of opportunity in 2015 is probably closed.