The Syracuse Orange went into Saturday in desperate need of a win. And not just any win, but one that inspired some sort of hope that things were turning around on a season that — while not far off from where we likely expected things to be — was rapidly losing believers.
Perhaps those that were already all the way out didn’t jump back on the bandwagon following the Orange’s 52-33 win over the Western Michigan Broncos. But for those sticking around and the team itself, the victory was everything you needed when you needed it most.
That’s not to say this was a perfect game, or that there aren’t still concerns to be had. The banged-up defense looked gassed for long stretches of the second half and bad angles and arm tackles were rampant. As WMU mounted a furious comeback against ‘Cuse for the second year in a row, you couldn’t help but panic a little. And yet, the team didn’t. SU made three different fourth down stops in the second half, and picked off the Broncos late to lock up the win.
But the bigger takeaways were on offense, where Syracuse seemed to address the biggest crisis of confidence affecting Dino Babers’s tenure so far.
When Babers arrived, he brought with him an up-tempo attack that altered the calculus for SU and for the first three seasons, we saw plenty of that speed, win or lose. This year, the team was still faster than average on offense, but not by much. Even muting the most outrageous criticisms of Babers and the Orange through three games, there was legitimate concern about what this team really was without its now-signature tempo.
In this game, SU’s offense finally looked like itself. They 82 plays from scrimmage, and picked up 258 yards on the ground. Tommy DeVito looked comfortable and poised, even as the offensive line (which was improved from the last two weeks) still found itself under siege. He stepped up, made quick deliveries and was accurate in a variety of situations. He had his second game completing more than 70% of his passes, this time for 287 yards and four scores in a win.
With or without Sam Heckel in the lineup, Syracuse is going to be blitzed all year, and DeVito’s ability to adapt to that environment could make or break the Orange. Obviously adjust a bit for WMU’s talent level, but he did look the part of Syracuse’s leader today while making plays — both through the air and on the ground — whenever called upon.
His ability to run, in particular, was a new and exciting wrinkle (something I never thought I’d say about a DeVito-led offense), and it helped set the tone for the resurgent day on that side of the ball. Watching out for DeVito’s running ability opened up the middle of the field for some on-the-money throws, and combined with Moe Neal’s own strong day on the ground, this was by far the strongest performance of the DeVito era thus far; and the one that looked most like this offense, as intended.
I’m not necessarily focusing on the yardage as much, because a) it’s not all that important compared to the tempo and points as a result of it and b) because Syracuse needed confidence most of all today, and that’s what it got.
This doesn’t mean everything’s “fixed.” There are still issues to address on both sides of the ball (particularly O-line, linebackers). But this was a big first step toward DeVito and this entire team dictating what it is now that Eric Dungey’s no longer under center. They’ll get a similar opportunity to establish that identity more against Holy Cross next week before the bye. After all of the stress and concern about the Orange early this year, the team is still likely to be 3-2 after five games and in much better shape than how they started this season.
As mentioned, 2019 will be defined by what happens after the Clemson game, and so far, what’s happened is a banged-up team with a young QB gained some confidence and looked a little more like what we’ve become accustomed to under Babers. That’s a great start, and a win for those of us willing to let this process play out.